Exclusive: Breaking Down Walls with the Nike Kyrie 6 ‘Berlin’
Busting pupils with his sneakers, and breaking ankles with his handles, Kyrie Irving’s debut for the Brooklyn Nets saw the 6'2 livewire drop a record–breaking 50 points against the Minnesota Timberwolves. Ice in his veins and rainbows on his feet, Kyrie’s sneaker journey has been as kaleidoscopic as his on–court attitude. Classics like the ‘SpongeBob’ Kyrie 5, ‘Wheaties’ Kyrie 4 and ‘Mamba Mentality’ Kyrie 3 have made him one of the most significant players in the sneaker game since Michael Jordan.
To celebrate the release of 11 city–inspired versions of the Nike Kyrie 6, we linked up with Ben Nethongkome, Senior Footwear Designer at Nike, to chat about the importance of staying ‘woke’, why his team took cues from Nike SB, and how Uncle Drew plans to break down walls with the Kyrie 6 ‘Berlin’.
Tell us about your background. How did you become interested in sneaker design?
My interest in design really came from growing up. Back in the 1990s, basketball was big in my life. Loving the culture of basketball, art and hip hop led me to sneakers. As you get older, you go to art school, you go to college, and you discover there’s such a thing as footwear design. But it was childhood memories of collecting and wanting shoes that ultimately led me to Nike.
How did you end up designing for Kyrie Irving?
I was interning at Nike back in 2008. My dream has always been to design a signature shoe for Nike basketball. I worked in a category called ‘the innovation kitchen’, and from there I focused primarily on basketball innovation with blue-sky ideas and blue-sky projects. I then moved to a category called ‘core performers’, where we focused on entry price-point products. So, I went from really pie–in–the–sky ideas to very price-focused items from like $65–$100. From that experience I gained access to work with athletes like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. I was able to display my skills of thinking large and thinking really innovatively – that ultimately led to work with Kyrie Irving.
What does the collaborative process look like between you and Kyrie?
We’re just two creatives talking about our passion and sharing what we like about certain items. For example, he’ll come to me and say: ‘There’s this colour that I like that Michael Jordan once wore with the Air Jordan 11 ‘Bred’. Can we look at how we can draw inspiration from that?’ Then we’ll mock up some ideas and we’ll text it to him or show him. For Kyrie, the designs weren’t strictly about the ‘Bred’ colourway, but what it meant to the Jordan line. What he really wants is deeper connections to Michael through the designs.
What kind of conceptual and practical ideas did Kyrie bring to the table for the 6?
We wanted to zig from the 5. The 5 was focused on communicating and telegraphing the performance benefits. For the 6, we wanted to zag, taking this Nike SB approach where it’s high-performance, but also has a more casual approach on what high-performance looks like. What if we infused a more lifestyle approach to a high-performance basketball shoe? What would that look like? That was our initial inspiration for the 6. We looked at the lineage of Nike SB and how they’re revered as collectable items – how do you achieve that with modern technology and innovation? He asked us to modify the shoe so that is has less of a high-performance visual. How does Nike SB do that? Skaters have to perform, but they’re not wearing a sneaker that looks like they’re going to fly off to the moon. We’re in communication with SB right now to talk about partnerships and working on things together for some time in the near future.
'We looked at the lineage of the Nike SB and how they’re revered as collectable items – how do you achieve that with modern technology and innovation?'
How are you looking to tell a story with the Kyrie 6 ‘Berlin’?
Kyrie has recently become an art collector. He has art that he's been purchasing on the side and has on display in his house. We had this conversation about why he loves art. He felt like it wasn’t about the art’s monetary value, but its message. The Berlin Wall obviously has this cultural impact that he liked. So we took graffiti from the wall, and we made an image collage and plastered it on this iridescent, image-shifting panel.
How did you decide on the colour palette?
We draped the shoe primarily in red and pink. The red colour symbolises action, confidence and courage. Those are the messages he wants to portray with the Kyrie 6 ‘Berlin’. He also feels like he’s extra-fast on court with red shoes on. He calls them his ‘dancing shoes’.
What is it about connecting cities to sneakers that’s so appealing to Kyrie?
Kyrie always writes handwritten messages on the midsole before he enters the court. He has this message that says, ‘Heal the world’. He wants to connect people through sport and even transcend beyond basketball. He wants to get global with it. It’s not just about North America. About two or three years ago, we had this Asia tour. He loves the experience of trying things across the world, so he visited Tokyo, Beijing and Taipei. Those are some of the cities he ended up picking for the 11. But there’s even a real connection to the number 11 for Kyrie. He wears the number 11. The letter ‘K’ for Kyrie is the 11th letter in the alphabet. There’s all these special connections to the number.
What other personal inscriptions has Kyrie made on the 6?
Kyrie always asks us to continue to tell the story around his daughter Azurie and his mother Elizabeth. We have their names and birthdates on the shoe. Slightly above that, you have their constellation signals. On the heel, we have the hand and eye on it, again with a message to heal the world and bring peace to the universe. We’re using basketball to bring that message to life.
Is the all–seeing eye connected to this idea of healing the world?
In short, it’s like saying ‘woke’. Just be more aware of what’s going on, and sharing ideas, as opposed to hiding them. Be more open, do your research, talk amongst each other. Don’t just believe everything you see. Those are messages he’s been trying to portray since the Kyrie 4, the 5, and now the 6.
I wanted to drill down into some of the more material and technical changes you made with the Kyrie 6. You’ve described Kyrie as both predictable and unpredictable, ‘kind of like a pinball’. What technical challenges does that present when you’re designing a shoe for such a unique player?
From a technical standpoint, we always have to factor in that when you play basketball, you can’t predict what will happen on the court. He’s always ahead of the curve with the way he moves. Kyrie’s strength and conditioning team always challenges us to make sure that he has just the right amount of support for every situation. We don’t skimp on support. We don’t skimp on any sort of design details that keep him on the court. We want to be sure that he’s always ready for a heavy game. We look at things that’ll keep him quick on his toes, and allow him to move freely. We don’t want to be the reason why he can’t outperform his opponent.
'He wants to connect people through sport and even transcend beyond basketball.'
How important is comfortability in a basketball shoe?
Kyrie wore a lot of Air Jordan 2s in high school. The collar foams and the way they were so plush along the ankle area really gave him confidence to play hard on the court. We investigated the Air Jordan 2s, what type of collar foam we used back then, and what kind of density we used for those foams. Then we look at the modern take on that foam package and how we can use it for today’s basketball shoes.
The toe box has also been built–up?
If you ever get a chance to see still images of Kyrie playing, you can see that sometimes he makes the cut, and the way he rotates and bends his leg, his toe is literally upside down, and his toenails can be scraping the floor. So we added the idea of traction 360. I was inspired by some of the global football equipment, where there’ll be shinguards added for added protection, but also ball control. So we took that idea and showed Kyrie. We asked him, ‘How would you feel if we wrapped your rubber outsole more on top of the toe, versus just on the bottom of your outsole?’ He was into it because it gave him this advantage that other shoes can’t. And so, with it, he just feels more natural, more connected to the court, especially when he’s on those crazy degrees when he’s making those cuts.
The toe strap hasn’t been seen since the Kyrie 2. What made you want to revisit the concept?
We looked at the Presto cage, and how it looks on the medial side. It continues all the way from the upper to the outsole, so the cage can wrap further into the midfoot arch. We took that idea and reverse engineered. When the player puts the strap on, it feels like they’re getting this support that you normally don’t experience from a basketball strap. He wanted the look of an OG Nike model, but with a modern flair.
What does the future look like for the Kyrie Irving signature line?
We just had a hell of a summer with the ‘SpongeBob’ collection, and people are still hitting me up like crazy for a pair of Kyrie 2s. We still have a lot more 5s coming out, so there’s some good energy to cap off that chapter. And then, of course, we’ll start on the 6, creating the chase in 11 different cities. Kyrie’s already got some ideas for the 6, 7 and 8, so that’s what we’re getting after. That’s the next move right now. We’re even looking at some really blue-sky concepts for the 9. It’s going to be wild to see how it all comes alive.