NBA superstars, signature shoes, and why they’re just as flawed as the rest of us

In the hearts and minds of Lakers Nation, one hero stands heads and shoulders above the rest. The biggest star in a high-profile media center, Kobe Bryant is one of the most marketable athletes in the world. As such, Bryant is part of an exclusive crew that gets something more than 30-second TV spots and NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Awards: their very own signature shoes.

Kobe would tell you that he’s the incarnation of a fierce, competitive nature; an unstoppable will to win; and hours upon hours of dedication to perfecting his craft. Nike, on the other hand, would have you believe that he is the product of, well, their product.

Nike – a mega-merchant in the twenty-some-billion dollar athletic footwear industry – is not just selling uppers, soles, or style. They’re in the business of publicly selling basketball trade secrets and promises of greatness.

While the marketing is highly effective, it’s essentially snake oil. The trade secrets are null. The promises are empty.

Cool guys don't look at explosions

There is one aspect of the game that is more undervalued than selfless playmakers and supporting casts: proper running technique. Without it, injury is a virtual certainty. Running is a skill, an art that has been lost in both professional and amateur athletics alike. The negative consequences of that popular naiveté have been inescapable and debilitating.

The latest ad for Bryant’s better-than-ever signature shoe explicitly states, “These Kobe VIs will make you a beast.” No instructions necessary, no assembly required. Just lace up and transform yourself from the last pick to the go-to scorer. The irony of course is that Nike’s latest and greatest weapon – inspired by one of the world’s biggest and baddest snakes – is actually causing the user to absorb the greatest damage.

So while the Black Mamba is hyped as a performance-based shoe and a near-perfect fusion of science, technology, and art, it is in fact as flawed as Nike’s first design. And as dangerous as its namesake.

Where did it all go so horribly right for Nike? Well, it was way back in 1966 when Nike co-founder William Jay “Bill” Bowerman armed himself with his wife’s waffle iron and strips of rubber in hopes of inventing a new running shoe – one designed to create a “heel-to-toe” stride that he was convinced was “the least tiring over long distances.”

Unfortunately, for humanity’s sake, he succeeded.

“His experiments left Bowerman with a debilitating nerve condition, but also the most cushioned running shoe ever created,” writes Christopher McDougall, author of the national best-seller Born to Run. “In a stroke of dark irony, Bowerman named it the Cortez—after the conquistador who plundered the New World for gold and unleashed a horrific smallpox epidemic. Bowerman’s deftest move was advocating a new style of running that was only possible in his new style of shoe. The Cortez allowed people to run in a way no human safely could before: by landing on their bony heels.”

Chronic knee problems have plagued Bryant's 15-year career

Bowerman created a cancerous shoe that ultimately metastasized into a movement. The movement then launched a running-induced injury epidemic. Pay attention, ballers! When you’re not shooting jumpers, taking charges, or grabbing rebounds, you’re running … or doing something that looks like it.

But everyone everywhere runs on their heels! True. But most everyone is also doing it wrong.

“Everyone thinks they know how to run, but it’s really as nuanced as any other activity,” says Eric Orton, former Director of Fitness and the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center and certified Functional Training Specialist. “Ask most people and they’ll say, ‘People just run the way they run.’ That’s ridiculous. Does everyone just swim the way they swim?”

Orton’s sentiment on the importance of proper technique is mirrored by Dr. Nicholas Romanov: A two-time Olympic Coach, author, educator and a sport scientist with over 30 years of experience and hands on work with athletes of all levels and non-athletes.

“Think about it. If you can’t hit a tennis ball over the net, there is no sense of playing a match,” says Romanov. “If you can’t drive a golf ball past the end of the tee, why tee up for 18? And if you can’t run in a relaxed, injury-free manner, why toe the line at a local 10k or triathlon?”

Dr. Romanov specializes in sport biomechanics; kinesiology; sport training theory and physical education; training program development from elite to amateur athletes; exercise physiology; and injury diagnosis, prevention and exercise rehabilitation. In short, he is a guy who knows exactly what he’s talking about when it comes to running – a fundamental action in many sports, basketball obviously included.

“It is just generally accepted that injuries like stress fractures, sore knees, tweaked ankles, strained Achilles’ tendons, lower back pain and plantar fasciitis are part of the total running experience,” explains Dr. Romanov. “Interestingly, this situation doesn’t seem to have changed since the beginning of the running boom in 1970 up until the present time, despite vast resources devoted to improved running shoe design and the evolution of theoretically smarter training regimes.”[1]

Dr. Irene Davis, director of the Running Injury Clinic at the University of Delaware, adds: “We’ve seen tremendous innovations in motion control and cushioning. And yet the remedies don’t seem to defeat the ailments.”

Just take a quick look around the league today; it is full of players who hammer their heels into the hardwood. Here is a much-abridged list of broken-down NBA bodies:

Andre Iguodala: Missed a handful of games this year due to a strained Achilles’ tendon.

Brandon Roy: Surgery free, but only because his knees no longer have any cartilage.

Drew Gooden: Decided to go under the knife after being sidelined by plantar fasciitis.

Dwyane Wade: Chronically sore, creaky knees and bad ankles.

John Wall: Ongoing bout with patellar tendinitis.

Kobe Bryant: Do four knee surgeries and slashed practice minutes ring any bells?

Mehmet Okur: Still suffering from chronic disc problems in his lower back.

Žydrunas Ilgauskas: Plagued by foot injuries that almost ended his basketball career.

Notice that the players listed above are all victims of non-contact injuries.

Perhaps Leonardo da Vinci – the archetypal Renaissance man, with his expertise in engineering, science, and anatomy – really hit the nail on the head when he said, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

When it comes to athletic footwear, less is more. To go back to the Nike Zoom Kobe VI, it would be a better performance shoe without the TPU external heel, the modified glass shank plate, the Nike Zoom units, the Phylon-foam midsole, and the “revolutionary” memory foam sockliner that conforms to your foot. All those fancy fixings encourage heel-striking, which actually produces a braking effect. Heelstriking surrenders all natural shock absorption — every forced misstep intensifies the impact forces on your joints and ligaments as you fight both gravity and your forward momentum.

Studies conducted by The American Journal of Sports Medicine and Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise both confirmed that wearers of expensive, top-of-the-line running shoes that are promoted as having additional features that protect (like more cushioning, motion control, and pronation correction) are injured significantly more frequently than runners wearing cheaper shoes.[2] Nike’s Black Mambas will run you $130, plus tax.

Guaranteed to make you run faster and jump higher! Right? Right?!

Those Nikes – no, most Nikes – are not only overrated, but they’re also overpriced. The British Journal of Sports Medicine revealed in 2008 that there are no peer-reviewed studies that demonstrate that running shoes will save you from injury. Not even one. Researcher Dr. Craig Richards challenged the athletic footwear industry to present an evidence-based claim that their shoe not only improves performance, but also reduces the risk of musculoskeletal injury. The industry response was uniform – deafening silence.

In reality, proper running technique is far more critical to peak performance over time and distance than the most “technologically advanced” shoe. If you want more train, less pain; or to get stronger as the game goes on, you don’t need a molded rubber energy boost for your feet. You need to propel yourself in space correctly, as evolution has dictated. Running the right way is more economical, even shown to reduce energy costs and heart rate almost immediately. Landing on your forefoot also reduces the impact on your knees by 50 percent, compared to heel-striking.

Running heel-to-toe is like trying to hammer in a nail with the claw end. Sure, it’s definitely possible. But you’ll experience varying degrees of success … you might even hurt yourself. Running with biomechanical efficiency – for example, moving with a slight forward lean; keeping your shoulders, hips, and ankles aligned; landing on your forefoot; and picking up your heels, instead of driving with your legs and arms – is like using the flat, weighted end to get the job done. Simple, smart, effective, intended.

Kobe Bryant told John Wall to “Buy Nikes,” when asked what advice he would give the rookie who was missing his eighth game of the season due to injury. Ironic, given that Kobe has some of the worst running form in the league and has compiled a laundry list of injuries wearing the shoe with the Swoosh.

John Wall is lightning-quick, but his running form is almost as terrible as Kobe’s. Wall is a guy who, according to some sources, might never be free of knee tendonitis … well not until he ditches those fat-heeled Reeboks, or is taught how to run without hurting himself. If he did those two things, he would see more court time. Even more impressive, he would run faster than he ever has in his life. Ever watched the world’s top sprinters run? Their heels never touch the track. In a basketball game, just about everyone’s heels slap the ground, with the occasional exception of LeBron James’ on a fast break.

Part of the problem is the shoes on the NBA players’ feet — more specifically, the command those lace-ups have on their strides. (But to be fair to the athletic footwear industry, they are not exactly the world’s most dangerous supervillains.) The other half of the story is the complete ignorance from training staffs, general managers, coaches, and owners across the globe. They are failing to prepare their athletes, their multimillion dollar assets, for the most timeless and fundamental aspect of sport: movement.

Kobe mid-stride, with a stinging heel strike

You can’t even begin to underestimate the human error in all of this. It is in our collective best interest, from the casual fan to the Association’s Director of Finance, to protect the players from themselves. And yet, NBA players are not counseled to do this better. Even worse, the very thought of using running technique to empower a player with greater on-court endurance and an extended career rarely – if ever – crosses the minds of the NBA’s brain trusts.

Starting on high school signing day, the world’s brightest basketball prospects are not only micromanaged, but indoctrinated with strength training regimens, diet plans, and volumes of strategy – the Xs and Os. Every game situation is scrutinized; every bead of sweat is analyzed.  If a player’s body is out of proportion, it gets reshaped. If a player’s understanding of defensive rotations is fuzzy, it gets sharpened. If a player’s jump shot is broken, it gets fixed. But never are players running techniques measured or adapted. A questionable running form is shamefully left untouched. A busted jumper won’t necessarily end an NBA career, but several torn knee ligaments and chronic foot pain will.

The tragedy is that while these injuries are much too predictable, they are entirely preventable. It’s ludicrous. It’s blind. It’s unacceptable.

Give our role players, our superstars, role models, and mentors the opportunity to live the hoop dream longer. Let Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett be the heroes we have made them out to be, for as long as possible. Let Gotham’s guardian, Amar’e Stoudemire, rattle rims and electrify the Garden for the next decade. We owe it to the Penny Hardaways, Yao Mings, and Bill Waltons. We owe it to our friends, our families, and our competition on the neighborhood court.

Otherwise avoidable injuries do not have to be basketball’s kryptonite. But unless there is a radical change, all parties will continue to foot the bill.

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[1] Romanov, Nicholas. Dr. Nicholas Romanov’s Pose Method of Running. Coral Gables, FL: PoseTech Corp., 2002. Print.

[2] McDougall, Christopher. Born to Run : A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen.New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009. Print.

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