A brown cardboard box separated Odell Beckham Jr. from the new shoes he was about to add to his personal collection. But these weren't any ordinary kicks, as the artist who designed them, Kai, explained before the unveiling.
"This is the first time I've ever done anything like this," said Kai, who spent more than four months handcrafting these customs for Beckham. "This is the last time I'll do anything like this."
Beckham put on his white gloves and lifted up the box, instantly becoming the owner of a one-of-a-kind pair of Chuck Taylors. Valued at $20,000, based on Kai's market rate, Beckham couldn't take his eyes off them.
"That's crazy," Beckham uttered as he gazed at the shoes he received at his Los Angeles mansion in July.
"The most expensive Chucks in the world," Kai added.
Beckham will never wear these regularly. In truth, they are a work of art—literally—that the three-time Pro Bowl receiver for the Cleveland Browns commissioned from Kai, an artist who has traveled the world designing different sculptures, paintings and murals all because he wanted his father to quit smoking.
Kai grew up without grandparents and feared that his father, a smoker, would die before Kai became a father himself. So he illustrated a box of Marlboro cigarettes, replacing the branding with the word "Morons." His father, Marc, a designer, "loved it so much that he quit and gave him $400," Kai said.
It gave Kai the confidence to dive into the art world, which eventually led to creating works for athletes and celebrities like Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, Chris Brown and G-Eazy.
When he created a piece for Beckham's new Browns teammate and longtime friend, Jarvis Landry, Beckham knew he wanted one, too.
"I've been a sneakerhead since I was little," Beckham said. "I remember my daddy…that would be about the only thing that I'd be waiting on him. Like, man, I know he's gonna get me the new pair of J's. He'd bust his ass to get me them new pair of J's. My mama would do the same. It's all I'd ever ask for is shoes. When I got a little older and the PlayStation or something came out, I just wanted to play games; I wanted to be outside, and I just wanted shoes. That's it."
Kai also has an affinity for sneakers. But just one model: Chuck Taylors. The Los Angeles native wasn't able to afford anything nicer growing up in a household without internet or television. But as he does in his more traditional work, Kai tries to find value in items others often perceive as worthless.
"I've learned that the value of a Chuck to me is to wake up every morning, be able to do my work, be able to not worry about what I'm damaging and destroying and really live in them," Kai said. "When this opportunity came along, I kind of wanted to pay homage to my favorite shoe."
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It also serves as the perfect canvas for sneaker customization. For Beckham's pair, Kai bought all-white Chuck 70 high tops, given that the silhouette has a special place among avid fans of the Converse classic. A gradient paint that changes colors, from orange to blue, coats the shoe's upper. Then he applied concrete, a medium fundamental to his pieces. "I always want to bring that back in because that's where I'm from," Kai said. "Those are my roots—the streets. I always try to tie that back into my art."
Back at his L.A. home, Beckham could not stop staring at the concrete, perplexed by how Kai kept it intact on the shoe.
"I don't think I've ever seen concrete on a shoe, unless it was a construction boot," Beckham said. "I couldn't imagine how you did that."
Beckham was more than just an interested patron.
"One day, I'll have my own signature shoe," Beckham said. "I'm gonna steal that on my Nike shoes. I'm gonna tell them to put concrete on my shoes."
Already, Beckham has had commercial success designing shoes as a Nike athlete. He said his latest release in June, the "Young King of the Drip" Air Max 720s, sold 50,000 units in North America in an hour.
Kai's work, however, isn't meant for sale but rather to make a statement.
One side of the shoe features a white spray-painted figure throwing up the peace sign. It's a character Kai created named IF, which stands for Imaginary Friend. The character, influenced by the universal symbols for men's and women's restrooms and by some of his favorite cartoons, is a common theme in his work inspired by his desire to communicate across cultures.
While spending a year in Paris to study art, Kai found that the language barrier made it difficult for people in Europe to understand the message.
"I tried to find a way to communicate with people in a single frame," Kai said. "If I wanted to speak to people, I have to speak to people in a single frame."
On another side of the shoe is Kai's famous "Love vs. Money" illustration, in which IF holds on to a heart-shaped balloon with his left hand while attempting to ascend as his right hand grips a bag of money that's weighing him down.
"It's kind of that struggle that everyone finds in their life between love and money or stability and passion," Kai explains to Beckham.
The shoe also incorporates 24 karat gold shoelace tips and plaques on the heel. To top it all off, the pair comes with a custom engraved box.
"I don't think you'll ever see a pair of Chucks done this way ever," Kai said. "No one thinks to use cement to make something feel more important or elevated. They like to use more gaudy materials like jewels, gold, silver or platinum. I went the other way. I said, 'If we give something love, if we give something soul, give it our time and really give it our energy, it becomes valuable.'
"That's the message I'm trying to show. You can take anything from the lowest echelon and raise it to the top. A Chuck is one of the cheapest shoes on the market. You can get a pair of Chucks for, like, $45, and you can raise the value to as high as you want.
"You don't have to start with the best to become the best. It's about the love and energy you put into it."
As for whether Beckham will ever wear the shoes, Kai thinks you'd have to have "pretty big cajones" to put them on.
Don't be surprised if Beckham actually does.
"Oh yeah, I'll put 'em on," Beckham said. "Then put 'em right back."
Master Tesfatsion is a senior writer for B/R. He was previously a Washington football beat writer at the Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter: @MasterTes