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How Nike is celebrating and innovating basketball culture

With the launch of the NBA's new season uniforms, Nike embarks on an exciting performance and style journey

“Running is the heart of Nike, but basketball is the soul,” says Mark Parker, Nike’s CEO. There’s vibrant tradition, history, and heritage connection between the global brand and the continent-trotting sport. Basketball culture reverberates across generations and countries: from floodlit arena games broadcast for millions, to DIY hoops and scuffed school gyms, for 7ft titans and pint-sized fans, night shift workers and Houston rappers. Nike’s latest innovation with the new season of NBA uniforms only hopes to push that further.

“There’s so much to draw from – Nike’s relationship to basketball has been there since the beginning of the company,” says Parker. Marrying an expansive culture that basketball has built with the far-reaching legacy of Nike seems ambitious, but logical and progressive. We’re speaking at the Nike x NBA Innovation Summit in downtown Los Angeles, a huge complex set up to reveal the next generation of NBA outfits, with some of the star players modelling – Kevin Durant and Paul George are among the legion in attendance, and Travis Scott – the “Goosebumps” rapper and Rockets fan – performs.

“This relationship with the NBA allows us to go even deeper,” continues Parker. “We connect to the players, which inspires the innovation of performance and style. The partnership is quite natural – it’s been easy and open. It’s incredibly exciting to see not only where we’re starting now but where we can go in a decade.”

Announced back in June 2015, Nike’s partnership with the NBA starts with the 2017/18 season. Design-wise, Nike has been building on the 25 years of previous institutional knowledge to create garments that are sleek and powerful: variations of what we finally saw premiered this weekend were tested by athletes at the Rio Olympics.

The “Statement Edition” uniforms debuted on 30 players, one from each team – we saw the Golden State Warriors' famous iconography flipped, the loud and proud teal of the Charlotte Hornets and the slick black and green of Boston’s Celtics taken to a new level. They’re 20 percent lighter than before and sustainable, made from recycled polyester. One of the big reveals was the jersey’s interconnectivity: using the NikeConnect app, users can tap their smartphone onto their jersey's embedded NFC (near field communication) chip to unlock real-time, personalised content. Their fave player’s locker room playlists, match highlights, stats and access to sneakers and rewards is open to users with one tap.

“Basketball culture manifests in different forms: music, style and sport. It’s that intersection where new things happen; it’s incredibly rich,” says Parker. “We have the ability to connect with that, through athletes, creative people, influencers in of music, fashion, design and architecture. “We’re passionate about it, it’s never just about business. I started at Nike as a designer and I still design, and that output is important.”

Stefan Olander, Nike’s Vice President of Digital Innovation, says it took “a little over two years” to vet the technology and experience that comes with the new apparel.

Basketball is becoming more of a global sport – 25 percent of players in the NBA are international, and it’s the number one team sport in China. Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, Paul George and others were all involved in the process to what we see today, and fans across the world were quizzed on what they wanted to see.

“I love this idea of the connection between a person and their passion,” says Olander. “There’s something magical, you’re there in the game. You can get product offers, shoes that no one else gets. There’s really no limit to where this can go, we create this link that can go anywhere.”

“We designed it in a way where it would outlast the lifetime of a product,” he adds. “It’s a beautiful way of saying this jersey is more than just a jersey.”