Basketball gamers getting slam-dunk prices

mears5.jpgGame-used jersey prices have been really soaring over the past few years. More than $100,000 for a game-used jersey from the 1940s; a 1979 shirt brought $18,000, plus 20-25 percent more depending on if you were live, on the phone or bidding on eBay; a 1978 shirt sold for more than $16,000; a killer 1967 jersey brought $45,000-plus; and a very rare 1970 shirt sold for $20,000-plus.

I could go on and on listing prices that would have been unheard of a few years ago. Whose shirts were these, you ask? A 1940s Mel Ott or Hank Greenberg? That 1979 had to be Thurman Munson’s from his last season, right? The 1978 for $16,000 was probably a Johnny Bench or Pete Rose, and that $20,000 for the 1970 jersey would have to have been a Clemente, right? Well, if you think these prices were shelled out for some incredible baseball game-worn jerseys, you couldn’t be more wrong.

We’re talking basketball here. Yep, basketball. You never figured you see a game-worn basketball hit that $100,000 mark (actually, at an auction in 2006, a Dr. J Nets shirt sold for almost $142,000), 1970s shirts topping $20,000 and commons selling for $4,000-$6,000. How about some from the ’70s selling for more than $5,000. What has happened?

The big shirt of the day was a 1947-48 George Mikan that sold for $92,000 (hammer prices without buyer’s premium). A Sam Jones Celtics shirt hammered at $14,000, and a 1959 Bill Russell All-Star jersey sold for $25,000. Other prices in the Grey Flannel sale included a Bob Cousy jacket ($12,000), 1962 Connie Hawkins Pittsburgh Renaissance jacket ($14,000; known as the Rens, this league was called the American Basketball League and only existed two seasons from 1961-63), a Nate Thurmond Cavs jersey ($25,000) and a 1979-90 Dave Cowens Celtics jersey ($18,000). For a complete list of prices realized, visit www.greyflannel.com).

This was the second time that I made the trip to Springfield, Mass., for the live Grey Flannel Basketball Hall of Fame Induction Auction, which was held on Sept. 8, and I have to admit that after two straight years, I was floored by the prices. I, along with most of the baseball collecting fraternity, never thought I would see these kind of prices on anything but baseball game-worn jerseys. Sure, there have been a few record-setting prices in both the basketball and football fields, but it just didn’t seem that aside from a few anomalies, that the prices across the board would be so strong. So what is happening?

Here are my thoughts. First, you have to look at sheer numbers. Basketball has a 12-man roster vs. a 40-man baseball roster (forget trades, the inactive list, etc.) and just look at standard total. Now figure in two homes and two road jerseys (probably only one each on earlier basketball) giving a maximum of four shirts for each player that computes to 48 shirts a year for basketball and 160 for baseball — or about 28 percent of the baseball totals. As more and more collectors start the search for nice game-worn basketball shirts, they have an almost 4-1 difficulty level just based on the original supply.

Next, you have the ABA factor, a defunct league (1967-76) of which simple styles now have become extremely popular. Some of the prices for these unusual and rare pieces were equally impressive. A 1967-68 New Orleans Bucs Jessie Branson shirt hammered at $2,800 (1967-70). A 1960s Dallas Chaparrals warmup jacket brought $2,662 (1967-73), and a 1971-72 Skeeter Swift Pittsburgh Condors jacket sold for $2,800 (1970-72).
Other prices included a 1971-72 David Lattin Memphis Tams jersey ($3,500; 1972-74), 1972-73 Rick Mount Kentucky Colonels jersey ($3,000; 1967-76) and a 1974-75 Memphis Sounds No. 16 jersey ($3,500; 1974-75).

Other defunct teams represented were the Washington Caps (1969-70), Miami Floridians (1968-72; first as Miami, then simply Floridians) and the Virginia Squires (1970-76). For a complete list of every ABA team and their history, a great website can be found at www.remembertheaba.com.

Equally strong prices were hammered on any defunct NBA team, as well such teams as the San Diego Rockets (1967 expansion team thru 1971 when they moved to Houston) and Ft. Wayne Pistons (NBL, joined the NBA in 1948, played as Ft. Wayne from 1941-57 before moving to Detroit in 1957).

It seems in the early days of basketball, teams moved around much more than baseball, creating many now-defunct teams. Any time something is around for just a few years, given the low original numbers of jerseys issued for these teams, you will have very few surviving examples and as competition increases for the acquisition of the few remaining examples, the prices have nowhere to go but up. (The NBA was actually formed as the BAA in 1946 before becoming the NBA in 1949.)

What follows is a list of defunct NBA teams that did not move to another city (ie. San Diego and Ft. Wayne):

— Anderson Packers (1949-50)
— Baltimore Bullets (1947-55)
— Chicago Stags (1946-50)
— Cleveland Rebels (1946-47)
— Denver Nuggets (1949-50)
— Detroit Falcons (1946-47)
— Indianapolis Jets (1948-49)
— Indianapolis Olympians (1949-53)
— Pittsburgh Ironmen (1946-47)
— Providence Steamrollers (1946-49)
— Sheboygan Redskins (1949-50)
— St. Louis Bombers (1946-50)
— Toronto Huskies (1946-47)
— Washington Capitols (1946-51)
— Waterloo Hawks (1949-50).

Many game-worn items of the short-lived teams listed above are virtually impossible to obtain. Who has ever seen a Toronto Huskies jersey or an example from the Providence Steamrollers or Cleveland Rebels? Given the theory that only one home and road were made for each member, plus three inactives, would lead one to believe that only about 30 jerseys were produced for the one-season teams.

It would probably take two lifetimes to acquire one each of the above listed defunct NBA jerseys. Even the Basketball Hall of Fame does not have examples of most of the above listed teams; that should tell you something about rarity.

Given all of the increasing collector interest, the relatively low supply and the number of defunct teams, it simply figures that game-worn basketball jerseys, uniforms, jackets and shooting shirts will probably continue to increase in value. They are colorful, rare and the leagues were peppered with stars.

All in all, I really learned a lot about basketball attending these last two live Basketball Hall of Fame auctions. The venue was first class, and if you haven’t been to the Hall of Fame, you are really missing something. The new facility is state of the art and there is a great steakhouse attached so you don’t even have to leave.

Keep your eye on vintage basketball game-used items, and if you feel it’s something you really want to collect, I wouldn’t drag my feet, as the pricing for even vintage commons seems to be on a steadily increasing path and there is never no time like the present. There is a lot of history waiting for you to discover, and the market is presenting a challenge for even the most ardent and vigilant hunter.

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