Jerseys off our hardcourt heroes’ backs

Michael Jordan’s 1984 USA Olympic game-used jersey brought a world record auction price of $273,904 in June 2017 at Grey Flannel Auctions. Grey Flannel Auctions image

NEW YORK – A sports fan’s passion for basketball goes well beyond the NBA season and the collegiate March Madness. Collecting jerseys from star players, whether in college or NBA professionals, is a favorite way to show support for one’s team, and jersey collections are often built around a certain player or team.

The most important factor when collecting game-used basketball jerseys (or anything for that matter) is authenticity,” said Michael Russek, director of operations at Grey Flannel Auctions in Scottsdale, Arizona. “There are a wide variety of different levels of authentic jersey variations and collectors must do due diligence. Modern technology has given our hobby the ability to photo-match game-worn jerseys, which quite literally puts the jersey on the player’s back through high-resolution in-game photography.”

Among game-used jerseys, certain players are spoken of in revered tones. Michael Jordan’s legacy in basketball is indisputable. Born in 1963, Jordan was a first-round NBA draft pick in 1984 and played for 15 seasons, for the Chicago Bulls and then the Washington Wizards. The shooting guard racked up impressive stats, being named an NBA All-Star 14 times and an NBA champion six times.

“Many collectors and fans consider MJ the greatest player of all-time, and his jerseys have fetched hobby leading record prices,” Russek said. “Jordan has remained the top name today having built one of the largest brands in the world.” Grey Flannel Auctions sold Jordan’s 1984 USA Olympic game-used jersey for a world record price of $273,904 in June 2017—exceeding the previous record for the most expensive basketball jersey sold at auction by almost 30 percent.

Another name whose jerseys perform well is “Pistol” Pete Maravich (1947-88), playing for the Atlanta Hawks, New Orleans/Utah Jazz and the Boston Celtics until injuries forced his 1980 retirement. While in college, he was the all-time leading NCAA Division I scorer, racking up over 3,600 points with an average of 44+ points per game.

This 1970-71 Pete Maravich NBA rookie debut Atlanta Hawks  jersey realized $66,734 at Grey Flannel Auctions in June 2018. Grey Flannel Auctions image

“Maravich was an incredible talent who entertained the masses from his college days through the NBA. Unfortunately, his life was cut short, making his game-used jerseys extremely rare and desirable. He has a cult-like following in the industry and his game-used jerseys always command a premium,” Russek said.

Born in 1950, Julius Erving, known by his nickname of “Dr. J,” helped usher in the era of gameplay where players routinely leap to swat away or grab an opponent’s shot above the rim. “A tremendously popular athlete, Julius Erving excelled at all levels of basketball. Dr. J’s popularity remains high today and his jerseys are continuing to sell for large amounts,” he said. Erving played in the defunct ABA league (American Basketball Association) before signing with the Philadelphia 76ers. Erving’s ABA jerseys are rare and hold numerous slots in the industry’s Top 10 list.

A 1976 ‘Dr. J’ Julius Erving ABA All-Star game-used  jersey made $188,321 in Grey Flannel’s Summer Games 2008 auction. Grey Flannel Auctions image

Rounding out Russek’s Top 5 list of players with desirable jerseys are George Mikan (1924-2005) and LeBron James (b. 1984).

Standing 6 feet 10 inches tall and weighing 245 pounds, Mikan (“Mr. Basketball”) played for the Chicago American Gears and the Minneapolis Lakers, and was known for his rebounding, shot blocking and hook shot.

“Mikan was the first dominant big man in pro basketball and set the standard for all future centers. His popularity, talent and ability to transcend the sport make his jersey one of the most collectible. There are less than five known surviving examples that have surfaced, making him one of the toughest to acquire on the Top 50 list,” Russek said.

“King” James came to the NBA straight out of high school, first with the Cleveland Cavaliers and this season is with the Los Angeles Lakers, where he has become the fifth all-time leading NBA scorer, passing fellow Laker Wilt Chamberlin. Wilt still holds the top single-game scorer record he set in 1962 for netting 100 points in a game.

A 2003 LeBron James game-worn McDonald’s All-American uniform realized $18,000 in February 2016 at Heritage Auctions. Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers image

“Although not exactly a vintage player, depending on who you ask, LeBron jerseys rank among the most valuable. Drawing comparisons to Michael Jordan with his greatness, many collectors and fans are taking note and the value of his jersey’s continue to rise. LeBron’s first Lakers jersey will be a highly contested bidding war,” he said.

Among up-and-coming players to watch, whose rising careers bode well for their jerseys’ future performance, are Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors, whose career free throws percentage is 90.4 percent and Zion Williamson of the Duke Blue Devils, a top NBA draft prospect in 2019.

“Curry is already considered one of the greatest shooters the game has ever seen. The value of his jerseys have skyrocketed since his rookie season in 2009 and will continue to grow as his legacy does,” Russek said. “Williamson’s hype has been well documented since his early high school days. His rare combination of size and talent leads many experts to believe he is the next NBA superstar. Watch out for Williamson because he could very well have one of the most valuable jerseys in the coming years.”

Moments featured on a player’s career highlight reel or discussed in bars for decades are where game-used jersey often reach elite status.

A Philadelphia Warriors jersey that Wilt Chamberlain wore in the 1961-62 season, when he had a 100-point game, was bid to $130,054 in June 2015 at Grey Flannel Auctions. Grey Flannel Auctions image

“Moments such as Jordan’s ‘Flu Game,’ LeBron’s NBA Finals Game 7 block, and Chamberlain’s 100-point game among others—the jerseys these players were wearing during these moments are incredibly valuable and desirable to collectors,” he said.

The current memorabilia market is continuing to grow rapidly, driven by the rarity of jerseys like these as collectors never know when an item will be available again.