Just a teenager at the time, DeMar DeRozan was in his usual seat for yet another local Lakers broadcast during the 2005-06 season. Perched up on his bed in his childhood Compton, California home on a Sunday afternoon, he settled in to once again study his favorite player, Kobe Bryant, take on the Toronto Raptors in a largely unanticipated January matchup. The game was off to a sleepy start.
“It was kind of dead in there, and it wasn’t jumping like it normally was,” DeRozan said.
DeRozan had, like Bryant, just moved on from his own mini-fro hairstyle a few years prior, constantly patterning both his look and his game after the Laker phenom. That year, he was tearing up defenses while starring for Compton High School in the Zoom Kobe 1 — the 18-time All-Star’s first signature sneaker with Nike.
As DeRozan keyed in on the game, alone in his room, the understudy took in one of the greatest performances of his idol’s 20-year career.
“That second half came around, and the next thing you know, I remember literally sitting on the edge of my bed watching every single shot,” DeRozan said.
Throughout the 42-minute barrage that saw Bryant net 28 field goals from all over the floor for his iconic 81-point career high, the impressionable DeRozan locked in on Bryant’s footwork, his midrange pull-up jumpers, and a variety of pivots and jabs that helped Bryant create space while maneuvering around the many flanking Raptors defenders. No. 8 drained shot after shot after shot.
“I was really tripping out, and wondering if I was playing a video game or something,” DeRozan said with a laugh.
Fast forward a decade later, and DeRozan is now an All-Star starter in his own right, routinely among the league’s leading scorers and one of the more relentless attackers around the association. After striking a new long-term extension with Nike before the start of the season, the brand is tapping the Raptors’ franchise guard to carry the torch in a sense, and lead their new relaunch of Bryant’s earliest signature shoes.
“As a kid, we all gravitate to some player that you try to imitate or be like, and Kobe was definitely that,” DeRozan said.
While Michael Jordan‘s retro sneaker franchise has long crossed over into lifestyle after his retirement, Nike and Bryant are taking a different approach with the re-release of his shoes. Coining a new term for the industry — “Protro” — the brand is looking to blend performance and retro, updating the classic models of Bryant’s early years with the brand by infusing the technology of today.
“Protro is about evolution and improving on things that were,” Bryant said. “I wanted to build a business that wasn’t just based on things I have done in the past. It’s important that the brand stands for performance and that everything we do is innovative. Even if we are releasing shoes from the past, they still must be built on performance.”
The brand will kick off the revamped series this week in Los Angeles, with the re-release of the original black and yellow pair, along with two collaboration launches with longtime LA boutique Undefeated. In a full circle moment that’s only just now starting to set in, DeRozan will be headlining the Kobe 1 Protro as a starter in next Sunday’s 67th annual All-Star Game.
“I thought it was about time,” DeRozan said. “I was always wondering what it’d take for them to start retroing. So many dope early-on Kobes haven’t been re-released. I think it was the perfect time for them to be able to come back out, for a new generation to be able to adapt, and for the older crowd that understands, to get them, too.”
When Bryant wore the Kobe 1 during the 2006 calendar year, he was coming off a series of knee injuries and wanted a more built up and cushioned shoe. For today’s generation, Nike slimmed down the shoe considerably for a lighter weight, and also ramped up the cushioning even more, switching out the heel and forefoot Zoom Air unit for full-length Zoom Air. During a nearly three-year process, Bryant and his team of designers and product execs at Nike worked to overhaul and upgrade the sneaker.
“We really wanted to make sure that the shoe looked exactly like the [Zoom Kobe] 1, but was built through the lens of performance athletes, specifically professional athletes on the NBA court,” says Tony Grosso, Nike Basketball’s footwear product director.
Once the All-Star Game concludes, DeRozan is expected to go back to the unpredictable and endless rotation of Kobe sneakers that he’s become known for in recent seasons. He’ll have new player exclusive editions of the Kobe 1 Protro and the current Kobe AD, along with his own personal stash of pairs that he keeps on deck.
“I got a little place in the arena that I call my vault,” said DeRozan.
For Raptors equipment manager Paul Elliott, keeping track of DeRozan’s size 14 pairs requires multiple shelves in an extra storage room of the Air Canada Centre. Rows upon rows of orange and black Nike boxes fill up the closet of kicks adjacent to the team’s locker room, where custom Kobe 11s, vintage Kobe 6s and everything in between are stored.
“You gotta get a stepladder to get them. It’s kind of ridiculous,” DeRozan said. “We have a routine now where sometimes he’ll just pick out my shoes and surprise me.”
As he continues to lead the second-seeded Raptors into the second half of the season, the four-time All-Star can draw on Bryant’s long celebrated “Mamba Mentality,” something DeRozan has experienced up close and in person.
“It still trips me out,” he said. “I grew up watching him and idolizing his game, then playing against him and playing in his last All-Star Game with him.”
Among their many duels, a spring 2013 game at Staples Center still sticks out most, when Bryant brought the Lakers back from an 11-point fourth quarter deficit. His 41 points, 12 assists and 6 rebounds stat line was highlighted by a series of 3s down the stretch to force overtime. It’s a loss that still sits with DeRozan years later.
“I remember every single shot he took, you could hear the crowd gasping while the ball was in the air, and you could hear the excitement as soon as it went through the net,” DeRozan recalls. “It was one of the craziest atmospheres. You just saw him willing himself to the win.”
For now, he’ll continue to look to Bryant for inspiration, as the ninth-year pro is carving out his own lane as an elite shooting guard, already sitting atop several of the Raptors’ franchise records. If ever he’s looking for advice, Bryant is just a text or call away.
“Kob is kind of like the Bat Signal. If I need him, I just put the Bat Signal up. He’ll be there for sure,” DeRozan said. “It’s not one of those relationships where I abuse his time. When we have a conversation and talk about something, the mutual respect is always there.”