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The harmony between LeBron James and Nike began over a decade ago with the iconic Air Zoom Generation. Recognised as LeBron's debut signature shoe, the Air Zoom Generation kicked off an extensive line of innovative footwear. The design was born from the minds of design veterans Tinker Hatfield, Eric Avar and Aaron Cooper. Cooper began to meet with LeBron early on to ensure his first shoe was exactly what was needed not only on-court, but also from an aesthetic standpoint.
"Within the first 15 minutes of meeting with LeBron I asked, 'What is the most important performance factor for you on the basketball court?' He said, 'comfort'. This was a surprise for me and a delight because I'd never had an athlete put that at the top of their list", Cooper reminisced. "So I looked him dead in the eyes and said, 'LeBron, we will make you the most comfortable basketball shoe you have ever worn.'" With the promise of delivering on comfort, Cooper turned to the other side of the coin and began to think about the shoe's aesthetic. This balance of performance and aesthetic was something Cooper knew had to be nailed. "The art is really their personality, their style. The other end is the science and when you hit the balance between the two, it's the sweet spot. You can't pull them apart. That's what we at Nike are always after."
Digging deep into LeBron's personality, his story and who he was at the time, led Cooper and the team to a 'modern day soldier' inspiration. The idea took inspiration from LeBron's competitive travel team who were called the 'Soldiers' and even wore fatigues as a uniform of dress that represented team unity and discipline. The modern day soldier inspiration can be seen from top to bottom in the Air Zoom Generation. "The overall aesthetic of the shoe is like a futuristic special forces boot for the court. The height of it, the collar line and the angularity of the colour blocking", said Cooper. "We also developed a textile to have this jungle boot feel to it. Similar to our SFB boot that has this blend of ballistic mesh and leather."
Other elements tying back to the modern day soldier include the moulded grooves on the medial side of the shoe that took inspiration from the ventilation on certain defence weapons. At the heel, sample versions of the Air Zoom Generation also featured a mirrored lens inspired by high-performance scopes and mirrored sunglasses. "If you get it in the right light, you can see through the mirrored coating and reveal LeBron's name. It's actually moulded in the back side and can only be seen from a certain angle", explained Cooper. Aside from the modern soldier inspiration, the design also takes inspiration from sport utility vehicles to inform the unique eyelets and typeface seen on the Air Zoom Generation.
Underneath, the Air Zoom Generation kept it traditional while taking herringbone traction to a new place. The design features an oversized herringbone pattern inspired by LeBron's lifelong lion alter ego. "Tinker was the one who made the connection to the lion. Lions on the Serengeti dig in their claws when chasing prey and when they need to change direction, they dig in their heels", shared Cooper about the outsole. "We added the herringbone pattern to the toe and heel because it was really about digging in your toes for speed and digging in your heels for change of direction."
With the design finalised, it was time for LeBron to lay his eyes on the final product. The legendary unveil took place at Nike World Headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon and featured a special set-up to not only reveal the shoe, but also showcase multiple colourways for LeBron and his family to see. "We presented him a case that had his lion logo and name on it, with a pair in his size inside. He puts on the shoes and gets up from his chair, walks around, jumps around, stops and looks at me and goes, "Coop! These are the most comfortable shoes I have ever worn—exactly what you said you were going to do."
Over a decade later, the entire journey behind the Air Zoom Generation is still as vivid as ever for Aaron. After Cooper delivered on his promise of creating the most comfortable shoe ever for LeBron, LBJ himself went out and promised championship glory for Northeast Ohio. 2016 saw LeBron James finally deliver on that promise, paving the way for the return of the shoe he laced up at the beginning of his journey in the iconic Air Zoom Generation.
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