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Craving Kobe: Holding on to a hero

How do we handle such a stunning loss? We collect—It’s one way to come to grips with the accident that took Kobe Bryant, just heed these warnings before you buy
Getty Images

Getty Images

When Kobe Bryant met his tragic end on Jan. 26, 2020, the shock waves were instant and enormous. Hearts broke everywhere, and not only for Bryant but for the eight other victims—among them Kobe’s 13-year-old daughter Gianna and two of her hoop-league friends and their parents.

Whether you were a Lakers fan or not, the loss was stunning. It just couldn’t be true that this internationally known, supremely talented athlete was suddenly gone at age 41.

Because he retired only four years ago, and because his career highlights are so accessible in these tech-happy days, Kobe was fresh in our memory. For 20 illustrious seasons, he played pro basketball with energy, elegance and extreme resilience. After leaving the game at age 37, he settled into a life as a budding businessman, family man and loving father of four daughters.

THE MAD RUSH

If you’ve been around the sports collectibles hobby long enough, you know what happens when a beloved athlete dies: There’s a mad rush for that athlete’s memorabilia. Sellers—always driven by opportunity—are happy to oblige. And when the athlete lost is at Kobe Bryant’s level, the price-jacking becomes that much more pronounced. It’s morose, for sure, but it’s reality.

So it went with Kobe Bryant memorabilia as news of his death circulated that Sunday afternoon. The most instant barometer available was eBay. Consider:

  • On the morning of Jan. 26, punching the name “Kobe Bryant” into eBay’s search box yielded 30,000 listings—which represented a fairly consistent inventory over the past few years.
  • It was around 2:30 p.m. (ET) that day when news of Bryant’s death began spreading. Sellers immediately sprang into action.
  • Some 24 hours later, at 2:30 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 27, the total of Kobe listings had nearly doubled—to 57,000.
  • Later that same night—with non-stop media coverage bringing us an outpouring of emotional tributes—listings on eBay reached 65,000 listings.
  • Five nights later, on Saturday, Feb. 1, the total reached 82,500.
1—Kobe-1996-topps-chrome-rookie-10-HA copy

The new listings included everything from high-dollar items—including a Gem-Mint 1996-97 Topps Chrome Refractor rookie card that brought $60,000 in a Buy It Now deal—tocopiesof rookie cards. Yes, sellers wasted no time pushing reproductions of desirable Kobe cards into the market. And buyers—perhaps casual sports fans who were unaware that these copies are devoid of value—were biting, paying anywhere from a few bucks to $40.

So look closely at the wording in any online auction description. Be alert for items that have “reprint” (or “RP”), “copy” or “reproduction” in their description. If you want a collection of Kobe reprints, they’re out there in droves. But just know they’re “for decorative purposes only,” as they say in the antiques marketplace.

Interestingly, there were more than 5,000 Kobe items that sold for less than $4 each in the three months prior to his death. So there was a point where thousands of Kobe cards—post-retirement, pre-Hall of Fame induction—were budget-friendly. We’re not referring to signed, patch, insert or rare rookie cards; typically, they were base-set cards. Even now, some Kobe cards (think UD Collector’s Choice from the middle of his career) can be had for mere dollars. But certain other Kobe cards instantly started costing buyers hundreds of dollars.

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For example, we saw dozens of ungraded and unsigned 1996-97 Fleer Metal rookie cards sell for prices between $1 and $4 in November, December and January. After Bryant’s death, examples of the same card—also ungraded and unsigned—suddenly started commanding hundreds. Realized prices included $293, $235, $200 and $158. Get one that grades at 10, and it jumps into the thousands. Examples include a PSA 10 that brought $3,500 and a BGS 9.5 that fetched $2,250.

AUTOGRAPH HAZARDS

Besides reprints and price-gouging, you have to be vigilantof Kobe signatures. The hobby has its share of disreputable types who exploit tragedies by making fraudulent products. Here’s where your experience as a memorabilia collector helps:

• You know letters of authenticity can be faked, so you look for items from sellers you trust.

• You prefer items that have third-party authentication, but you know even the major companies have been fooled in the past. So you know to reach out and ask questions.

• If you buy on eBay, you understand that the website doesn’t police autographs.

• And you know that educating yourself is your most important strategy. Study a player’s signature on examples you know to be authentic. Major card manufacturers are one source we tend to trust.

4—Kobe-2003-04-ud-signed-prospects-card
5—Kobe-2017-18-Panini-Pink-Legendary-Signatures

To follow up on that last point, spend time getting a feel for Kobe’s autograph. The bad news: It’s a challenging task, because his autograph was, really, a scribble, and it could be wildly inconsistent. Plus, it evolved over two decades. Early on, he often signed just his first name, sometimes with an “8” (his first Lakers uniform number). Later, he often added his last name, but it was indiscernible.

QUICK-DRAW BUYERS

The death of Kobe Bryant reminds us that sellers don’t hesitate to exploit a tragedy, but buyers can be quick to react, too. Specifically, among the 30,000 listings available on eBay just before the fatal accident, there were items available at bargain prices. It often happens with retired stars who aren’t showing up in game highlights anymore.

So as soon as the shocking news became public, there were untold numbers of collectors who high-tailed it to eBay to pluck “Buy It Now” bargains. A great example: A signed 2015-16 Panini Gala Silver Screen card had been sitting innocently for who-knows-how-long with an asking price of $230. Minutes after the news bulletins began hitting TV, the Internet and radio, a collector snapped up the card, which featured a red-ink autograph and was marked #9/10.

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However, auctions that were still open turned into bidding wars. Among the items that closed in the hours or days after Bryant’s death:

  • A 1996-97 Topps Chrome Refractor graded PSA 10 sold for $37,600 on 85 bids.
  • A 2008-09 UD Exquisite Collection Noble Nameplates auto patch card (#12/24) sold for $22,499 on 83 bids.
  • A 2004-05 UD Exquisite Collection Limited Logos signed patch card (#28/50) sold for $21,400 on 70 bids.

THE KOBE MARKET

Until the shock wears off and the market calms down, sellers will continue to maximize their profits, and collectors will continue to reach out for mementos of Bryant—and will overpay as needed. All of that is human nature. Better to be smart and disciplined, and to wait a while.

The same frenzy we’re seeing in online auctions will apply to live auctions as spring and summer sales unfold. High-end prices for Kobe memorabilia had settled into a range in recent years, but it’ll most certainly elevate. How much? Time will tell. For now, you can look at past prices and get a feel for the starting point. In the months ahead, bidding for Kobe items will be aggressive, so prices are bound to climb two to three times higher.

The fact is, Bryant memorabilia values have been strong from the time he entered the NBA as a highly regarded 17-year-old, one with a hoop pedigree. His father, Joe Bryant, played in the NBA for eight seasons, starting with the 1975-76 campaign. A 6-foot-9 forward nicknamed Jellybean, he averaged 8.7 points and 4.0 rebounds per game.

Kobe went right from high school to his favorite team, the Lakers, after an impressive audition he gave for NBA great Jerry West, the team’s general manager at the time. In his rookie season, Bryant was the Lakers’ sixth man and established himself as a difference-maker. In his second season, still as the team’s sixth man, he made the All-Star team—as a starter! It was the first of 18 times he’d earn that honor.

He went on to win five championships, averaging 25 points per game and retiring with the third-most points in NBA history. He closed his career in style on April 13, 2016, putting up 60 points in a thrilling Lakers win over the Utah Jazz.

As Bryant’s legend grew, so too did the market for his memorabilia. Consider these prices paid at major auction houses over the years:

Game-Worn Jerseys

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  • $39,600 for the home gold uniform, with shorts, that Bryant wore on the night in November 2015 when he announced his retirement. Bryant wore the uniform five other games that month. (Sold at Goldin Auctions, 2018)
  • $29,400for a 2014-15 game-used home white jersey from Bryant’s 44-point game in November 2014. (Sold at Goldin Auctions, 2018)
  • $21,600 for a game-used and signed home gold jersey worn in a loss against the Celtics in December 2014. (Sold at Goldin Auctions, 2018)
  • $18,192 for a 2012-13 road jersey Bryant wore in three games in late December 2012 and early January 2013. Another Bryant game road jersey from April 2011 brought the same price. (Both sold at SCP Auctions, 2017.)
  • $15,600 for the home gold jersey Bryant wore in March 2016 in a loss against the Cleveland Cavaliers; it was his final game against LeBron James. A road jersey Bryant wore at Cleveland in February 2016 brought the same price. (Sold at Goldin Auctions, 2018.)
  • $15,168for a road jersey Bryant wore in at least five games during the 2012-13 season. (Sold at SCP Auctions, 2017.)

Game-Worn Sneakers

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  • $37,741for game-worn and signed sneakers from the 2008 Beijing Olympics. (Sold at Goldin Auctions, 2014)
  • $11,028for a pair of 2015 game-worn and signed “Kobe IX Elite” high-tops made by Nike. (Sold at SCP Auctions, 2016.)
  • $9,600for a pair of game-worn and signed size 14 Adidas. Bryant wore this pair in the decisive Game 5 of the 2001 NBA Finals. (Sold at Heritage Auctions, 2017.)
  • $9,113for Nike Uptempo Zoom Air sneakers worn in Game 4 of the 2006 Western Conference Playoffs. Bryant hit two buzzer-beating shots, including the game-winner in overtime. (Sold at SCP Auctions, 2015.)
  • $8,287 for game-worn multi-colored “Kobe XI Black History Month” sneakers from Feb. 8, 2016. (Sold at SCP Auctions, 2016.)
  • $6,572for Bryant-signed Air Jordan VIII sneakers worn in 2003. Kobe gifted this pair to Randy Moss with the inscription “To Randy, Keep doin’ ya thing!” (Sold by Heritage Auctions, 2016.)

Other Items

Kobe-1997-98-game-warm-up-jacket-pants-SCP copy
  • $8,460 for a warm-up outfit—jacket and pants—worn during the Lakers home games in the 1997-98 season. (Sold at SCP Auctions, 2012.)
  • $8,365 for Bryant’s game-used towel from his final NBA game, in April 2016. The towel, made by Body Armor, measures 24x41 inches. Bryant had it around his neck during his farewell speech. Afterwards, while making his way to the locker room, one of many high-fiving fans grabbed it from around his neck, as video footage attests. He consigned it for a sale one month after the game. (Sold at Heritage Auctions, 2016)
  • $780 for a Kobe-signed game-used Spalding basketball inscribed “2-22-16.”

FAMILY FEUD

In 2013, Kobe Bryant’s mother, Pam, consigned more than 400 items related to her son’s hoop career to Goldin Auctions. She received an advance of $450,000, according to the Los Angeles Times—a fee that would help her and Kobe’s father, Joe, purchase a house they were eyeing. Kobe’s response: Not so fast, mom.

The hoop star, still an active player at the time, was not in favor of seeing so many of his personal items get turned loose, saying she wasn’t authorized to sell them. The disagreement involved lawyers and a quick settlement: Pam Bryant would sell a far smaller number of the items (six, according to reports) in the settlement.

The deal, Sports Illustratedreported at the time, “saved a vast majority of Bryant's items, several of which date to his days as a high school star, from the auction block... And his parents issued a public apology for their actions.”

When Goldin Auctions went ahead with the sale in July 2013, it included these highlights:

  • $173,102for a 14K, 40-diamond championship ring issued by the Lakers to Kobe after the 2000 NBA championship. Kobe had ordered extra rings so he could gift one to his father and his mother. This one was his father’s. His mother’s is directly below.
  • $107,482 for the 2000 NBA title ring he ordered for his mother.
  • $55,152for Bryant’s 2000 NBA All-Star ring.
  • $50,137for a game-used home uniform from Lower Merion High School.
  • $41,435for a game-used road uniform from Lower Merion High School.

Goldin Auctions gave 50 percent of the proceeds for the items (except for the championship rings) to a charity.

HALL-BOUND KOBE

Sudden rises in memorabilia value typically hit a peak and then settle back into a predictable range within a few weeks of an event. But the spike in Kobe Bryant collectibles will no doubt extend for months because of his upcoming induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame.

The HOF ceremony is scheduled for Aug. 29 in Springfield, Mass., which is located about 90 miles outside of Boston. Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett will be inducted along with Bryant. The hoop Hall requires that a player be retired four full seasons before becoming eligible, so this is Bryant’s first year of consideration, and there was never a doubt he belonged.

But instead of a euphoric day, the ceremony promises to be full of sad emotions as Kobe’s family, teammates, fellow NBA players, and fans relive the shock of Jan. 26, even as they celebrate his inimitable career.

Larry Canale, our “Online Auctioneer” columnist, is author of several baseball books, including two with the late photography legend Ozzie Sweet. He also was longtime editor of Tuff Stuffmagazine, and, later, Antiques Roadshow Insider