words & interview // Nick DePaula:
Today, LeBron James is expected to debut his latest namesake sneaker during a marquee game against the Golden State Warriors. Of course, that wouldn’t be a first, as the Ohio native looked to reverse course last season after falling behind 0-2 to the Warriors in the 2016 NBA Finals,
laced strapped up his newest edition of his Soldier series and debuted them in Cleveland on a whim. They won by 30 points.
As literally every Instagram commenter loves to remind you — from there, the Warriors then blew a 3-1 lead. Throughout his four-wins-in-five-games stretch to close the series, LeBron was transcendent on both sides of the ball, all while putting up an insane Finals statline of 35.3 points, 13.5 rebounds and 6.3 assists in those wins.
That Finals platform gave the Soldier series new life, and brought more eyes and energy to the newest model than we’d seen in years past. LeBron has worn it all throughout preseason and Cleveland’s 22-6 start, opting to unveil his newest signature sneaker later into the season.
To hear all about the tenth edition of the Soldier series — LeBron is the first player to have two sneaker series hit 10 models — Nice Kicks recently caught up with Kevin Dodson, Nike Basketball’s Senior Footwear Product Director. Read ahead as Dodson breaks down all of the details that went into designer Jason Petrie’s latest model, what it was like to “witness history” as LeBron carried his Cavs to their first ever franchise championship, and how the recent Ohio State cleated edition of the Soldier came to be.
Nick DePaula: What has the Soldier line stood for over the years, and what was the initial concept around the Soldier 10 design?
Kevin Dodson: It’s an amazing journey for the shoe and has really come full circle. It started out around this insight around the 20.5.5, which we call the Soldier 0 from time to time amongst ourselves. [laughs] It was the idea around the second season, and giving LeBron a product to wear during that time of the year that was a lighter and super-responsive version of his game shoe that he was wearing at the time. You’re in a race to win 16 games when you’re in the playoffs, so giving him something that was a faster version of his game shoe was always the insight there. It became about a sprint to 16 wins instead of a marathon.
Over time, because we introduced the Elite series and some other products during the course of that ten years, the Soldier sort of became a shoe for all of the guys around him. He had even posted on social media at the time about how, “This shoe is for all of my Soldiers to go to battle.” It became a go-to LeBron team shoe for athletes in the NBA, colleges and high schools. It was something that was a little bit more stripped down, had a lot of great lockdown, support and responsiveness. Those were always the core tenets that have carried through the years.
Especially over the last few years, we’ve gotten really keyed in on this focus around having something that could give you all of the lockdown and support that you need, but in a light and responsive package. That’s been the goal. A couple of years ago, we had been working with LeBron and talking about where we wanted to take the Soldier from here. He had been giving us some great insights, and then we were out speaking with some college players. One of the kids send, “My perfect shoe would be an Elite sock with an outsole and some straps. Nothing else.”
Jason Petrie and the team brought that back, and that’s where the north star concept of the laceless shoe came from for the Soldier 10. LeBron had talked to us about doing something really special for the tenth Soldier already. He even said to us, “I just can’t believe that I have multiple shoe series that have gone on ten year-plus runs.” He really wanted to do something special, and so we really wanted to deliver on that laceless proposition and target.
We got kind of close on the Soldier 9, and had half laces and half straps. Then, we went all out for the Soldier 10. It was a pretty awesome journey through the last few years, and we believed that there was a benefit to it. If you’re a basketball player, you’re always lacing and trying to adjust. To just jump into a shoe with a snug, sock-like fit and lock those straps in quickly was something that we wanted to be able to do.
NDP: Are there any elements on the Soldier 10 that draw from past Soldier models?
KD: LeBron really kept pushing us on that. The first time we presented the shoe to him, he said, “Oh my god, no shoe strings!” He started laughing and was saying, “This is what we’ve got to get to guys.” He just loved the idea. When he was challenging us to do something special for the tenth year, JP did a great job of going back through the archive. A lot of the inspiration for the strap placements came from the 20.5.5. Once we started keying in on that, J started pulling elements from each of the prior nine Soldiers and the 20.5.5 and incorporated them into the 10.
NDP: Through the outsole there’s a series of words within the texture. What are some of the key terms & phrases layered into the tooling?
KD: Around the toe, there’s a pattern in roman numerals that has each prior shoe. If you go to the bottom, there’s always a lot of storytelling from the early years, and there’s phrases that define him too, like “Heart,” “Unstoppable,” and a lot of other things that help to inspire him. Really there was ten years leading up to this, because I’d include the 20.5.5 in this too. There’s a “330” for Akron in there, and a lot of discovery elements.
NDP: Soldier started out as a playoff shoe that LeBron wore in his very first trip to the Finals. What did it mean to the Nike Basketball team for the 10th anniversary version to be worn again on the Finals stage during LeBron’s iconic hometown Finals win?
KD: The shoe really took on a life of its own once LeBron chose to wear it in the Finals and had the performance that he did. Honestly, that was all driven by LeBron. We had a couple different product options for him, and typically this shoe comes out later in the Fall and maybe he’ll wear it during the preseason. We worked really closely with him on this design during the process, so he had been testing it for some time. They were in the course of the Finals, and things weren’t going the way that he wanted them to go. I think from his standpoint, he just wanted something that could change it up. He really liked the Soldier in practice, and really decided right before Game 3 to put ’em on and go.
It was a bit of a controversy for us, because the shoe was all blacked out and looked like a weartest shoe, but that was the authenticity of it too. It was just an athlete, in probably one of the biggest moments of his career, who wanted to play in something a little different and needed to jumpstart things.
We met with him this summer, and he told us, “I looked down at my feet, and I just felt different. They look sleek and I felt like I had a bounce in my step when I put them on.” We were lucky we were able to adjust, and a lot of people on this team do an unbelievable job of trying to get everything ready for our athletes. I won’t lie, we had to hustle to get a couple more pairs to him to finish out the series.
It was an awesome moment. I had gotten a text before the game from Ted Kerby, who leads our LeBron Sports Marketing side, to give me a heads up. The performance spoke for itself, and game after game, he and Kyrie did amazing things. To be honest, a lot of people were unsure about a high cut with no laces, and they asked us some pretty tough questions internally. “Are you guys serious with this? Will it work?” LeBron, from the beginning, kept telling us to push, do thing different and change it up. To watch him then follow through by wearing it and performing at such a high level during the course of the Finals, was just amazing.
Being apart of the Nike Basketball family, but also just as a kid who grew up obsessing basketball, watching every Finals and watching what the players were wearing – just like you – to have a part in that now in what will probably go down as one of the greatest NBA Finals series ever, I just felt very blessed to be apart of that. I was at a bar by myself by house, and I think I’m never welcome at that bar again based on how loud I was screaming. [laughs]
NDP: More recently, Ohio State had their own Soldier 10 cleats – will that be a platform we see you guys look to utilize going forward?
KD: The relationship LeBron has with Ohio State is pretty deep. He’s real tight with the athletic department and specifically has a good relationship with Urban Meyer. As that game started to come up on the calendar, everyone at Nike was circling that game and thinking it could be a pretty special game.
With Michigan and Ohio State being the quality of programs that they are, we knew that could be an opportunity for us. Coach Meyer started asking us for the last couple of years, “How can we get access to some of the LeBron product?” With Michigan being a Jordan school, they’ve looked awesome on the field and have had great product. There’s obviously a rivalry there, so I think Coach Meyer was always interested in finding something special for Ohio State too.
LeBron has deep roots in football dating back to high school, and there’s always been this question around, “What could LeBron do on a football field?” We’ve also always had some chatter around here about what LeBron product could look like for the gridiron.
That conversation had been going on for awhile, and then the Nike Cleated team came to us and said, “What do you think about identifying a Basketball product to put on the field for Ohio State?” The Soldier was the one that came to all of our minds, only because we felt that the silhouette and the attributes of the product would work really well in football.
The team started working on building a sample of what that could look like, and it was a cool collaboration between the Cleated and Basketball team. When we approached LeBron with the idea to really do it, he said, “Hey, it’s about time. Lets go!” [laughs] It came to life and the Cleated team did an awesome job of developing it, testing it and getting it right for football. They showed up to Ohio State a couple weeks before the game so players could get used to them, and then they broke them out for a really big moment.
Things just lined up beautifully, and it was an epic game. Michigan looked amazing in all of their cleats and uniforms, and then Ohio State came out in the Soldier cleats. The whole Cavs team being on the sideline to cheer them on made it a pretty epic moment for that shoe.
LeBron felt pretty excited that they were wearing his shoes on the field for the first time, and going forward, that’ll definitely be an opportunity to continue to plan for that. There’s definitely some things to keep an eye out for, and if you asked LeBron where we should focus for his product product showing up in football, Ohio State is definitely near and dear to his heart.
NDP: I also loved that color toe pop you did on those, which we’ve also seen on Eric Bledsoe’s Black and Orange PEs that he’s been wearing. That accenting has worked really well.
KD: Yeah, and that’s been a real cool look for the shoe. Tim Day is our PLM who heads up the LeBron business and works really well with J [Petrie.] That was just those guys, to their credit, being so confident in the model early on. They had gotten some amazing feedback when they showed it to kids early in the process, and then they just wanted to do something that could keep the shoe new and fresh as we got into the second half of the shoe’s life span. They came up with that suede toe color block, and that’s one of my favorites as well. It’s a good learning for us that if we continue to keep things fresh and switch the style up, kids can continue to look for it.