When Kyrie Irving stepped onto the floor of the United Center Wednesday night, he was carrying a piece of his family with him, honoring his late mother Elizabeth Irving with the latest “I Love You Mom” edition of his Nike signature series.
Part of a collaboration with Jersey City, New Jersey-based boutique Sneaker Room and owner Suraj Kaufman, the annual tribute shoes honor Irving’s mother and Kaufman’s mother, Ellen. Each year, 100% of the proceeds from the sneaker launch go to community programs and organizations in New Jersey as a joint tribute to their late mothers.
On the Kyrie 3, 5 and 6, the shoes often had a white, red and black color scheme, with a floral pattern and heart icon graphics throughout the design. The first pair also incorporated a polka-dot collar lining, inspired by a blouse worn by Elizabeth Irving in a portrait.
For this year’s Kyrie 7s, the group wanted to go with a new approach.
“We had gone with the aspect of gold, love and white, and those natural colors when you think of loving your mother and flowers,” said Kaufman. “This year, we wanted to take it to another level. Kyrie, being part Native American and doing so much with Standing Rock, the tribe that his mom belonged to, we were talking about mothers and how we come to be: Mother Nature. Mother Earth.”
Two different pairs of “I Love You Mom” Kyrie 7s will be released on the SnkrRoom.com website next week, both in mismatched red, blue, green and yellow colors inspired by the four elements of fire, water, earth and air. On Wednesday night, Irving laced up an even more limited “Friends & Family” edition — only a handful of pairs were made — in light violet, teal and purple to unveil the newest theme. The debut date was chosen, as it is the birthday of Irving’s sister, Asia. He’s expected to don the mismatched editions on Monday.
“Elizabeth isn’t just Kyrie’s mom, she’s Kyrie and Asia’s mom. That really tells part of the story,” said Kaufman. “It’s not just about Kyrie Irving, it’s not just about [me], it’s a family project.”
Over the years, the four launches are estimated to have generated more than $500,000 that was donated to the Jersey City Medical Center, local Boys & Girls Clubs and several other organizations. This year’s launch will also benefit the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in the Dakotas that Elizabeth Irving belonged to.
After signing with the Brooklyn Nets as a free agent in 2019, Irving, who lives in New Jersey, outlined how impactful the return to his home region could be.
“It’s always been bigger than basketball for me. And it will always continue to be,” he told . “I represent so many diverse communities, and because of that, I knew that a lot of my connections and resources and relationships were gonna be even more of an impact here at home.”
When Kaufman was initially approached by Nike brand specialist Sadat Kinley to work on a sneaker collaboration, his first idea was to tie together his and Irving’s New Jersey roots.
“We were doing a shoe based on Jersey. Jersey flag, Jersey colors and environment. Jersey landmarks,” said Kaufman. “Sadat was like, ‘Suraj, go deeper.’ He was like, ‘You always talk about losing your mom. Ky lost his mom too. That’s the tie.’ ”
With that connection serving as the inspiration, a key component of the giveback has been providing resources for the neonatal intensive care unit at the Jersey City Medical Center. Specifically, a series of “Giraffe” devices, a specialized incubator for premature infants, have been acquired for the unit.
“I’m a kid from the projects, and I’m on the board at the hospital now!” Kaufman said with a smile. “We’ve brought a different twist. When they think about fundraising and they think about projects for the hospital and the community, it’s always the same old, like a golf outing. … They like that we’re coming in with a fresh idea.”
Each year, the shoes have become a favorite of Irving’s for games. Ahead of his midseason return to the Nets on Jan. 5 in Indiana, Irving broke out the “I Love You Mom” Kyrie 3s for pregame warm-ups, a nod to the 2017 starting point of the series.
Around the league, the shoes have been spotted on players such as Sacramento Kings guard Tyrese Haliburton, who wore them to honor his mom’s birthday. In the sneaker community, the theme has become a coveted collectible because of its added meaning.
“It’s not the NBA guys, because they have access to shoes,” said Kaufman. “To me, it’s more the stories that we get in our DMs [direct messages], on my personal page or on the store’s page, of people reaching out and saying, ‘This is why I bought the shoe.’ ”
For this year’s shoe, the left heel reads “In Honor Of,” with a blank line along the right heel for the wearer to add a personalized tribute. For the first time, the shoes will be made in expanded sizing beyond the typical men’s 7.5 through 15. Pairs will be made in unisex sizing down to a size 3.5, to enable moms, kids and full families to wear them.
As Kaufman proudly points out, people buy the shoes with the excitement of contributing to the cause.
“What’s really crazy about these shoes is we don’t sell them for the actual retail price that the shoe goes for,” he said. Irving’s signature Nike line is typically priced at $130 per pair.
This year, 1,996 pairs of the mismatched green and yellow edition will be released for $175, a reference to the year in which Elizabeth Irving died from organ failure when Kyrie was 4 years old. Another 525 of the orange and blue pairs will be released for $250 each.
“When you purchase these shoes, really understand that you’re part of the process. You’re part of the impact,” said Kaufman.
Since first kicking off the “I Love You Mom” program in 2017, Sneaker Room now has branched out to also launch its own nonprofit, the Sneaker Room Foundation. The store’s website leads with a banner image reading: “Uniting the world one sole at a time.”
“This shoe is something that gives hope. It’s so much bigger than a shoe, and so much bigger than any one individual,” said Kaufman. “The impact is to see more stuff grow from our city and to our youth.”