With LeBron James in search of his second consecutive NBA title, fans and collectors needn’t wait to start pursuing his collectibles.
The long awaited anointing of the next Michael Jordan still may be some years away, but with LeBron James in search of his second consecutive NBA title, fans and collectors needn’t wait to start pursuing his collectibles.
The first-round pick by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2003 NBA Draft, the hype surrounding the just-out-of-high-school rookie was nothing like the league had ever seen before. Long before his first NBA-licensed trading cards or autographs hit the market, numerous companies and organizations were trying to cash in on the hysteria, including his alma mater, St. Vincent-St. Mary in Akron, Ohio. Team photos, trading cards, jerseys, programs and more were being purchased at a frenzied pace, with numerous collectors and scrupulous dealers looking to catch lightning in a bottle and turn a quick profit. The demand for these items began to subside once his name was read by NBA Commissioner David Stern and the world was formally introduced to LeBron James.
Collectors couldn’t wait for James’ NBA debut and started collecting anything with his image, including this Beckett Basketball Collector magazine with the photo of the still-in-high-school player.
Having grown up watching Michael Jordan reach the stratosphere of fame, wealth, popularity and athletic achievement, James did not hide the fact that his desire was to become the world’s first billion-dollar athlete in player salary and brand endorsements. Being drafted by his hometown team helped him get off to a quick start in that regard. His celebrity endorsement services were in high demand by local businesses and national deals quickly followed. Much like Jordan, his face has adorned advertising for every conceivable consumer product imaginable. As a result, even tear sheets of his numerous print ads carry collectible value, albeit on the lower end, but these pieces are in demand by player collectors of LeBron who simply need to have it all.
From burgers and bubble gum to energy drinks and sneakers, there is no shortage of examples for collectors to choose from.
James’ first officially licensed NBA trading cards helped drive the 2003-04 basketball market. His rookie cards, and those of fellow draft classmates Carmelo Anthony and current teammate Dwayne Wade pushed the prices of unopened products to the highest level in years. Premier trading card manufacturer, Upper Deck, took the opportunity to roll out the hobby’s first $500 per pack product.
The non-autographed versions of his base card from this set are serial-numbered to just 25 copies and consistently sell for between $3,000 and $4000. While that sum may be jaw-dropping to some, by today’s standards it’s nothing compared to the game-used jersey patch, autographed version, which currently sells for $15,000. A limited print run of just 99 copies ensures that the card will only appreciate in value over time as collectors have clearly designated it as his most desirable rookie card.
Don’t have those kinds of funds available to spend on trading cards? Don’t worry, few people do and, thankfully, there are plenty of other options for collectors of all budgets to acquire a desirable LeBron James rookie card. Some of his more affordable rookie cards include the following:
• 2003-04 Upper Deck Star Rookie Card #301: $50-100
• 2003-04 Topps Card #221: $20-$40
• 2003-04 Bowman Chrome Card #123: $75-$125
During that season there were three licensed manufacturers of NBA trading cards. With each company producing multiple products, there is plenty of supply for even the penny-wise collector with numerous LeBron James rookie cards available for $5 and under. The ones listed above represent some of the mid-range cards from a collectible value standpoint.
The non-autographed versions of his base Upper Deck rookie card are serial-numbered to just 25 copies and consistently sell for between $3,000-$4000.
The game-used jersey patch, autographed version of the Upper Deck rookie card currently sells for $15,000. A limited print run of just 99 copies ensures that the card will only appreciate in value.
James and Upper Deck eventually signed an exclusive agreement and despite losing their NBA license, Upper Deck continues to produce trading cards and autographed memorabilia of the Miami Heat super star. Branded under the Upper Deck Authenticated name, the company has produced some truly beautiful and collectible pieces, as you can see from the photos accompanying this article.
As is to be expected, James’ autograph commands top dollar and authenticated copies can only be safely found from UDA products. Cut signature pieces matted with a photo can be found for as low as $300, with signed basketballs exceeding $1,000. Interesting to note is that much like his boyhood idol, Michael Jordan, LeBron practiced his signature early on to have the first initials of his first and last name resemble the duo’s shared jersey number, 23, which you can see on the treasured collectible card pictured here:
2003-04 Upper Deck Star Rookie Card #301
2003-04 Topps Card #221
2003-04 Bowman Chrome Card #123
When it comes to all sports memorabilia, game-worn pieces command the highest dollars and also generate the highest percentage opportunity for fraud. These types of items are traditionally only found through auctions from companies specializing in sports memorabilia. However, even then, high-end collectors playing in that market need to do their own research and insure that the piece in question has been authenticated by multiple third-party authenticators. The exception to this rule is those items auctioned through UDA. Because of its exclusive agreement, you can safely assume the authentication is ironclad. Items in a 2011 UDA auction eventually sold for tens of thousands of dollars.
When it comes to collectibles of LeBron James, the sky’s the limit. Fortunately for fans and collectors, the apparent heir to his Airness has plenty of items to meet demand. If he is able to accumulate additional NBA Championship next week—or several more, for that matter—the potential value of his items stands to increase. So, while it might be too late to acquire some of his rookie cards and game-used items, acquiring an autograph for your collection now will save you money later.
Rob Bertrand has been an active collector of sports cards and memorabilia for more than 20 years. His involvement in the hobby community is well documented, having been the content manager for the Card Corner Club website before the company’s merger with CardboardConnection in 2011, where he is now a staff writer and multimedia content producer. Rob is also the co-host of the sports collectibles hobby’s only live and nationally broadcast radio show, Cardboard Connection Radio. He is the author of the highly respected and trafficked blog, Voice of the Collector and you can follow him on Twitter @VOTC. A dealer himself, Rob runs an online business through eBay, and is frequently asked to consign collections.
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