Kobe Bryant’s ranking in the hierarchy of all-time great players is a hotly contested subject. Some think he belongs in the conversation with guys like Michael Jordan and LeBron James. Others think he’s overrated.
However, one thing that is not debatable is his impact on the game. After the generation that wanted to “Be Like Mike,” the following generation wanted to be like Kobe. His will to win, work ethic, and fearlessness in the biggest moments earned him a legion of supporters that could fill Staples Center many times over.
That alone would be enough to make Bryant one of the most desired players in the sports card hobby, but there is one other unfortunate factor to consider. Bryant was tragically taken before his time in January of 2020, shaking the basketball community to its core. His loss was mourned by people across the globe who recognized Kobe for not just his impact on the court, but his impact off the court as well.
It’s silly to think about how Kobe’s passing impacts something as trivial as sports cards, but it matters for those in the hobby. Not only did the price of his current cards skyrocket, but it limits what can be done in the future. Autographs for all-time greats like Magic Johnson, Bill Russell, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar are still appearing in current sets, but that is obviously not possible with Kobe.
All of those factors combine to make investing in Bryant cards very appealing. Let’s dive into some of the most desired prints of the Black Mamba and how much they might potentially run you.
1996-97 Topps #138
Topps no longer has the rights to the NBA – Panini has them exclusively for the time being – but they were the premier product in the 1990s. The flagship Topps set from 1996-97 features Kobe’s base rookie card. There are no real bells and whistles, with no autograph, no serial numbering, and just one parallel, but it is still desired by collectors.
However, it’s not all that difficult to get your hands on one. There are nearly 30,000 graded copies in circulation just using PSA’s population report, and there are undoubtedly thousands more at the other grading companies as well. That includes nearly 3,700 PSA 10s, which will run you the most money on the open market. PSA estimates that the card is worth about $1,600, with the most recent sale checking in at just over $1,400.
That may not sound like much compared to some of the most expensive sales in history, but don’t sleep on this card. In fact, I just recently added a BGS 9.5 version of this card to my own personal collection. It’s my first Kobe rookie, and I card that I will hold on to for a long, long time.
1996-97 Topps Chrome #138
Topps Chrome is like the Audi to the Topps base sets Volkswagon; they look the same under the hood, but one is going to fetch a lot more money. The Chrome version features a slightly glossier finish, and chrome cards are almost always preferred to paper cards in the hobby.
Additionally, the Topps Chrome rookie is much scarcer. There are just over 6,000 graded copies of this card in PSA’s database, and this card is very condition sensitive. The centering on this card is tough, so there are less than 1,000 PSA 10s in existence. PSA lists the expected value of this card at just under $9K in a PSA 10, and the average sales price is closer to $9.1K.
There is also a refractor parallel of the Topps Chrome Bryant rookie, and that is just about as good as it gets. The PSA population drops to just 416 in the refractor parallel, and there are just 63 PSA 10s.
Unsurprisingly, those cards are going to cost you a fortune. A BGS Black Label 10 – which is a card that is considered to have a perfect surface, edges, corners, and centering – fetched more than $1.75M at auction in March of 2021.
1996-97 E-X2000 #30
This is the type of card you don’t see in modern collecting. Panini basically has a stranglehold on the market thanks to their exclusive rights, but that wasn’t the case in the late 90s. One of Kobe’s coolest rookie cards is the E-X2000. It features etched foil borders, a die-cut player image, and an acetate backdrop. The Kobe rookie features clouds in the background, and it’s just a flat-out cooler-looking card than the Topps rookie.
This card also features a “Credentials” parallel, which is serial numbered out of 499. We wouldn’t be particularly excited about that in 2022, but that’s very exclusive for the era. There are just 81 graded copies of the Credentials parallel in PSA’s database, including just four PSA 10s. The most recent PSA 10 sale is for over $617K, and a PSA 9 will still run you around $50K.
1996 Bowman’s Best Basketball #R23
Bowman’s Best is the final Kobe rookie worth mentioning. It’s a card that has seen a significant bump in value recently, for a few different reasons. For starters, the Bowman name carries more weight now than it has in the past. Bowman has become one of the go-to cards in baseball – the “First Bowman” is considered most MLB player’s true rookie card – and that increased name recognition has helped the basketball products as well. This is also another chrome-style card, so it has some eye appeal.
The base version of this card is comparable to the Topps base rookie. There are just under 9,000 graded copies in PSA’s database, and a PSA 10 will cost you around $1K. However, this card also features two parallels: a base refractor and an atomic refractor. Those cards are extremely desirable. There are only 386 PSA-graded refractors, and that number dips to just 260 for the atomic refractor. The base refractor will run you around $17K in a PSA 10, while the atomic goes for $25K+.
1997-98 E-X2001 Jambalaya Insert #12
The Jambalaya insert has a cool history. It debuted in the 1997-98 set, and it instantly became one of the most desired cards in the hobby. It featured a circular die-cut design, bright colors, and a 15-card checklist including some of the best players in the game. Kobe, Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Kevin Garnett, and Tim Duncan all made appearances in this debut set, meaning 1/3 of the checklist featured all-time greats. The rest of the checklist wasn’t too shabby either: Allen Iverson, Dennis Rodman, Grant Hill, and Scottie Pippen are also included in this set.
Additionally, these cards were extremely rare. There isn’t any serial numbering, but these cards were included in just one out of every 720 packs. The cards became a bit more prevalent in future sets, but pulling the original Jambalaya was super tough. There are only 50 graded copies of the Kobe Jambalaya in PSA’s database, making it insanely rare for the era.
Even though the Kobe card isn’t from his rookie year and doesn’t feature an autograph, jersey patch, or serial number, this card goes for big money at auction. The most recent PSA 10 was sold for $57.6K in May of 2021, while a PSA 9 sold for nearly $18.5K in August.
1997-98 Metal Universe Precious Metal Gems #81
First of all, the fact that this card is No. 81 in the set is just really cool. Bryant famously dropped 81 points on the Raptors in January of 2006, which is more than any player in history aside from Wilt Chamberlain. I doubt that adds any value to this set, but it’s cool nonetheless.
Fortunately, this card doesn’t need any gimmicks to increase its value. This card had a print run of just 100, so like the Jambalaya, it was extremely rare for the era. The first 90 cards in the print run had a red background, while the final 10 are green. The foil on these cards is also extremely easy to damage, so finding one of these cards in mint condition is like finding a unicorn. None of the cards that have been graded by PSA have received better than an eight.
However, there is one BGS 8.5 in the green version. With only 10 of those cards being produced, that makes it arguably the rarest Kobe card in existence. This card recently sold for $2M in a private sale, setting a new record for a Bryant card.
1998-99 Upper Deck Game Jerseys #GJ19 & #GJ21
Let’s be honest, jersey cards are no longer cool. There are some exceptions – the Logoman is still one of the most desired cards in the hobby – but most jersey cards just feature a little napkin patch that isn’t even necessarily game-used. They’re not particularly rare either, so collectors don’t place a premium on them any longer.
However, things were different in the 90s. Jersey patch cards were still extremely rare, so pulling one was exciting. Kobe’s first jersey card came in the 1998-99 Upper Deck set, and it featured two versions. There was a gold version, which was part of a set that appeared in just one of every 2,500 packs. There was also a silver version that was exclusive to hobby boxes and averaged one out of every 250 packs.
Between both cards, there are less than 100 graded Kobe jersey patch cards in PSA’s database, so they were relatively rare. The last PSA 10 of the gold version sold for approximately $29.5K at auction, while a PSA 9 of the silver version sold for just under $6k.
1999-00 Upper Deck Game Jerseys Patch #GJ11 & #GJ21
The following year, Upper Deck raised the stakes. These cards featured the first game-used Bryant patches, and game-used is always better than the alternatives. “Player worn” is something that we see a bunch nowadays, which simply means that the player at one point put the jersey on. Some jersey cards for the most recent NBA products have been not associated with any game or event, so the player has literally never even seen the jersey.
This card was also even harder to pull than the previous year’s edition. There was a jersey card in approximately one of every 7,500 packs, and the set featured a 30-card checklist. That meant the odds of pulling a Kobe jersey card were astronomical.
Additionally, this card also featured a “super patch” parallel that was serial-numbered to 25. Anything with a serial number feels more exclusive – you know exactly how many are in production – so that’s another big upgrade from the previous year.
The base version of this card has a population of just 35 – including only three PSA 10s – while the super patch parallel has 15 PSA-graded copies. Only one of those received a 10, making it extremely desirable.
2009-10 National Treasures Notable Nicknames #KB1 & #KB2
Any Kobe autograph is going to be an awesome addition to your collection. Still, there are a few things you want to look for. On-card autographs are considered superior to label or sticker autos. Serial numbers are a good thing. Any card with an autograph and a patch is preferable to a stand-alone auto.
The inscription on the auto is another defining characteristic. Most players just sign their name, but occasionally, they’ll add some additional. Maybe they’ll throw their jersey number on there. Sometimes they’ll write something like “Go Lakers.”
That’s what makes the “Notable Nicknames” set from National Treasures so cool. The 2009-10 product featured two versions for Kobe. The first card was serial-numbered to 99 and featured the “Black Mamba” inscription. The second was numbered to 35 and used “MVP” instead.
Both of those cards are extremely cool, but owning an official “Black Mamba” Kobe has to be a dream card for many collectors. It’s one of the most iconic nicknames for one of the most iconic players in NBA history.
Additionally, National Treasures brought this set back in 2012-13, this time with Kobe featuring the “Vino” moniker. That card was serial-numbered to 49, giving collectors another option for Kobe.
Any auto from Upper Deck Exquisite Collection or Panini Flawless & Immaculate
In addition to National Treasures, Flawless and Immaculate round out Panini’s trio of high-end products. The price tag on those boxes has gone through the roof recently, but the cards are simply stunning. They all feature on-card autographs, low print runs, and beautiful jersey patches, so you really can’t go wrong with any of them.
Before Panini got exclusive rights to the NBA, Upper Deck’s Exquisite Collection was the go-to high-end product for collectors. They include a lot of the same premium features as the Panini counterparts, so your best Kobe autos from 2003-04 through 2008-09 are going to be found in this set.