Exclusive Tour of the Stunning New LeBron James Innovation Center on Nike’s Campus

Just as how LeBron James constantly pays homage to his upbringing in Akron, Ohio, Nike’s newest building has a distinct nod to its origin story too. The front of the building boasts a bold, cantilevering extension that greets each visitor. The space that juts out is where much of the 84,000 square-foot Nike Sport Research Lab is housed, featuring a full-size basketball court, a 200-meter track, and artificial turf field. But what really separates this space from any other sports research lab is the world’s largest motion-capture installation (over 400 cameras) and 97 force plates. These force plates are so sensitive, they can record someone’s heartbeat by simply standing on it. 

The cantilevered extension is where Nike’s Sport Research Lab is now housed.

But in order to use such technical instruments, the Sport Research Lab needed to be located on the ground floor, a move that would’ve gone against the wishes to have the lab located on the top floor. So, AD100 architect Tom Kundig decided to get innovative. “When we asked a structural engineer what material would work to facilitate such sensitive floorboards above it, they gave us one answer: The waffle-iron pattern,” Kundig says. “It was so unthinkably serendipitous.” 

Visitors are first greeted by some of LeBron James’s most iconic footwear, which is enclosed in a small, intimate space meant to symbolize the feel of a shoebox.

The serendipity Kundig is referring to goes back to Nike’s very beginning. “Nike’s co-founder Bill Bowerman was famous for ruining his wife’s waffle iron,” says Tinker Hatfield, a legendary sneaker designer and current vice president for design and special projects at Nike. What Hatfield is referencing is how, in the early 1970’s, Bowerman was trying to create a waffle-iron rubber sole for new footwear that would grip but be lightweight at the same time. And voilà, the iconic waffle-iron sole was born. “But you know, Bowerman’s wife never told him to stop breaking the waffle irons because she knew that’s the process of being innovative,” Hatfield continues. “It’s about experimenting, about being a failure and making mistakes and then coming up with something that’s actually quite wonderful.” 

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