Of all the places we carry stories these days—from books and films to podcasts and video games—our shoes would certainly be the most unconventional. Yet for decades, this has been the medium of choice for footwear designers at Nike. Their cutting-edge shoes—functional sculptures, made of leather, rubber, and laces—have become one of the most unexpected storytelling vehicles of our time.

Like the mythological tales of Greek warrior-heroes and their epic journeys filled with heart-wrenching tragedies and awe-inspiring triumphs, the stories of modern athlete-heroes, on their paths to victory, also deserve to be told. It was perhaps inevitable that a footwear company that takes its name from Greek mythology should bring us these stories.

This is how they did it.
Nike Michael Jordan Signature Dunk

Roots of Story

We have only recently learned just how far back into the realms of human experience storytelling goes.

While many of us associate great storytelling with New York Times Bestsellers, popular podcasts, or the latest binge-worthy Netflix series, the truth is that great storytelling has a history that goes far beyond what we can find on our devices, or even in books. Storytelling is, and always has been, whatever creates a connection between storyteller and audience.

In 1940, a group of school children playing in the Lascaux Caves, in the Pyrenees Mountains in southwestern France, discovered over 2,000 prehistoric drawings. Using carbon dating, scientists discovered that the massive collection, which depicted over 900 animal species and at least one human being, had been drawn sometime between 15000 and 13000 B.C. After further review by folklorists, it was determined that the composition carried all of the elements necessary for framing a narrative. They concluded that the Paleolithic artwork had been used as a backdrop to enhance the fireside performances of hunting stories and magic rituals — a way to enhance human experience and expand the reach of understanding.

“To be a good storyteller one must be gloriously alive,” proclaimed Ruth Sawyer, in her book, The Way of the Storyteller (1942). “It is not possible to kindle fresh fires from burned-out embers. I have noticed that the best of the traditional storytellers whom I have heard have been those who live close to the heart of things—to the earth, the sea, wind and weather. They have been those who knew solitude, silence. They have been given unbroken time in which to feel deeply, to reach constantly for understanding.”

So how, then, did storytelling find a medium on the feet of the modern athlete?

In the summer of 1987, young architect-turned-sneaker designer Tinker Hatfield was struggling restlessly to design a compelling basketball shoe that would satisfy the taste of a very picky Michael Jordan, who by then was emerging as one of the best players the sport had ever seen. Jordan’s contract with Nike was coming to an end, and, frustrated with the first two iterations of the Air Jordan shoe, the NBA All-Star had reached a point where he was considering ending his relationship with the company.

After weeks of sleepless nights, Tinker finally had his light bulb moment. He came up with the one thing he knew would connect Michael to the shoe and convince him to stay with Nike: a shoe that told the story of becoming the Greatest of All Time.

The Making of the Nike Air Jordan 3

Original 1987 Air Jordan III Sketch By Tinker Hatfield

Introduced on the court—and in stores—the very next season, the Air Jordan III was the first model to feature a visible Nike Air unit in the heel, an elephant print-inspired trim, and a tumbled leather upper as a nod to Jordan’s fashion sensibilities. It also introduced the now-iconic Jumpman logo—the unmistakeable silhouette of His Airness performing a slam-dunk. Ultimately, the Air Jordan III was the first shoe to be designed around the performance needs of a player, while seamlessly blending style and narrative—all of which instantly resonated with Michael.

Michael grinned from ear to ear when he held the shoe for the first time. And to this day—after years of other signature shoe releases—the Jordan III remains his favorite of all time.

“Tinker was at the forefront of literally every innovation in the footwear industry, often creating or driving it himself,” explains Nick DePaula, Creative Director of Nice Kicks, an online magazine for sneaker aficionados. “Dr. J and Clyde Frazier were a few of the earliest pro players to lead a sneaker, but it was Tinker Hatfield’s relationship with Michael Jordan that the industry has emulated ever since in signature shoes. The way in which he drafted off of Michael’s personal tastes, closely guarded nicknames like the ‘Black Cat’, and took cues from his love of sports cars truly changed the footwear industry.”

As the Vice President for Design and Special Projects in the company’s top secret Innovation Kitchen, Tinker’s storytelling formula has since made its way into the design of nearly every signature athletic shoe created by the company today.

And while today’s best players continue to push the sport forward with innovative playing styles, Nike designers are responding by raising the bar each year to create designs that take both athlete inspiration and technology to new storytelling heights. In any conversation about innovative playing styles and compelling backstories during the last ten years, it would be difficult to avoid mentioning Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, and LeBron James—all of whom have had their stories told through their signature shoes.

The KOBE 9 Masterpiece — Kobe Bryant

For Kobe Bryant’s KOBE 9 Masterpiece, a shoe designed for his 17th season as a professional basketball player, the designers turned to Bryant’s own incredible career accomplishments. After five championships, multiple All-Star appearances, and various record-breaking performances, this was the season of making a comeback from a devastating Achilles heel injury. This comeback was symbolized by nine red sutures on the back of the shoe; the Latin phrase ‘veni, vidi, vici’, which translates to “I came, I saw, I conquered” printed on the medial (inside) part of the shoe; an outsole traction pattern that mimicked Bryant’s own foot pressure mapping; and the “Chaos” colorway inspired by his deep fascination with The Joker.

The KD VI — Kevin Durant

For Kevin Durant’s KD VI, Nike Senior Footwear designer Leo Chang, and Color Designer Eugene Rogers visited Kevin Durant’s hometown of Seat Pleasant, Maryland to find storytelling inspiration rooted in Durant’s formative years. After visiting the Seat Pleasant Activity Center, a public recreation center where Durant learned to play basketball, the designers opted to tell the story of Durant’s early years, spent developing his quick and precise playing style—a style that Chang likened to a precise and well-crafted watch. Unsurprisingly, the resulting signature shoe was modeled on the precision and craftsmanship of a luxury watch, while also paying homage to the Seat Pleasant Activity Center, with its teal and yellow colorway inspired by the center’s own colors. During the season, the company followed suit and unveiled other colorways inspired by Durant’s childhood. Among others, one reflected his childhood love for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches while another was a nod to his early fascination with space and meteorology.

The LEBRON 11 Terracotta Warrior — LeBron James

For the LEBRON 11, Nike designers recalled Lebron James’ fascination with the Chinese Terracotta Warriors he had seen on a recent visit to Xi’An, China. Particularly, King James took a particular liking to the warrior’s spirit of “grit, confidence, hard work, and determination.” Taking inspiration from the stone sculptures, the designers combined the aged neutral stone color with the bright purple, teal, and red hues they were originally painted as with a faceted warrior armor-like plating covering the shoe. The interior of the shoe—a jungle scene—suggested the lion, which is James’ on-court alter ego. These features, combined with subtle elements that hinted at his hometown of Akron, Ohio, told the story of an ever-evolving player looking to the past to lead his future.

So whether a shoe is inspired by a significant experience or place, or a career-shaping moment for a future All-Star, or whether it simply taps into an energy that helps fuel performance, it tells a story. The use of storytelling in footwear design elevates an otherwise bleak product to greater heights, and it becomes a unique, multidimensional experience for the players and for those who aspire to be like them.

An Unconventional Formula That Works

There’s no magical crystal ball to show us what tomorrow will hold, but it’s clear that, for Nike, drawing on compelling stories from the past to help shape the future has been an unconventional formula for success—a “success story” that perhaps we can all learn from; a story that celebrates triumph and victory.

nike-michael-jordan-1991-championship

“We’ll continue to see signature detailing stories throughout the industry and storytelling will maybe take on bigger issues, as players are looking to utilize their platform for a bigger social purpose,” adds DePaula. “We’re starting to see some players highlighting the value of uplifting your community and your friends. Carmelo Anthony has hinted that his next shoe will have a social message along with it. Athletes are becoming more vocal and comfortable speaking out, so some of those causes and stories important to them will definitely make their way onto footwear.”

As society changes, it’s inevitable that the stories we tell—and how we tell them—will continue to change and morph into new forms. But just like the stories told about legendary Greek heroes, and those of the ancient people of the Pyrenees, drawn on the walls of the Lascaux Caves, today’s stories are about conveying a message and enhancing the human experience.

And perhaps now, more than ever, some of these stories need to be told.

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