Imagine last year's LeBron XI as a prototype for a new era of LeBron James's signature shoes. After years of sleek, scaled down models, the XI bulked up, aiming to protect James's frame from the punishment he takes every time he blasts to the hoop. But, as is often the case with prototypes, there were issues. James couldn't find the right fit, and he often discarded the XI at halftime for the Zoom Soldier VII, as the world wondered what was going on. By playoff time, the XI was relegated to the depths of LeBron's locker, never to see the hardwood again.
"I think everyone was ready to get to the XII," said Kevin Dodson, senior product line manager for Nike Basketball. "We wanted to make sure that we delivered [LeBron] a product that he felt confident in on-court. We took it as a challenge."
So the prototype was stripped down, tested furiously and rebuilt. As LeBron's affinity for the XI waned during the course of the 2013-2014 NBA season, he was already testing the XII behind the scenes any time his perpetually booked schedule had a rare opening.
There were sure to be nerves and pressure, after the difficulties surrounding the XI, but Dodson said after one specific testing session, he knew the XII was going to be a different story.
"He came off the court and gave us this look like, 'Yup,'" Dodson said. "He told us it was the best ride he'd ever had. It was a great feeling."
So what clicked? LeBron's shoe designers teamed up with the Nike Sports Research Lab to incorporate two brand new technologies into the XII. The upper is made of Megafuse, an evolution of Hyperfuse that allows for a reduction of layers upon which the shoe is built, making for better flexibility and durability while remaining lightweight.
"There's an outer layer of skin, and then the mesh and hot-melt layers are combined into one single layer," said Eugene Rogers, basketball color lead for Nike. "By reducing the layers, we're down to two and a half, where we were at five layers before."
But the crown jewels of the Nike LeBron XII, and its chief selling point, are the five colorful hexagonal pods on the sole. Aside from being aesthetically pleasing, the pods represent a significant evolution of Nike Zoom Air, a cushioning staple of the LeBron signature line.
Instead of a single air bag that stretches underneath the entire foot as in past models, each hexagonal pod of Zoom Air is a different size or height and performs separately from the others. Each pod cushions a different part of the foot based on pressure points created when the shoe impacts the ground.
"Your foot isn't really flat, if you look at it. It's got curvature," said Taryn Hensley, director of cushioning innovation. "We wanted to build in that appropriate amount of cushioning under the different elements of the foot."
The result is like a version of a pressure map, with each hexagonal pod humming along in cushioning concert with the foot's movements. The XII's somewhat experimental qualities fit with James's off-season, when he tweaked his diet and lost a noticeable amount of weight, because he wanted to challenge himself to do so.
As James gets older and his body racks up more miles than a Honda Civic, his needs from a shoe differ. Right now, the Cleveland Cavaliers forward wants his feet and legs to be protected from impact after a dunk or a layup, or from simply rising off the ground to get to the hoop. That's what Nike Basketball hopes to accomplish with the XII, as they look to put the disappointment of the XI behind them.
"With the XI, it was just another learning element in the process that was absolutely beneficial for [the XII]," Hensley said. "As [James's] body morphs and grows, he discusses with us what he needs out of the product. Then it's up to us to figure out, how do we get him to where he needs to be with our products."
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