It Takes Carbon Fiber and Kevlar to Make the Best Basketball Shoes in the World

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When you look at basketball shoes, what do you see? A big swoosh. Three stripes. Michael Jordan. A billboard molded to your feet. But do you see the technology? Though maybe not as blatant as an Intel sticker on your laptop, every shoe showcases its own advanced technology. Don't worry, you can't miss it on these, the best basketball shoes on the planet. Because they roll with carbon fiber and Kevlar.

The Mission

Nike's new Elite Series—the Lebron 9, Kobe VII and Hyperdunk—are the high-performance, no compromise models of shoes already on the market. Think of them as a BMW M3 to a 3 Series or an AMG Mercedes to a regular Benz. Or even the new iPad to the iPad 2, if the new iPad were built with carbon fiber and Kevlar.


When I sat down with Nike to talk about the process of designing the Elite series, what Nike Basketball Design Director Leo Chang and Senior Designer Jason Petrie stressed to me was that "the shackles were off." That they weren't pressured to hit a certain price point to move units, but rather to make the best basketball shoe they could. They were told to make a better best. And they had to do it in time for this year's playoffs.

The Shoes

In person, the Elite Series kicks are impressive but also understated. Black or white and sprinkled with gold, the shoes stay true original intent of the regular model—with a few notable improvements. It's not that hard to make a good shoe better. Slap on a nice colorway and I'm already interested. Make it shine with a bit of gold and I'm hooked. But it's the technology behind these shoes that make them interesting. The changes aren't just aesthetic. Chang and his team stripped the original shoe down, re-imagined it entirely, and then started from scratch.

The first step: better materials. While carbon fiber has become something of a cliche, it's still an unique material with the two most important properties for athletic shoes: it's light, and it's strong. Replacing plastic or glass fiber shanks (the part of the shoe under the arch of your foot) with carbon fiber and throwing carbon fiber on the heel counter (the part that wraps your heel) makes the shoe much lighter and sturdier. Outfitting a shoe with that much carbon fiber is a significant structural improvement.


As for the Kevlar, Nike used incorporated that into its existing Flywire technology. That's the very thin upper of a shoe that looks like a tight mesh, and supports the foot in key spots. Flywire is typically made with nylon and Vectran fibers, which is sturdy enough for everyday use but not nearly as strong as Kevlar. As Chang and Petrie pointed out, nylon has 30 percent stretch to it while Kevlar has only 1 percent. You can notice the difference immediately; Kevlar-infused Flywire isn't as flimsy as the original, but it's still plenty flexible. Nike likes to say that it's stronger than steel. If Flywire is a suspension bridge, using Kevlar with Flywire is like a modern Calatrava, while its nylon counterpart is a creaky wooden river passage guarded by trolls.


The finishing touches? Nike's Pro Combat—those cushiony pads football players wear—material on the tongue, a special sock liner for better internal traction, and Kevlar shoelaces. Yes. Kevlar shoelaces.


The Bottom Line

All that carbon fiber and Kevlar adds up to a lot of money. The Kobe and Hyperdunk cost $200 a pair, while the LeBron will set you back $250. But Nike's ultimate goal with the Elite series isn't to sell a bunch of shoes. It's to create a shoe that's more akin to a concept car. Except it's a concept car you can drive. Er, wear. [Nike Elite Series]