If nautical nonsense be something you wish, Kyrie Irving has a pair of shoes to sell you. Porous and yellow Irving is not—he’ll be wearing the Brooklyn Nets’ black-and-white next year—but he is a massive fan of Spongebob Squarepants, so much so that he convinced Nike to partner with Nickelodeon and release a collection of shoes inspired by the denizens of Bikini Bottom.
I met with Irving in the leadup to his major free-agency decision, and as I waited for him at the Nike offices in midtown, a TV chyron asked: “WHAT’S GOING ON WITH KYRIE?” The answer? Nothing much, really, aside from regular trips to Bikini Bottom. He arrived wearing a pair of sheen red shoes with a splat of green on the side of the upper: the Mr. Krabs colorway, obviously. The rest of the set was arrayed in front of him: a radioactive pink-and-green Patrick Star sneaker, a SpongeBob-yellow pair with a quivering swoosh, a soft aqua-blue Squidward shoe with Nike written out in Bikini-Bottom font across the heel, and a white model with a single pink flower for the underwater city’s favorite (only?) Texan squirrel Sandy Cheeks.
SpongeBob might seem an odd concept for a shoe collaboration, but strangeness hasn’t stopped the flat-earth-evangelizing Irving yet, particularly when it comes to his sneakers. He’s done a Friends-themed pair, and a more recent “Third Eye Vision” colorway. Irving understands that breaking through the heap of sneakers today requires something a little more bold. “Seeing this stuff on the street is going to be, automatically [snaps], a conversation,” he says. The strategy is working for him: Irving’s shoes were the best-selling signature sneaker line of 2017, behind only LeBron James, according to data from NPD. NPD doesn’t track sales of signature lines anymore but NPD’s sneaker analyst Matt Powell tells me over email my assumption that ranking held last year is likely correct.
I spoke to Irving about his new collaboration (out August 10th, priced at $130), why Mr. Krabs is like Charles Oakley, and the life lessons he took from SpongeBob.
GQ: Who lives in a pineapple under the sea?
You debuted these last night on WNBA players during a game—what made that the right venue to show these off for the first time?
Because that access offered to them is very important and I feel like we [NBA players] have such a deep-rooted connection to really dope stuff. As a creator, you want to see your stuff live in multiple places and the NBA is great in terms of the marketing, but for me I love utilizing other great people from our art.
Starting with the WNBA was a priority on my list. I pushed it with Nike and said, “Hey, let's get these girls first access to this.” And basketball is going right now—obviously, you could choose the Finals, you can choose players in that space, but for me, I love the girls.
Where does your love for SpongeBob come from?
I was there sitting in front of my TV when the first episode dropped. Really just their storytelling.
As a creator I just enjoy what they created as a world in Bikini Bottom, and then how do I make that come to life through characters? And then it ended up being a pack, and then it ended up being a collab, and a partnership with Nickelodeon. Nickelodeon has done unbelievable stuff, they've made unbelievably great shows, but to put it on a shoe, now [it] exists for a long time. This stuff is sitting on people's shelves, this stuff is going off on people's houses.
This is literally a character that was created with a voice on a TV that exists in people's hearts as a connection, and that's all you want.
What do you mean when you say storytelling? What stands out?
The hero concept, as well as the teaching. SpongeBob and Patrick: we never know how old they are, they're grown-ups, they work everyday. But Patrick doesn't have a frickin' job—he's just SpongeBob's best friend. Then you have Squidward who lives across the street, works with SpongeBob, hates that they live across from each other, can't get away from each other. Then you have Sandy, who is really the chill Texan but really has an attitude about her as a woman and holds her own and really challenges everyone. Whether they were going out of the sea or whether they were living without water, she was always challenging them in her own space. She also had to challenge herself to be outside living in water and being in a frickin' spacesuit. She was in a spacesuit underwater! Like, c'mon, man.
So for me it was really about: you can exist in any space that you go in, no matter if you feel like you belong in it or not. These characters are that for me.
What was your relationship to it growing up?
I was hooping a lot, so SpongeBob for me was every day, Nickelodeon at night, watching just countless SpongeBob episodes. It was like, “All right, when's the next episode coming out?” Then there were so many seasons coming out it was like, Whoo! And then I got older, stopped watching as much TV, but the connection was always there.
And it goes deep-rooted to Nickelodeon as well. SpongeBob is a great vehicle to partner with for this, but Nickelodeon itself, it's brand that exists in a whole other space for me. In terms of the shows that they did and the inclusion they had with kids and slime and Nickelodeon Choice Awards. As a kid, you're seeing all these shows—Rocket Power!—and they're coming out with vehicle after vehicle after vehicle. 20 years later and now I'm doing a frickin' SpongeBob collection.
Was part of the allure with SpongeBob that you got to be loud and play with colors?
Yeah, and be very expressive. My brand DNA is really centered around expression, community, and risk-taking, as well as inclusion and compassion for others. I try to be as inclusive, very message-driven with the community, taking risks with other great brands that have been established.
Do you still watch the show?
Not as often as I used to, brother. Not as often as I used to.
You've done two television show-themed shoes. Why does that work for you?
Back to back. Because of what it represents. Let's create something that when you see it on the shelf that will exist on its own. And when you play on the court, it obviously has the performance, it has the innovation. But there's still a sense of individuality. Like, not everyone is going to be wearing this on court [picks up Patrick shoes], not everyone's going to like this color [taps Squidward shoes], not everyone's gonna be a fan of this [grabs Spongebob pair]. So why not create things that you can pick and choose?
You'll wear these on the court?
Do you have a favorite?
My favorite character is SpongeBob. Yellow in itself is one of my favorite colors, just because you gotta be prideful to wear yellow, especially yellow like that. My favorite color is red as well for Mr. Krabs and that's just a homegrown thing—Mr. Plankton and the one eye. All of them, man. Especially Squidward—there are subtle details like the clarinet.
On shoes now, you gotta do some dope creative stuff. You could just put a SpongeBob on a shoe and be like: “SpongeBob shoe!” But we can go a little deeper into the aesthetics and really make it come to life.
What positions do all these SpongeBob characters play on the court?
Squidward is a shooting guard. He's the most selfish one. He just shoots his own shots. He doesn't care what's going on.
SpongeBob is really like... positionless. He can play the 3/4, go to the 1.
Mr. Krabs is like the power forward. He's literally the muscle of the group. He's always giving different business ideas on how to spend money and like, “The Krusty Krab is the best ever!” and he's competing with the Chum Bucket. He's like the Charles Oakley. Weight god who's coming in, but there are also teaching moments in it.
Yeah, Mr. Krabs will definitely mess you up for a basket.
That's what I'm saying. Not that Charles Oakley would do that, I'm just saying in terms of physical experience.
Who is the most talented out of the characters?
Sandy, easy [laughs].
Why do you say that?
She shoots on land. She's never shot on an underwater basketball hoop.
So she's used to gravity?
Have you taken any important life or basketball lessons from SpongeBob?
The DNA of why I create is just: be you. He lives in a pineapple under the sea, has a great group of friends, keeps 'em close. There's always lessons within it. I remember the episode where SpongeBob goes to Muscle Beach and he was blowing up his muscles. And they're like, [does a torqued up voice] Are you ready SpongeBob? And he's like [same torqued voice] Yeah, I'm ready! Then his frickin' arms fall off.
He wakes up every single day and it's a new challenge for him and he has to embrace the challenge first and foremost, figure out how his friends fit into that. It's always about who he is and what he represents, but also how the characters all tie into a family. So that's what I took from it as a kid.
Originally Appeared on GQ