Nike LeBron James Building at headquarters, inside the new innovation center

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On the hallowed grounds of Nike’s world headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon, where buildings are named after the gods of sports and athletic wear, the new LeBron James Innovation Center is the highest temple.

The huge space is home to the latest version of the Nike Sport Research Lab, an 85,000 square foot facility where the brand collects athlete data to use in product design. In one section, there is a set of 400 cameras to track body movement, which Nike says is the largest motion capture facility in the world. There are body scanners, environmental chambers, multiple tracks, and areas where prototype sneakers can be made in under an hour.

The extent of the operation and how it relates to it is still somewhat unbelievable to James. This despite the fact that he testified about the building during a tour with Nike CEO John Donahoe a few weeks ago.

“During my career and my time here at Nike, that it all comes together is surreal. Sometimes that just doesn’t make sense to me, but I’m really honored, ”says James. “Having my name on the innovation building seems very fitting to me as I’m always trying to find ways to keep innovating and keep breaking the timeline of what they say is your best. “

A collection of rare Nike LeBron exhibits in the building. Image via Nike

Nike entered the LeBron James timeline early, signing a $ 90 million endorsement deal with 18-year-old James. in 2003 before playing a single NBA game. Soon after, Swoosh scientists were able to begin collecting statistics on him that would inform the Nike LeBron signature line.

“We hosted it in the NSRL at that time,” says Matt Nurse, Ph.D., the Nike vice president who runs the sprawling lab. “We started showing him our abilities, we took some basic action on him at the time. And if you look at how we’ve evolved and how it evolved over the past two decades, our paths have really been parallel.

The man and the brand are linked in perpetuity: James signed a contract for life with Nike at the end of 2015. Now he joins greats like Michael Jordan and Serena Williams, who also have their own buildings at the company’s headquarters.

“We brought him in and it was amazing,” Nurse said, recalling James’ first visit to the new building. “He came in, he called it his sanctuary. And we would like this place to be a sanctuary for athletes of all skill levels and abilities. All backgrounds and all body types.

Nike certainly has room in its new facilities to adapt. The extended NSRL is five times the size of the previous lab. The 750,000 square foot building he lives in resembles a spaceship, a fully manned vessel that could be seen suspended among the stars in a distant galaxy. According to Nurse, the first sketches of it date back to 2013.

Sandy's living room at the Nike LeBron James Innovation Center
Sandy’s Lounge pays homage to the late Nike legend Sany Bodecker. Image via Nike

As futuristic as it is, the building contains many references to Nike’s past. There’s a replica of Winnebago – a reminder of co-founder Phil Knight’s days selling shoes in a van – and a piece named after the late Sandy Bodecker, the beloved Nike leader who launched the brand’s SB line.

Nurse positions the NSRL as the distant successor to the lab of Bill Bowerman, the company’s other co-founder. Its team is made up of around 75 researchers and support staff, including 25 doctoral students and 40 masters. They work to gather information that can benefit both their subjects and Nike’s larger mission of making shoes and clothing.

“The goal is always to turn it into something meaningful. This should be meaningful both for an athlete, of course, and for the company, ”said Nurse. “And when we’re at our best, it’s meaningful for both.”

Nike’s broad definition of the term “athlete” – a company maxim is that if you’ve got a body, you’re an athlete – means its vast array of sports research equipment isn’t just available to athletes. professionals. While he has yet to appreciate the LeBron James Innovation Center’s full suite of tools, the endorser Nike Drake has used the NSRL machines.

A van inside the LeBron James Innovation Center references Nike's early days, when Phil Knight sold shoes in a van
A replica of Winnebago inside the LeBron James Innovation Center. Image via Nike

In her 2020 clip for “Laugh now you’ll cry later,” the rapper turned Nike’s headquarters into a personal playground, crossing its lake on a jet ski and crossing its fields on a golf cart. He also donned VO2 max gear on a treadmill in a part of the campus that was temporarily used for NSRL research as COVID-19 safety measures pushed some work outside.

“It was actually in a covered parking lot,” says Nurse.

His biometrics won’t influence the design of any of his upcoming Nocta collaborations with Nike. Drizzy data is not stored or retrieved.

“For something like Drake where he was pushing himself, he was having fun too,” says Nurse. “It is not something that we are going to collect for research purposes.”

While the lab is keen to glean a deep level of information from its participants, it ensures that they share their information voluntarily, with their full consent. Data privacy policies aside, the building is no place to keep secrets.

Nurse describes the LeBron James Innovation Center’s layout as encouraging interaction between its scientists and designers, forcing teamwork between groups. There is no separation of Church and State. There is a direct line of sight between him and the concept design centers where the shoes and clothing are made.

“We’re not at all with individuals having their own ideas under a blanket at their desk, it doesn’t work for anyone,” he says.

Nor are they just in the business of manufacturing commercial products. Not everything created at the LeBron James Innovation Center is intended for a retail audience. Some of its production goes beyond what one would expect from a sneaker company.

“Things that you might never consider would fall under the normal banner of Nike shoes and clothing,” says Nurse. “We’re doing all kinds of crazy stuff here. “

The madman is informed by hours of hypotheses, data logging and learning tests. That this level of effort is invested in a given pair of performance sneakers from Nike is appealing to shoe enthusiasts, but may not be fully visible in the end product to the average consumer. But Nurse says he’s not focusing on whether the process is visible or invisible to the end consumer.

Nike's LeBron James Innovation Center building at its global headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon
The LeBron James Innovation Center spans over 750,000 square feet. Image via Nike

His goal is to ensure that what Nike manufactures can advance athletes to their best. His ideal at LeBron James Innovation Center is a version of it that blends fashion and function, pushing design and data together for the benefit of the user.

“The science itself is interesting, but it’s new, it’s hard to apply,” says Nurse. “Design itself can be beautiful, can be aesthetic, can be fashionable. But when science and design meet and push together, that’s when great things happen.

His take on it, the place he hopes Nike’s innovation teams can head to, is a target that is sinking deeper and deeper into the skies.

“We shouldn’t be happy to be able to take off and fly, we should be headed for the moon,” says Nurse. “And when we’re on the Moon, we shouldn’t be happy with Mars, we should go beyond.”


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