Jayson Tatum and Nike are making ‘lacing up’ a thing of the past with the HyperAdapt BB

By Nick DePaula, ESPN

Since his father first helped teach him the game, Jayson Tatum has been lacing up his sneakers to play basketball every day. That will change soon, thanks to Nike.

Wednesday night, when the Boston Celtics host the Toronto Raptors (8 p.m. ET on ESPN), Tatum will be the first NBA player to play a game in the new HyperAdapt BB, Nike’s first auto-lacing performance basketball sneaker, a concept more than 30 years in the making.

“Being the first person to wear it is a great opportunity,” Tatum said.

A decade before Tatum was born, Nike designer Tinker Hatfield received a unique request from Universal Studios. Director Bob Zemeckis was working away on the 1989 sequel to “Back to the Future,” and he asked Nike to help design a futuristic shoe for the movie’s 2015 setting.

Hatfield, now Nike’s VP of design and special projects, dreamt up the iconic Nike Mag, a futuristic, power-lacing sneaker unveiled in the movie by character Marty McFly. After recently recreating the shoe in 2015 — when the reality of the calendar caught up to the fictional world of the movie — Nike expanded the auto-lacing concept, first with the multipurpose HyperAdapt 1.0 sneaker in late 2016, and now with the performance-geared HyperAdapt BB, to solve problems for athletes of today.

“The idea was adaptability from the very beginning,” Hatfield said. “The [original] notion of a shoe that recognizes you and turns on, then adapts itself to you, is not very different than what we’re looking at right now.”

The HyperAdapt BB replaces traditional laces with an intricate series of cables, controlled by slide-touch bars on a syncing phone app or two toggle buttons on the side of the shoe. With power coming from a small motor in the shoe, the cables engulf the foot, providing varying degrees of support and giving players such as Tatum an exact, on-demand fit every time. The settings can be stored, much like an automatic car seat, returning to the same locked-in preference in an instant.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” Tatum said. “Hearing about a shoe with all this technology and no laces, I didn’t know what it was going to look like. It really surprised me. It looked a lot better than I thought it would, and it felt great — that was most important.”

Though Tatum will begin wearing the sneakers now, the HyperAdapt BB officially will launch Feb. 17, just before the league’s 68th annual All-Star Game. Eric Avar, Nike’s VP of design innovation, said the company is hoping the $350 sneaker can serve as a foundational performance product that’ll eventually expand into other sports and uses.

“Good design is always taking and making the complex as simple as possible,” Avar said.

The initial auto-lacing HyperAdapt 1.0 was priced at a lofty $720, and Nike admits it wasn’t necessarily geared for high performance. At less than half the price, the new HyperAdapt BB offers the next step in an ongoing process of making the concept more accessible.

“It’s like phones and other technical innovations that are more expensive when they first come out,” Hatfield said. “The more we keep engineering and rebuilding these motors, they shrink down, and we can put them into more sizes and fit women better, and maybe kids, too. Also, we could retrofit other shoes with this technology.”

As Avar explained, the basketball shoe went through hundreds of iterations and development samples — minor tweaks to the cabling would require a new design for the support panels. Deciding on the actual material for the cabling and the motor componentry was its own extensive ordeal. Senior innovation designer Ross Klein and a team of engineers ultimately decided to use what’s been dubbed a high-performance quad-axial, quad-fit system.

The look of the shoe had to fit with the technology, with Nike eventually settling on a simple upper, allowing the shoe’s light-up elements to draw the eye.

“It’s always a balance between art and science,” Avar said. “Maybe there was a little more science that went into this product, compared to your normal basketball product.”

After nearly two years of testing early prototypes at Nike’s campus on the feet of its elite-level product testers — former Division I players who now work at the company — the brand put the shoe through a critical workout.

During the last week of August, Tatum was joined in Beaverton, Oregon, by rookies Luka Doncic and Collin Sexton, fellow sophomores De’Aaron Fox, Kyle Kuzma and Jordan Bell, and WNBA stars Kelsey Mitchell, Kelsey Plum and Breanna Stewart. The group tested all aspects of the HyperAdapt BB. Longtime Nike innovation expert Kobe Bryant was there to push everyone along.

“As a kid, Kobe coulda wore anything and I woulda liked it. For me, it was just being associated with Kobe,” Tatum said. “Having his shoes on, it was like building that bridge, and that’s how I felt connected with him. That’s how a lot of kids think nowadays.”

Even in retirement, Bryant still meets and speaks regularly with Avar. Avar’s history of designing Bryant’s industry-shifting’s low-top signature series played a role in the HyperAdapt’s low-cut silhouette. As they work toward the next edition of the Kobe AD series, they’re also busy brainstorming insights that could help to propel concepts like the HyperAdapt.

“This project has influenced and sparked so many different ways of thinking about fit,” Avar said. “There are so many different projects, including the [Air Jordan] 33, and Kobe’s next shoe is heavily influenced by that.”

When Tatum syncs up the new HyperAdapt for the first time on the Garden’s parquet, that bridge and connection to Bryant will have been realized — a new generation of young players will be following in Tatum’s footsteps. Meanwhile, Avar, Hatfield and the rest of Nike’s innovation team will be back in Beaverton, working on the next evolution.

“It won’t be anything short of incredible, I’m pretty certain,” Tatum said. “When my son gets to be 20, the type of shoes they’ll be wearing might make you fly.”

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