In 2009, Christmas came early in the NBA. The league finally relaxed a rule requiring sneakers to be majority black or white. Christmas Day quickly became the annual showcase for players’ outlandish kicks.
While Kobe Bryant is often credited with sparking the tradition, no one has had more Christmas sneakers than LeBron James. He starts working on the designs with Nike nearly a year in advance and submits models that are not in team or holiday colors to the league for approval. We’re not saying we’ve uncovered King James’ secret, but … it’s gotta be the shoes.
Check out what Nike signature stars James, Bryant and Kevin Durant have worn on their feet to ring in the holiday season on the NBA’s biggest day.
Remember LeBron’s iconic chalk toss? Nike does. They adorned his first Christmas sneaker with specks of chalk — and handed out packets of confetti for fans to get in on the fun.
When LeBron was 3, his mother, Gloria, gave him his first mini-basketball hoop, which he commemorated with a graphic on this shoe’s sock liner.
Pat Riley is a stickler for the rules, and his line on footwear was: “All my soldiers wear the same color boots.” As a result, LeBron’s Christmas sneakers during his time in Miami mostly stuck to the typical holiday colors.
James specifically requested this simple red-and-green shoe, while other players around the league took on more abstract colors and loosely connected themes.
Once again incorporating a red base color, the 10th LeBron model was seen in a vibrant tone inspired by glowing ruby red Christmas lights found on homes around the world.
After three straight years of red shoes, Nike worked with the Heat to ensure the whole team could match LeBron. Look closely at this mint green model and you’ll see what designers called the “palmsicle.” That’s Miami’s palm trees combined with snowflakes.
When James returned to Cleveland for the 2014-15 campaign, he swapped Miami’s palms for the birch trees of Akron, Ohio, as seen on the side of this stylish tribute to his hometown.
Who needs heat? This icy blue sneaker got its colors from the Midwest’s harsh winters.
How do you celebrate your first ring in franchise history? With this sneaker, of course! Inspired by a shoe James likes to wears off the court, these kicks were launched with a campaign touting his rise from humble beginnings.
Why doesn’t this sneaker look like the others? Because it’s not the final Christmas version! With the LeBron 15, the King overtakes Michael Jordan (whose red-and-black shoes were once banned by the NBA) for the longest signature shoe line in sports. Tune in Christmas Day to find out what colors he’ll choose.
Rather than create a simple red-and-green edition for KD’s first Christmas Day sneaker, his team of designers at Nike went a nontraditional route, drawing inspiration from family baking at a holiday gathering. The shoe’s metallic copper color was inspired by brass cookie cutters, and it featured gingerbread man graphics along the sockliner.
Inspired by one of Durant’s favorite childhood Christmas gifts — a video game system — Nike created a pixelated pattern along the upper, complete with a dunking depiction of Durant alongside candy canes and gift boxes on the heel of the sock liner inside of the shoe.
As LeBron’s Christmas sneaker shifted away from traditional tones, it was Durant’s turn to take on a red-and-green makeup. Along the inner collar, a tree and No. 35 repeating pattern came together in a Christmas sweater-inspired graphic, while a removable KD logo ornament was added as a lace lock.
The seventh KD shoe slated for Christmas got its colorway from eggnog. In addition to the cream-colored upper and crimson heel, the speckled midsole represented the traditional spice topping. The insole features a “35 Fl. Ounces” graphic — a nice nod to Durant’s jersey number, but an ambitious amount of eggnog for one serving.
Durant’s final Christmas shoe in OKC took on a “Naughty and Nice” theme, coming to life in a split black-and-white colorway with red accents throughout. With more storytelling highlighting the “naughty” half, the shoe featured a crackled red midsole and hot coal graphics along the upper.
For his first Christmas sneaker after the NBA’s rule change, Bryant and Nike teamed up for a theme that took inspiration from the Grinch — the Dr. Seuss character who famously “stole Christmas.” As he faced off against James and the Heat, Bryant’s bright lime green sneakers raised the bar for themed sneakers to come.
Two years later, when Bryant’s eighth signature sneaker was released, Nike was all in on his “Black Mamba” persona, and multiple colorways took inspiration from snakes. His Christmas Day sneaker looked to the venomous rhinoceros viper for its detailing, pulling out hues of red, blue and yellow from the reptile’s unique scale patterns.
Taking the snake inspiration even one step further, Nike repeated Bryant’s eighth model for Christmas Day in 2013 with a “shedding skin” edition for the holiday. With a molded, raised snake scale upper and “mamba green” clear outsole and accents, the shoe also took on a frozen icicle look.
It wasn’t until his ninth sneaker, Nike’s first basketball shoe to feature Flyknit, that Bryant embraced a traditional red-based Christmas scheme. The high-top sneaker with white accents was inspired by holiday stockings, and underneath the tongue a graphic read “Mamba’s Greetings.”
Bryant’s last Christmas shoe celebrated his approach to the game with a “Fire and Ice” inspiration fueling the multicolored knit upper. The shoe also featured five ring icons (or, more seasonally, “five golden rings”) along the heel and a bold gold Swoosh to honor Bryant’s championship legacy.
Photos by Adam Levey for ESPN.