Over the course of LeBron James' career, he has worn sneakers incorporating themes based on everything from his favorite cereals, movies and cartoons to the favored cities and cultures that his global travels had opened his teenage phenom eyes to. By the time he had reached his 10th model, there was a bank of coveted classics instantly familiar to sneakerheads by simple nicknames such as "South Beach," "Dunkman," "Fruity Pebbles," "Red Carpet" and "Big Apple."
However, heading into last year's 15th signature model, the LeBron line had grown stale, perhaps a victim of a race to overbuild sneakers for James' frame. His designer, Jason Petrie, looked to simplify. The new approach -- a full knit upper that looks bare upon first sight -- ended up providing the canvas for one of the LeBron line's greatest successes: #LeBronWatch.
James ended up wearing 51 different versions of the LeBron 15 last season, and the attention on his footwear, along with the retail boost provided by the limited-time offerings, led Nike to continue the program with this year's LeBron 16, a shoe that features a similar knit structure to that of the LeBron 15.
However, the program almost never happened. In his initial work on the LeBron 15, Petrie proposed keeping the Nike branding small and limited to the shoe's heel area. But as he showed early design concepts to James, something wasn't clicking.
"I'm all excited, 'cause some of 'em were fresh and some of 'em weren't fresh, but at least there were a couple that were fresh," Petrie said with a laugh. "LeBron looks through, and goes, 'No. No. No. No. Hell no. No. No.' He didn't like any of 'em! Which was cool, so we had a long discussion and then went back to the lab. Something about our discussion struck with me: 'We could put a Swoosh from any era.'"
Almost by accident, #LeBronWatch was born.
Rather than re-Swoosh several versions of the 15, Petrie added a layer of nostalgia from Nike's five-decade history to the mix, creating a near-nightly frenzy during the second half of the season to follow along to see what colorway James would wear next.
To kick things off with the retrospective concept, he looked back to the starting points of the brand and its Phil Knight-designed original striped shoe box and "Nike Air" lock-up logo. James debuted the sneaker during his lone road trip to Portland in March, capping off the night with one of his greatest career dunks. Petrie and senior product line manager Tim Day from the Oregon-based manufacturer were right there, courtside.
"It was like a tidal wave coming, and the whole arena [collected their breath] and then ... boom!" said Petrie. "It was so nuts. We lost it!"
With the orange box execution serving as the starting point, Petrie built out a roadmap of additional colorways, pulling from three distinct channels: Nike's storied archives; signature models from James' sporting heroes (including Ken Griffey Jr., Vince Carter and Deion Sanders); and James' own sneaker line.
"The idea came along pretty late in the process, and then we just threw as much energy as we could into making it," Petrie said. "It was a labor of love."
The Shox BB4-inspired pair honored the first Nike shoe worn by Carter. A trio of Air Zoom Generation-styled 15s served as a nod to James' first signature shoe. The "South Beach" LeBron 8-informed pair caught everyone by surprise for James' visit to Miami.
While the energy was there, the bulk of the #LeBronWatch designs were crafted only in James' size, created on such a short timeline that they couldn't meet Nike's usual six- to 12-month timeline for retail. None of the aforementioned five -- which were most everyone's favorites -- was released.
"We put out seven [#LeBronWatch] shoes, but the original shoe list was 15," Petrie revealed. "We had a lot of fun making those, and the ones we did on the 15, we were just discovering that we could do that kind of stuff."
This season, for the LeBron 16, the marching orders early on were to build off of the #LeBronWatch concept's "energy and that formula of unexpectedness," as Petrie put it.
James debuted the first edition of the follow-up campaign -- a blue, yellow and red colorway inspired by the "Superman" LeBron III -- on Christmas Day. The new remix is simply dubbed the "SuperBron."
"LeBron literally told us, 'We can't take a step back,'" Petrie said. "'How are you gonna top that? You got some work to do!'"
James and the team at Nike Basketball feel they'll be able to continue the energy from last season by actually releasing the most coveted colorways this time around. As the team has had more time to plan, it also has had more working sessions to get added details, logo remixes and original touches sprinkled into the designs.
"Part of it was LeBron changing teams potentially," Petrie said. "We're working on this 18 months to two years in advance, and we didn't know where he was going. We planned it that even though he could very easily stay in Cleveland, we should look at these colors to where it doesn't matter -- he could wear it on any given night and he could get away with it."
Just after an appearance event stop in Paris for James' "More Than An Athlete" summer tour of Asia and Europe, Petrie and James found themselves on a boat, sipping red wine and veering through the rivers of Berlin -- a most unlikely place for a sneaker brainstorm meeting.
In between breaks discussing ideas for the eventual LeBron 17, 18 and beyond, the group checked off on the final details of the next #LeBronWatch series for this season. A Bo Jackson SC Trainer III-inspired look, complete with a rubberized forefoot strap and brown panels from the early 1990s "medicine ball" colorway. Next up was a hot lava pink and black splatter painted execution, reminiscent of Andre Agassi's cult classic Tech Challenge II tennis shoe.
A "4 Horsemen" tribute honored the early days of LeBron's career, when he mapped out his off-court business strategy with LRMR, the collective of friends-turned-business-executives that James formed with Rich Paul, Maverick Carter and Randy Mims. Colorway after colorway pulls from James' career and Nike's brand history, while also looking to force everyone's current attention span toward any game on the calendar.
"That's the killer thing about both #LeBronWatch and having a shoe that people want to see and take part in," Petrie said. "He definitely wants you to watch when they play Minnesota, and it's a Tuesday night and you have to watch on NBA TV or whatever. Those are a lot of times where you'll get a crazy performance that everyone is talking about the next day, but nobody saw it the night before."
With the rise of social media spawning real-time coverage of every player's sneakers on both Twitter and Instagram, the remix concept has fit perfectly. It has given James' Nike line a noticeable lift: He now boasts a basketball footwear-best overall business of nearly $400 million, well ahead of all other current NBA players. The #LeBronWatch hashtag now turns up nearly 20,000 results on Instagram, featuring everything from different colorways that James already has worn to fan concepts for future colors.
With yet another #LeBronWatch campaign now underway, as James' Basketball Hall of Fame career nears its final quarter, there's a collective hope at Nike that the concept can help to inspire the next generation to tune in.
"When LeBron is gone, there's not going to be a replacement for that and there's going to be a void for a while," Petrie said. "We're helping to give another reason to watch him every night, through his footwear."