Back in November of 2019, Los Angeles Laker Kyle Kuzma shared an anecdote on The Official Lakers Podcast. He was out to dinner with Laker legend Kobe Bryant, and asked himat which point he “found his game.” Kuzma explained that he was expecting the same sort of answer other players had given him—that it came from getting reps in, knowing your shots, finding your spots. Kobe, ever the atypical superstar, surprised Kuzma by instead citing a Bruce Lee movie. “He was playing in the Western Conference semis versus San Antonio or something, and he found his game...by watching like a Bruce Lee [movie],” Kuzma recalled. Bryant cited a scene (by process of elimination, likely this one from Enter the Dragon) in which Lee tells his student something to the effect of “less is more.” Kobe took that philosophy into his next game, and then into the rest of his career.
It’s hardly a surprise to find out that Bryant considered Bruce Lee one of his greatest inspirations as an athlete. Think about it: the borderline psychotic work ethic, the crafting of a trademark philosophy around that work ethic, the scrappy, undersized kid turned once-in-a-generation phenom through sheer force of will: how could Kobe not be a Bruce Lee obsessive? He once claimed to have watched and read literally everything Lee had produced, which doesn’t even seem like a stretch.
Accordingly, the late superstar frequently paid homage to Lee. Sometimes that meant dropping his name in an interview. Other times, it meant putting Lee’s teachings into practice: for years Kobe was a practitioner of Jeet Kune Do, the improvisation-heavy martial arts system created by Lee. That idea of approaching competition with adaptation in mind shaped Kobe’s approach to basketball as his career possessed, with Lee’s famous “Be like water” teachings visible on the court when Kobe played. Most often, though—and most richly—Kobe’s tributes to Bruce Lee came in the form of sneakers.
Hitting the court in a pair of Lee’s signature Onitsuka Tigers was likely out of the question, for issues of both Kobe’s Nike endorsement and his own safety. So in 2010 Kobe decided to pay homage to Lee through his own signature sneaker at the time, the Nike Kobe 5. In a line full of bright colorways, his homage to his hero stands out as one of the more memorable pairs he ever laced up. The yellow and black upper draws from Lee’s iconic jumpsuit in Game of Death, with a tiny red claw icon paying tribute to the actor’s posthumous masterpiece Enter the Dragon.
The shoe made for an instant sellout and paved the way for further homages over the years. While not an annual occurrence, Kobe later donned Bruce Lee-inspired colorways of the Kobe 9 and 11 Elite Low. Both kept the original’s yellow and black colorway and found new ways to incorporate the Enter the Dragon slashes into the shoe’s design.
The influence even reached beyond Kobe himself. In August 2017, then-Cav and current Brooklyn Net Kyrie Irving recalled in a since-deleted Instagram post donning a pair of the original Bruce Lee Kobe 5s for a tournament at age 17. “We won, and from that point on it was hands down my favorite shoe ever,” Irving explained. His love for the shoe, for Kobe, and for Lee ran deep enough that he asked Kobe’s permission to borrow the tribute idea for his own signature shoe. Kobe gave his blessing, and so Nike released a Kyrie 3 dubbed the “Mamba Mentality Bruce Lee.” That shoe carried over the traditional color blocking and red slashes from the original, but added a unique homage to Kobe in the upper: Chinese calligraphy on the outer side that fades into a snakeskin print on the inner, the transition between Dragon and Mamba seamless. Multiple sneakers drawing from the same classic colorway isn’t exactly uncommon, but rarely does a choice feel this deliberate, like a passing of the torch from one superstar to another.
After Kobe’s passing, Nike almost entirely halted distribution of new Kobe colorways until a celebratory “Mamba Week” held in August. But one shoe quietly made its way to shelves back in May: a version ofKobe’s budget-friendly sneaker, the Mamba Fury, in a Bruce Lee colorway. Whether it was a corporate slip-up or a sly tribute, it feels perhaps appropriate for this to have been one of the first new Kobe colorways since his death—one drawing inspiration from his hero, another legend gone long before his time.
It’s all (allegedly) coming full circle later this year. For months, it’s been rumored that Nike will be issuing a retro of the original colorway, dubbed the Kobe 5 Protro “Bruce Lee.” Vanessa Bryant has teased the silhouette via social media, and with it an alternate colorway swapping out the yellow of the original for white. There are two new Kyrie 6 Bruce Lee colorways rumored for release later this year as well. No official release info is currently available, but with Nike’s Kobe line back in full force these days, that could change any time.
Kobe would be the first to tell you that there is no Mamba Mentality without Bruce Lee. There are few athletes or cultural figures who pair together so well, despite their different fields. Both changed their respective games despite overwhelming odds through a blinding work ethic, creating philosophies that would influence athletes for generations to come. That relentlessness gave way to a cult of personality so intense it lent itself to both homage and parody, be it in a Quentin Tarantino movie or a goofy Nike ad featuring Kanye West.
As such, it’s hard to see Kobe’s line of Bruce Lee colorways as a gimmick, or surface-level pandering to hoops fans and kung fu movie nerds. Kobe’s Bruce Lee sneakers are both a tribute to his hero and an extension of their shared personal philosophies. With it being a decade since the original was now available, it’s the perfect time to teach the next generation of the ties between the Dragon and the Mamba.
Originally Appeared on GQ