For Celtics point guard Kyrie Irving, a signature shoe was never the goal.
But Irving, now on the cusp of releasing the Kyrie 5 with Nike, has discovered the creative process of developing and designing his own sneaker to be empowering and rewarding. The fifth iteration in Irving’s line, scheduled to be released on Nov. 22, features innovative technology that caters to his crafty and ever-evolving game.
There’s the “Air Zoom Turbo,” an airbag embedded in the footbed that cushions him against start-and-stop play; there’s the new lacing system, modeled after a Venus flytrap, that locks in and supports the foot; and there’s the revamped traction pattern that facilitates his omnidirectional movements.
“For Kyrie to be quick on the court, his footwear needs to be as fluid as possible, and less ‘slabby,’ which explains the geometry of his shoe,” Nike designer Benjamin Nethongkome told Boston.com. “It has more of a rounded outsole, for example, like a motorcycle tire. That’s what we think will make him quicker, like the way motorcycles can bank around the curve.”
While the outsoles of most basketball sneakers remain beneath the shoe, the outsoles of the Kyrie 4 and 5 wrap up and around part of the foot to complement the guard’s shiftiness. Beyond the features intended to promote on-court success, however, is a series of details that represent Irving’s development off the court — and his emphasis on introspection.
“Ky is very cerebral,” Nethongkome said.
There’s the mesh all-seeing eye on the back of the heel; there’s his mantra, “Just Be You,” embossed on the shelf of the shoe, positioned so that he can see it from his vantage point; there’s the reminder of a lesson from his father, to stay “hungry” and “humble,” imprinted on the toes; there’s the Hamsa hand, an amulet that he also has inked on his left arm, integrated into the grooves of the outsole; and there are the names of his mother, Elizabeth, and daughter, Azurie, stamped into the sides.
“Those little cues that I have on the shoe, those are all things that I’ve learned over the course of learning about me,” Irving told Boston.com. “I just wanted to share that with everyone.”
Although Irving notes how “seeing different walks of life has enabled [him] to learn a lot about [himself]” — he often encourages his collaborators at Nike to get out of the office — the 26-year-old also stresses that much of the inspiration for the Kyrie 5 came from spending more time with himself.
“I think being at peace and being one with yourself is one of the hardest attainable things that you can do, especially when you think about the amount of distractions and the amount of different things that go on in our society that force you to pay attention to [expletive] that’s not even real,” he said.
Irving has notebooks to document his thoughts, but says he’s “not so much of a journaler.” Rather, he describes himself as “more of a video diarist than anything.”
“I just wake up, and sometimes am like, ‘What’s going on with our world?’” he said. “I wake up sometimes like that, and I just want to record myself talking and envisioning myself talking to a group of people. I just utilize that time to focus on me and let go of some of the thoughts I have.”
The past year, particularly the last few months, has been especially enlightening for Irving, who’s made a more pointed effort to, as he says, “break free of that box.”
He starred in his first feature film, “Uncle Drew,” in June, he enrolled in a semester-long program at Harvard Business School that kicked off in September, he was a keynote speaker at the Forbes “Under 30 Summit” in October, and he landed a voiceover in a recent episode of “Family Guy.”
Irving calls artistic expression “one of the beauties of this world,” functioning as a liberating outlet that allows him to strive for authenticity as well as remind others being a professional basketball player is “only a piece” of him.
“Everybody’s going to pass judgment on you anyway, so might as well make your life the way you want it to be,” he said. “I don’t see it any other way other than that. As a kid, I was taught to really pay attention to what others think. A lot of distractions and habits have come out of that, that I’ve had to unlearn in my life.
“It makes me a little uneasy talking about it because it’s realizations within myself that I’ve had to face, that I was addicted to certain things that just — they weren’t moving my life forward. I started realizing I really don’t need to care about that stuff anymore. I deserve happiness, [and] I deserve to be free in my life. I try to share that with everyone else as best I can. I don’t really know how to tell them, but it’s a lot of friggin’ work.”
The subtleties in his shoes are one way Irving tries to spread his message and impart his story. “Just Be You,” or as he refers to it, “JBY,” is a task he puts upon both himself and others. Sticking to the deceivingly simple motto isn’t easy, but Irving has made more of a push to hold himself accountable.
“It’s one of the hardest things,” Irving said. “I say it as a challenge for everyone. It’s something that I’ve tried to accept, too. You can lose yourself in this technology-driven world. There’s just so many different things that can distract you from you and seeing who you are and your potential.”
“I think I’ve always known these things,” he continued. “But who really wants to face certain things about themselves that they don’t really want to? Who really is ready for that?”
Irving’s colorways — the various color schemes and patterns used on his shoes — are another avenue for his storytelling, or as he explains, another way to connect fans to his experiences. Over the past year, Irving and Nike dropped countless themed Kyrie 4s. Some seemed just for fun, like the Cinnamon Toast Crunch motif as part of his cereal pack or the psychedelic pattern to represent the 1970s in his decades pack; some paid homage to things from his personal life, like Duke for his alma mater, Boston University for his father’s alma mater, and Standing Rock for his mother’s Sioux tribe; and some signified a deeper purpose, like equality during Black History Month and female empowerment.
Many, regardless of the theme, contained bold colors — a hallmark of Irving’s shoes that he says started when he was young.
“That’s one thing that I always tried to do as a youth — have bright yellow shoes or bright green shoes,” Irving said. “Now, as you see, I use a fruit punch red instead of a crimson red. That’s, like, different.”
Irving says he loves “having a distinction on [his] shoes that separates [him] from everyone else,” and likes having multiple options to showcase that distinction.
“When I’m thinking about designing my shoes or when I’m collaborating with Ben, I think of it as, ‘What portion of the shoe can we create its own story?’” Irving said. “It’s always about giving the importance to every part of the shoe, rather than just thinking that you have to make a shoe.”
Within the Kyrie 5, there are plenty of opportunities — the Nike swoosh, the flytrap lacing, and the traction pattern are the most obvious — for Irving and Nethongkome to piece together a narrative. The first colorway to be released will be a traditional black-and-white, but more imaginative ones will soon follow. Against the Milwaukee Bucks Thursday and the Indiana Pacers Saturday, Irving teased one he designed with 24-year-old rapper Taco of Odd Future.
“Obviously, you’re not going to hit all the marks all the time,” Irving said. “But I try my best to do so because it means so much for me to see everyone be happy in one way or another. This world is [expletive] up at times, so I just kind of try to shed a light on the positive aspects of it.”
“That’s really what I care about,” he continued. “I just care about humans just caring about themselves and knowing that they’re cared for.”
Nethongkome and Irving are already working on the Kyrie 6, and the pair, naturally, is as excited as ever. Nethongkome recently emailed one of the drawings while the pair was video-chatting, and Irving’s response said it all.
“You could see him in the video opening the file and then his reaction on the couch, ‘Whoa, yo!’” said Nethongkome, drawing out the O’s in both words. “He’s like, ‘Yo, this might be the illest Kyrie, ever,’ and I’m like, ‘Are you gassing me, bro?’ And he’s like, ‘No, bro, this might be the real one.’”