Last month, Kyrie Irving turned heads when he wore an exclusive colorway of his signature Kyrie 3 sneaker, one adorned with a rose on the side to honor his mother, Elizabeth, who died when he was 4 years old. However, the personal touch was nothing new for Irving, who has kept his mother's memory close to his heart -- and on his feet -- with each model of his Nike sneakers.
While many players write personal messages on their shoes from time to time, Irving has made his personal tributes an integral part of his signature line, providing unique insight into the person behind the basketball player.
Those touches will come together this weekend with the release of the Kyrie S1 Hybrid, a remix of his first three signature sneakers into a single model. The new shoe includes details from his upbringing and family cues that have carried through the series, all of which have helped make the Kyrie line Nike's best-selling basketball sneaker.
"There's some constants here for Kyrie," said Leo Chang, Nike Basketball's design director.
Each of Irving's sneakers features a callout to his mother's name on the shoe, along with a "JBY" inscription, an ode to the phrase of encouragement she'd often tell Kyrie.
"'Just Be You' is the motto I live by every single day, because I'm happy to be an individual. I celebrate it," Irving said. "I think that everyone should celebrate their individuality. In our culture today, everyone is always wanting to put the other person down for trying something different, or trying something new. As for me, I want it to be celebrated. It's a beautiful thing."
When Irving laces up his shoe before each game, the Roman numerals VIII and XIII face up from the sock liners as a nod to his mother's Aug. 13 birthday. On the bottom of the shoe, his "KI" logo sits atop a window showcasing the heel Zoom Air cushioning unit, with "Elizabeth" imprinted into the rubber. There's a new constant that has been added to the mix for his third model, as Kyrie's young daughter's name, Azurie, is now placed just opposite of his mother's.
Each of his shoes have also featured "H+H," the mantra his father Drederick passed on to Kyrie and his older sister Asia while raising them as a single father. Kyrie used to scribble it in silver ink on his black Nike backpack in grade school -- now it's tattooed on his right chest.
"Hungry and humble is something my dad gave me as a kid, that I most likely will give to my daughter, whether she plays sports or not," Irving said. "It's always staying hungry for more and never being satisfied. Acknowledging the present moment, what you've accomplished, and then thinking about what's up ahead and how you'll prepare yourself for that."
When Irving wasn't working on his game or bettering his handle by dribbling a basketball wrapped in a plastic bag, he was learning life lessons from his father, a former pro player in Australia. From time to time, like all kids, he'd get into trouble after a bad test grade at school or when failing to get his chores around the house done.
Drederick didn't have traditional timeout rules -- "dungeon time" was in store. A young Kyrie would have to lean up against the wall of their New Jersey home, using only two fingers pressed against the wall to support himself. Drederick told Chang, who designed Kyrie's first Nike sneakers, the banishments to the "dungeon" usually lasted two minutes, but Kyrie swears it was closer to two hours.
Chang weaved that story into the Kyrie 1 as a surprise for Drederick and Kyrie, designing two "finger layers" on the sides of the shoe for extra support when Irving is slashing on the hardwood. As for the shoe's jagged lines through the toe? Those were inspired by the years Irving spent with his father in Australia, with the wrapped traction pattern mirroring architectural angles from the famed Sydney Opera House.
As Irving's sneaker line has progressed, each model has taken on more sculpting and performance based on his dynamic game. The Kyrie 2 featured an entirely new shape for a basketball shoe, drawing inspiration from motorcycle tires as riders often careen around banked edges at dangerously low angles.
"We noticed in watching him play, as he's dribbling, you can see the buildup of his crossover to a certain move, and the footwork that's happening within that," Chang said. "You could see the way his feet are on the edge, and his shoe's upper or toe box would actually be touching the court."
With that insight in mind, the entire forefoot of Irving's second shoe was rounded with wrapped grip, providing coverage for him to make contact with the ground at any angle.
When it came time to design his third sneaker, which Irving wore in his last season in Cleveland and continues to wear in his first season in Boston, Nike again incorporated a wrapped grip pattern and a low-to-the-ground feel.
Irving will likely wear that shoe for just a few more weeks, because later this month he and Nike plan to debut the Kyrie 4, which will once again feature Irving's signature series of personal touches, performance elements and design inspirations.