Now, 15 years later, James' Nike series is the longest consecutive sneaker line for an active player in NBA history, with a full portfolio of products that nets nearly $400 million annually for the brand. Along the way, his sneakers have presented more of a challenge for Nike's designers.
"He's a very unique problem to have out there. He's very fast and very powerful," designer Jason Petrie said. "When we're building a LeBron, we know all of that going in."
In advance of the launch of the upcoming LeBron 16, which will feature a host of new storytelling with the four-time MVP's move to Los Angeles, we ranked the main signature line from throughout James' storied career.
15. LeBron 13 (2015)
While the design can be generously described as "polarizing," the clover-like heel shape and overly molded Hyperposite upper materials never quite crossed over from hardwood to lifestyle. The gaudy player exclusive colorways didn't seem to generate much interest, either. Worn during James' second season of his second Cleveland tenure, the shoe featured more hometown detailing than any other shoe, with nods to his 330 Akron area code and 12/84 birthdate and a simple "Akronite" declaration along the outsole.
14. LeBron 12 (2014)
Nike's Foamposite material has long been linked to some of the brand's most iconic and innovative silhouettes. As Nike embarked on the double-digit years of LeBron's line, his sneakers started to become overbuilt, perhaps more than any average consumer cared for. By the release of the 12, even James' four consecutive trips to the NBA Finals and his standing atop the league couldn't overcome the $200 price point and clunky out-of-the-box feel.
It didn't help that the LeBron 12 had been in the works for a year prior to his return to Cleveland, which made for several nods and subtle touches of his Heat jersey No. 6 still remaining, such as the six Zoom Air units along the bottom, the number call out on the shank and a hexagonal icon on the tongue.
13. LeBron 14 (2016)
At two points in James' Nike series, the design team scrapped an existing look midway through the process, scrambling to create a new concept in time for the season. Unfortunately for the LeBron 14, the shift caused a massive delay, with James not debuting the shoe until Christmas and not releasing it until January. The lack of visibility on court hampered the excitement around the model, and the simplified design didn't connect with consumers.
12. LeBron 6 (2008)
The other model to experience a huge design shift along the way, "The Six" was well received at the time, with a casual-geared look that could be best described as a modernized Air Force 1. As Nike designers recall, James' challenge to the team for a less technical and more jean-friendly look was simple, as he declared in a meeting, "I'm not defined by my sport."
James unexpectedly revealed his sixth sneaker at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, giving his shoe its biggest debut since his much-anticipated first NBA game. With themes built around his favorite cities in the league and more loud and vibrant looks than in prior years, the LeBron 6 might seem bulky by today's standards, but it was fitting for the time. It was also worn during James' first MVP season, with a special "Witness" edition ready to go the night he received his trophy.
11. LeBron 5 (2007)
Following the much-loved design of the much-hefty LeBron 4, James' fifth shoe dropped four ounces in weight. The new "Phyposite footbucket" sounded space-agy to the average person, but the molded heel and forefoot panels made for locked-in support and one of the better performing LeBron pairs. While the Cavs' second-round loss to the Celtics set in motion a string of playoff disappointments and his eventual departure from Cleveland, the 5 featured the first appearance of his hometown pride, with a map of Akron highlighted on the bottom.
10. LeBron 11 (2013)
As James' 11th sneaker foreshadowed a sharp new direction in looks for the line, the shoe's Foamposite panels, snug toe box and firm ride made for some fit and comfort issues on court for LeBron.
"We're redefining the shoe to fit what's best for my foot," James said at the time. "I could wear them, but they don't feel as great as I want them to feel. So we're redefining them, and I feel like this next round is going to be perfect."
He ended up wearing them in only 35 of 97 games during the regular season and playoffs, as Nike worked behind the scenes to revamp and remodel his Size 16 version to get him back into the shoe.
9. LeBron 3 (2005)
Currently enjoying its return in retro form this fall, the third LeBron model saw his series take on more of a lifestyle lens, with a seatbelt-inspired design that aimed to "harness" his unseen blend of speed and power, according to designer Ken Link.
The shoe enjoyed a limited release on James' late December birthday in a lifestyle look, with a brown leather version packaged with a matching belt. The shoe also enjoyed one of Nike's more playful marketing campaigns, with the introduction of "The LeBrons" showcasing his many dimensions and personalities, featuring "Kid," "Athlete," "Business" and "Wise" LeBron.
8. LeBron 4 (2006)
With a high-contrast design that instantly caught attention, the LeBron 4 introduced more sculpting and power than anyone expected. The shoe's carved Foamposite upper served as a tribute to some of LeBron's favorite sneakers from Penny Hardaway's series while taking on a bolstered construction fit for his frame.
While the launch colors were well received and stuck to traditional team hues, the special editions took on more graphics and texture than ever before, such as the cereal-laden "Fruity Pebbles" pair or the two "Graffiti" versions worn at Madison Square Garden and during the Las Vegas All-Star Game.
7. LeBron 10 (2012)
Reaching 10 signature models with one brand is rarefied air in the sneaker game, as only Michael Jordan and Allen Iverson did so before James. To celebrate LeBron's decade-long line and his newfound championship pedigree, Petrie created a diamond-inspired storyline, signifying how LeBron had overcome the pressure of his title quest.
Just as he had done in 2008, James once again made use of the global stage and debuted his newest model during the gold-medal game at the 2012 Olympics in London. The shoe's glossy synthetic upper featured a series of diamond-inspired shapes and details, while the backward heel Swoosh added the iconic touch that made the shoe stand out among a sea of Nike endorsers on the court.
6. LeBron 9 (2011)
Launched during the league's 2011 lockout, James's ninth sneaker looked to represent the growing versatility of his game, along with the protection and support required for his frame. James simply shared his goal for the upcoming season -- "to become a triple threat" -- and the lightbulb went off for Petrie. A three-pronged support piece highlighted the collar, while bonded panels flowed and swooped all throughout the wavy design from there.
The model packed in more bells and whistles than ever before -- with Zoom Air, Max Air, Flywire, Pro Combat and fiberglass all taking part -- before evolving into an upgraded $250 "Elite" version that featured a massive carbon fiber support wing and Kevlar laces. Elite it was, as LeBron went on to win his first title in the model.
5. LeBron 2 (2004)
The Zoom Generation might have been designed while LeBron was still in high school, without a full design process and ample meeting time for his direct feedback, but the LeBron 2 instantly showcased his on-court approach.
James' charge heading into his second season was that he "wanted to feel bulletproof," and that led Link's debut design for the series to incorporate a series of rich leather support panels where needed and more flexible ballistic mesh in between. The shoe's removable collar strap with mismatched branding made for an iconic look on the court, while the laser-etched panels underneath the strap debuted his lion logo.
Released in only five colorways at retail, in a distinctly different era of footwear drops than today's industry, the LeBron 2 was known for its many collectible player exclusive editions, which should make for some great retro potential down the road.
4. LeBron 7 (2009)
The series once again took a big shift, with Petrie taking over the line and splashing the LeBron 7 with several of Nike's newest innovations. The full-length Air Max unit and Flywire upper looked to lighten the shoe and offer explosive cushioning, as James was entering the prime of a career that was not just following his first MVP but also expanding into areas of business and entertainment.
"There was a lot of style in that shoe because we were really talking about 'CEO of court and culture' at the time, and we really wanted the technology to become the style element," Petrie said.
The sneaker wasn't debuted during a Cavs game, but rather at the red carpet of the premiere of James' "More Than A Game" documentary highlighting his preps-to-pro rise in Akron. James' core tenets -- passion, fearless, tradition, community, family, loyalty -- can be read on the hologram icon along the bottom of the shoe, while the gleaming patent-leather look and sportscar-inspired stance made for an instant classic design.
3. LeBron 15 (2017)
Heading into the LeBron 15, the Nike team knew it had a tall task, as it looked to restore the energy around the line after a few unheralded models.
"No one has ever reached No. 15 [while playing] before LeBron, so it's a big deal, and we wanted to make a celebration of technology, style and of LeBron's game," Petrie said.
James went on to wear 51 versions of the 15 last season, generating attention on a nightly basis around his #LeBronWatch campaign. Whether it was colorways paying tribute to some of the brand's greatest hits or versions inspired by some of his most beloved themes, the shoe helped resurrect interest in the line and carried him through a full 82-game season and masterful push to an eighth consecutive NBA Finals appearance.
2. Air Zoom Generation (2003)
To help usher in an 18-year-old LeBron James, Nike's next signature superstar, the brand assigned a trio of its top designers to his very first shoe. Tinker Hatfield, Eric Avar and Aaron Cooper had worked on nearly every Nike Basketball signature model to date and had a bold declaration for the teenager already dubbed "King James."
"We will design you the most comfortable basketball shoe you have ever worn -- period," Cooper told James.
With his controversial chrome Hummer H2 providing the inspiration for the eyelets, stance, heel counter and typeface, the shoe had a classic toe design and a sweeping collar panel that was unmistakable on the court. The shoe also debuted Nike's plush "Sphere Liner" technology and featured both Max Air and Zoom Air cushioning. Named for the player who would go on to define his generation, the "AZG" was the first LeBron sneaker to receive the retro treatment a year ago, and it has lived on as a favorite among the series and a favorite of James.
1. LeBron 8 (2010)
Perhaps no shoe better represents LeBron's persona than his eighth model, the first shoe worn during his four-year Miami run.
During a promotional Nike trip the two were on during one of James' visits to China the prior offseason, Petrie said he thought back to an iconic Jay-Z line -- Check out my swag / I walk like a ballplayer -- when noticing how James stood out above the crowds following him around. He wanted the next LeBron shoe to similarly stand out on a store's shoe wall.
The vivid teal and pink "South Beach" launch colorway surely didn't hurt, instantly reselling for nearly $1,000 and taking the popularity of James' line to a different tier. While the design featured loads of tech such as a full-length Air Max unit, the tongue's oversized lion graphic represented one of LeBron's earliest tattoos and his ongoing quest at the time for his first championship ring.
"The stalk of the lion and the lion's hunt really fueled the change in between the shoes and how that relates to LeBron changing as he goes through the season," Petrie said.