The news of Kobe Bryant’s death in a helicopter crash on a foggy morning in Southern California stunned the sports world. One of the greatest players in NBA history was suddenly gone at age 41. His daughter Gianna was also killed.
To the sports collecting hobby, Bryant was a familiar figure, but interest in his autographs and memorabilia were sought after by those who weren’t otherwise collectors. In May 2016, he signed a portion of the Staples Center court on which he played his last game. It sold for over $179,000 with proceeds benefitting LA area youth charities.
Important Bryant game-worn jerseys regularly sold for five-figure prices as his career progressed.
In 2009, it was his worldwide appeal and ability to speak more than just English that led to a long-term endorsement deal with Panini America, which had just earned an NBA trading card license. Bryant cut commercials for the company and even broke open packs with CEO Mark Warsop.
In 2018, the company released a special set looking back at his career:
Company officials say they “maintained close personal and professional relationships” with Bryant and “partnered with him on seemingly countless business initiatives.”
“Kobe Bryant has been fundamental to our journey over the last decade, he was part of the Panini family, and we are deeply saddened,” said Panini America CEO Mark Warsop. “It just doesn’t seem real. Our thoughts and prayers go out to Kobe’s wife, Vanessa, and his entire family. We are devastated.”
Brian Bayne, Panini America’s Vice President of Acquisitions, had regularly scheduled meetings with Bryant throughout much of the last decade and was with him as recently as late last week for an autograph signing session.
“I simply can’t believe it,” Bayne said. “ ‘Crushed’ is an understatement. I was blessed to be with him often throughout my time with Panini America and am lucky to say he was a colleague. To me, he was more than one of the greatest basketball players of all time. He was a friend. He was thoughtful. He was smart. He was caring. He was a great father, a great husband and an inspiration as much off the court as he was on it. We’re all at a loss today. We’re all mourning. And we will be for quite a while.”
Since his death, Kobe Bryant basketball cards have shot to the top of eBay search listings.
Most recently, a 1/1 Bryant autographed card was part of the initial release of Panini’s blockchain program and sold for over $61,000. Interest in all of his cards increased after the tragic news with auction prices soaring.
“I haven’t checked but I will more than understand if the market for Kobe cards, specifically his signed cards has changed radically with his passing, his daughters passing and the passing of the other members of the flight,” wrote Mike Fruitman of Mike’s Stadium Sportscards in Aurora, CO. “It happens seemingly every time a player dies and usually it is an older player who retired many years before, that is suddenly thrust back into focus. With Kobe, it is different since he seemingly never left our focus since he retired.
Fruitman wasn’t at his shop Sunday. He was working in his other capacity as a member of the on-court security team for the Denver Nuggets, who were preparing to play the Houston Rockets when word of Bryant’s death began to circulate.
“There was an amount of time where his passing had not been confirmed. Then there were hours of guessing who else had passed in the same horrible crash. It was weird to be around the players who had grown up admiring Kobe and so many NBA fans who had rooted against him, while admiring his talents for two decades.”
Before exclusive licenses became the norm, Bryant appeared in multiple companies’ sets including Topps and Upper Deck. Earlier this month, a PSA 10 1996-97 Topps Bryant Refractor rookie card sold for $21,576.
On Sunday, all three companies joined other fans in relaying messages on social media.
All of us at Panini America and the global Panini family mourn with the rest of the world the tragic news of the passing of Kobe Bryant and his daughter, Gianna. We are shocked and heartbroken.
Rest in peace, Mamba and Mambacita. pic.twitter.com/EUuIlLsHS2
— Panini America (@PaniniAmerica) January 26, 2020
We join the sports world in mourning the shocking loss of Kobe Bryant… He took the game to a new level and elevated all of those around him. A true legend. 💔
— Topps (@Topps) January 26, 2020
This cannot be real. Our hearts are breaking over the news of Kobe’s passing. He will never be forgotten. pic.twitter.com/Gx33ssBwvF
— Upper Deck (@UpperDeckSports) January 26, 2020
SCP Auctions President David Kohler met Bryant a few times over the years. Kohler owns the world’s best collection of Lakers memorabilia including some game-worn Kobe gear. He shared images of some of those items with us: