When LeBron James makes his Los Angeles Lakers regular-season debut Thursday night in Portland, Oregon, his jersey hues might be entirely new, but the colors of his shoes will be all too familiar, celebrating one of the first iconic moments of his Nike career.
Styled in a burgundy knit upper, the detail on the new LeBron 16 "King" hearkens back to Nike's grandiose declaration just as its $90 million rookie entered the league.
"We think he's the athlete that will define the next generation," a Nike Basketball exec said in 2003.
The company backed up that belief by putting a then-18-year-old "King James" at the center of a regal poster sitting atop a custom throne and flanked by three massive lions.
"The luxurious burgundy tones, the gold detailing, his original [LJ23] logo and the animal fur -- a combination of the lions and the animal pelt he had draped over the throne -- are all there as nods to that poster," said Jason Petrie, designer of the LeBron 16.
Soon after the poster was released, the lion became a symbolic element incorporated often into the LeBron line, representing strength and courage. It first debuted in a laser-etched design on his second shoe, then was featured on the tongue of several of his ensuing models. On most colorways of the 16, the lion icon dominates the heel panel. Here, it's spotted along the tongue, with the original poster artwork peeking out from the sockliner.
While James' offseason shift to L.A. caught some by surprise, his team at Nike had already been working on color stories that wouldn't be beholden to the jersey colors he was wearing, whether they would be Cleveland Cavaliers wine and gold or the famed purple and gold of the Lakers.
"We're working on this 18 months to two years in advance, and we didn't know where he was going," Petrie said. "We planned it that even though he could very easily stay in Cleveland, we should look at these colors to where it doesn't matter. He could wear it on any given night and he could get away with it."
Just as Nike was wrapping up the process of creating the 16, over the summer, the league office decided to remove all color restrictions across the board. Now, James and players around the league will have the ability to incorporate different themes and stories all season long, regardless of whether they match their team colors.
Last year, James laced up 51 different versions of the LeBron 15, with many pairs not remotely matching the Cavs' jerseys over the course of the season, and Nike plans to take even more advantage of the lack of restrictions this season.
"He could do 164. You never know," Petrie said with a laugh. "It's one of those delicate balances, and if we could just shoot 'em out like that, we would. ... The color rules are whatever. He's LeBron James, he's gonna do what he wants to do."
Once again, Nike will feature a #LeBronWatch campaign throughout the season, with the newest shoe representing a "family tree" of all of James' models to date, as well as all of the brand's greatest innovations in its company history. James has already relayed to his team at Nike that he's entirely open to wearing any color, any night.
"You can imagine, with zero compliance necessary now, for sure we're gonna flex on that," Petrie said. "We have some gems for the culture."