LeBron James’ summer will look a little different this year after he exited the playoffs in the opening round, marking an early end to the Los Angeles Lakers’ 2020 title defense. In the 18th campaign of his NBA career, he missed more games with a high ankle sprain – 26 – than he ever has in a single season.
But the NBA superstar actually has a new team. “I’m gonna let the ankle rest for about a month, and then I’m gonna gear up with Lola, Taz, Granny, Bugs and the rest of the crew. I’m gonna play for the Tune Squad this summer instead of the Olympics,” joked James after the Lakers dropped their first-round playoff series to the Phoenix Suns, with a 113-100 Game 6 loss on June 3. He’s not leaving the Lakers, but he’ll be joining a roster of cartoon characters in the lead role of Space Jam: A New Legacy, the Warner Bros. reboot of the Michael Jordan-led classic Space Jam, which hit theaters almost 25 years ago.
On July 16, with the release of Space Jam: A New Legacy, James will become the newest member of the Tune Squad. The movie will also deliver another debut, when James’ latest signature sneaker is unveiled on the silver screen. On Tuesday, Nike announced the LeBron 19, which will arrive on James’ feet for the first time in Space Jam. After nearly two decades of debuting all his previous models on real-life hardwood, Nike teamed up with Warner Bros. to flip the script of a signature sneaker rollout.
“This is the first time we’ve ever really debuted a shoe in a movie,” said Jason Petrie, a senior footwear designer for Nike Basketball who’s overseen the designs of James’ last 13 signature models. “Every chance we get to work with LeBron and build a shoe for him, it’s an amazing opportunity. Now, we get to combine with the amazing team at Warner Bros. … and that moviemaking magic and imagination. When you’re able to combine those two worlds, building a product within them was just an incredible opportunity and one that we took full advantage of. We were really excited to get outside the normal world of product creation and now exist in this alternate reality where LeBron is existing with the Tune Squad.”
It’s certainly the first time Nike has debuted a basketball shoe in a movie. However, it’s hard to forget the futuristic, auto-lacing Nike Mag that legendary designer Tinker Hatfield built for Marty McFly’s feet in 1989’s Back to the Future Part II. (Originally produced as a one-off for the second installment of the series, the Nike Mag wasn’t officially released until 2011, when 1,500 pairs were auctioned on eBay with proceeds benefiting the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.)
In two previous instances of signature Nike Basketball athletes headlining films, each player debuted the shoe on the basketball court ahead of the movie’s release. In the NBA playoffs on May 14, 1995, Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals between the Chicago Bulls and Orlando Magic, Michael Jordan debuted the “Space Jam” Air Jordan 11s, almost 18 months before Space Jam premiered in November 1996. More recently, Kyrie Irving broke out the “Uncle Drew” Nike Kyrie 4s for the first time in December 2017 at the TD Garden in Boston, six months before Uncle Drew hit theaters in June 2018 with Irving starring as the titular character.
In September 2018, after being linked to the movie for more than four years, James officially signed on to star in a follow-up to the original Space Jam, produced by his entertainment company, SpringHill. The opportunity marked James’ first starring role, after one movie appearance as a supporting character with Amy Schumer and Bill Hader in the 2015 comedy Trainwreck. By February 2019, the release date — July 16, 2021 — of the new Space Jam was announced, while James’ team of Nike designers, led by Petrie, embarked upon the 18- to 24-month process of crafting the LeBron 19.
“We have a very collaborative process with everything we do with LeBron,” Petrie said. “Him really stressing, and us knowing how important this moment is was a huge part of trying to get even more feedback and connecting with him. … We made sure to show him things from the very first sketch on to the most updated sample.”
As Petrie worked to bring the LeBron 19 to life, apparel designers at Nike (the official uniform supplier of both the NBA and WNBA) conceptualized how characters in Space Jam: A New Legacy would be outfitted, especially during the movie’s anticipated climax: a matchup on the basketball court between heroes and villains.
“Bringing Nike into the fold was a no-brainer,” said Maverick Carter, James’ business partner and co-founder of SpringHill, who served as a producer on Space Jam: A New Legacy. “A film is a story. It’s a journey … and Nike is a part of the storytelling. The biggest moment in the movie for our characters is the final game. It culminates into this epic showdown with real consequences for everyone playing. The game matters. And having the basketball players — the Tune Squad and Goon Squad — in Nike, it helps the story. It helps validate the game … because that’s what NBA players wear.
“The audience will get to see this is not just a regular basketball game. It’s a very innovative, in-the-future game. And when you talk about the LeBron 19, it’s a very in-the-future sneaker … Nike really came in and was a partner in helping us push the story forward, not just a supplier of product.”
While tackling the unconventional task of creating designs informed by imaginary characters such as Bugs, Lola and Tweety, Nike had to produce a functional signature sneaker for one of the most athletic players in the world to wear on and, ultimately, off the screen.
“An insight LeBron gave us a couple years ago, when all this was happening and we knew he was gonna be working on a movie, is how much he loves Nike Air,” Petrie said. “We wanted to build a new platform, a new foundation for this shoe that could give him the best expression of that benefit.”
The LeBron 19 will introduce a “double-chambered Air Max unit in the heel and a newly shaped Zoom Air forefoot unit,” according to Nike. Petrie recalled attending screenings of scenes, led by Space Jam: A New Legacy director Malcolm D. Lee, that he and his team drew inspiration from during the design process.
“Looking at the form and shape of it, you can see it has kind of a Space Age, otherworldly feel, all influenced by the notion of what was going to happen in Space Jam,” Petrie said. “Taking that inspiration … [and] working with Warner Bros. on colors that would pop on-screen while developing two different colorways for different parts of the movie … we started to see the shoe come to life.”
In early 2020, before the coronavirus pandemic postponed the NBA season and forced the league into a bubble, James began teasing the upcoming Space Jam and the signature sneaker he’d wear in the movie with editions of one of the precursor models to the LeBron 19. He took the court against the Denver Nuggets on Feb. 15, 2020, in a pair of “Looney Tunes” LeBron 17 Lows, on which he wrote with a Sharpie pen, “What’s up Doc?” Days later, during the 2020 NBA All-Star Game in Chicago, James laced up both the “Monstars” and “Mr. Swackhammer” colorways of the LeBron 17, as nods to the villains that Michael Jordan and the Tune Squad defeated in the debut Space Jam movie.
After winning the 2020 NBA championship in the LeBron 18 and wearing it for most of the 2020-21 season, James is due for his next signature silhouette. And with the Lakers already out of this year’s playoffs, the new shoe will debut on a different stage. In Space Jam: A New Legacy, on James’ feet, surrounded by Looney Tunes — that was Nike’s plan for the LeBron 19 all along.
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“What we really wanted to do is reach into the movie and pull what LeBron’s wearing out into the real world,” Petrie said. “That was kind of the hope and feel that we were going after. … That’s the 19 … something you’ll see on court in the movie and in real life, hopefully.”