clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Kobe Bryant’s merch helped remake his image. After his death, collectors are cashing in.

What should we make of the Kobe merchandise market?

Vendors outside the Staples Center sell merch honoring Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna, two days after their deaths.
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

People started making money off Kobe Bryant hours after he died in a helicopter crash. On the afternoon of January 26, the basketball legend was killed, along with his daughter Gianna and seven others, in a helicopter crash. When TMZ broke the news of Bryant’s death, friends and fans mourned the NBA legend. Almost immediately, the market for Kobe Bryant merchandise, from classic sneakers to homemade tees, skyrocketed.

On January 26 at 4:09 pm EST, a size 9 Kobe 4 Protro Undefeated in the Los Angeles Lakers colorway sold for $945 on StockX; these sneakers sold for $190 retail.

On January 28, I was covering a Donald Trump rally in Wildwood, New Jersey. Alongside shirts where Baby Yoda wears a MAGA hat, vendors were selling bootleg “Mamba Out” (referencing Bryant’s nickname) and other Kobe memorial shirts.

I’ve seen T-shirts with Kobe and Gianna’s faces for sale on street corners and road medians. In the weeks after the crash, they were for sale outside a Sixers game in Philly and outside an Islanders hockey game in Brooklyn. Stores online sold Kobe-inspired gear. In Los Angeles, vendors selling Kobe Bryant memorial merchandise lined Figueroa Street near the Lakers arena.

Fans buy Kobe Bryant merch outside the Staples Center on February 3, 2020.
Sarah Reingewirtz/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images

There was a run in legitimate merchandise as well. Nike sold out of Bryant merch online and did not restock it. (Some Bryant sneakers are still available at Nike retail outlets.)

Resellers are taking advantage of the situation. The $190 Kobe 4 Protro Undefeated that went for nearly $1,000 in the minutes after his death had sold for between $201 and $205 six days prior; flipping for profit was always the goal. It’s not clear how much these sales were driven by Bryant’s fans buying memorial merch and how much was pure sneaker market profiteering, but Bryant merchandise was a hot seller. Complex noted that one YouTuber who makes videos about reselling sneakers, Cody Thrive, made an Instagram story referring to it as “both the ‘quickest flip’ and ‘saddest flip’” he’s ever had.

These resales were criticized. To try to quell critics, the resale site StockX announced it would donate proceeds from sales made of Kobe merch the week after his death to a Bryant family charity. Some sneaker consignment boutiques decided not to accept Kobe sneakers or pulled them in the wake of his death. Other sneaker stores wrote things like “RIP #8 #24” — the two numbers Bryant wore during his career — on Kobe sneakers in an attempt to tank their resale value.

Bryant, who was accused of rape in 2003, leaves behind a not-uncomplicated legacy. His merchandise, especially his partnership with Nike, has long been deeply entwined with how fans understood and interacted with him; it was central to the remaking of his image. Now that he’s died young and suddenly, he becomes a myth, a legend. People are going to make money off it.

From the jump, Kobe announced himself to the world as a brand. In 1996, he came to his first major press conference with a catchphrase: “I have decided to skip college and take my talent to the NBA.” He was already famous. He took the singer Brandy to his high school prom.

Adidas announced his first sneaker deal on May 21, 1996. He hadn’t even graduated high school yet. In a write-up of the deal, the Philadelphia Daily News’s Rich Hoffman wrote about his “winning smile.” Another story in the paper even speculated on his future branding opportunities, predicting a bright future. The Daily News sports section put the dog-and-pony show on the front of the sports section, counting 56 Adidas logos at the introductory press conference. “He’s one of a new generation of athletes who will help transform sports in the next decade or two,” Adidas American president Steve Wynne said at the time.

Kobe Bryant signed with Adidas before he was out of high school.
Allsport UK/Getty Images

For once, a boastful retail executive was right. Kobe became a global phenomenon. He did the most with that talent, winning five NBA championships and a slew of individual honors including two MVP awards. His success with the Lakers — Bryant won the first of three straight titles in just his fourth season — made him a prolific pitchman as well.

Bryant racked up endorsements in addition to his Adidas deal: He shilled for McDonald’s, starring in a bizarro ad where he was a late addition to a peewee basketball league team. Owing to his childhood in Italy — his father, a former NBA player, played professional basketball there in the 1980s — he endorsed Nutella, a product of the Italian chocolate maker Ferrero SpA. He had a deal with Coca-Cola and did Sprite ads. “If I was a window washer, an architect, a security guard, instead of a famous basketball player, would I be doing this commercial?” Kobe asked as the ad showed him in various costumes like a member of the Village People. “If Sprite not taste the same, would I be doing this commercial?” Deep.

Kobe’s brand seemed to be everywhere, but he wasn’t always cool. His rap single, “K.O.B.E.,” featuring Tyra Banks for some reason, flopped. People complained about him being too ubiquitous in ads even as he was helping the Lakers win three straight titles. Many of Kobe’s Adidas sneakers haven’t aged well, style-wise. The Kobe 2 is widely considered one of the worst-looking basketball shoes of all time; Bryant went back to an older model for the NBA Finals that year.

In the summer of 2002, just after winning that third straight NBA championship, Bryant paid $8 million to Adidas to get out of his contract. He became the highest-profile sneaker “free agent” ever. The 2002-’03 season was a memorable one for collectors: Bryant had no sneaker contract and wore a variety of brands on the court: Nike, Reebok, and even AND1 began courting him. Every sneaker company on the planet released versions in the Los Angeles Lakers’ purple and yellow, attempting to get some attention from the star. Sean Williams, one of the men behind the podcast and marketing company Obsessive Sneaker Disorder, says some of these are among his favorite Kobe-related kicks ever.

”On the sneaker resell market and in the annals of sneaker history, you see a lot of different LA Laker-colored sneakers from brands that you knew he was never signed to,” Williams says. These tell “the story of when they were coveting him.” One of the most beloved, which Williams happens to own, is the Air Flight Huarache in an LA Lakers colorway.

Still, Bryant was considered kind of a dork. When he signed a four-year, $40 million deal with Nike in 2003, even that classic arbiter of cool Dow Jones Newswires mocked him: “His last signature shoe with Adidas, a futuristic-looking sneaker reminiscent of an igloo, bombed in stores, and part of the shoe’s poor performance was attributed to Mr. Bryant’s lack of street credibility in the eyes of urban teens.” (By “urban,” Dow Jones Newswires meant “black.”)

Nike went about creating that street credibility. Bryant, upset with the look and reaction to his last Adidas shoes, began taking a more active role in designing his sneakers. He took a liking to Nike designer Eric Avar before he even signed with the company, and the two maintained a relationship throughout his career and afterward. Nike became the king of the basketball sneaker world, signing all the top players in the post-Michael Jordan era. Hot 1990s and early 2000s models like Reebok’s Allen Iverson line fell to the wayside. But Nike had other challenges with Bryant’s image.

Bryant signed his Nike deal in June 2003. The next month, he was accused of sexual assault by a 19-year-old hotel worker. Prosecutors suggested shortly before jury selection that DNA evidence had been contaminated. They dropped charges the next year after the woman, who had been named by some in the press, declined to testify at trial. Prosecutors said she was smeared by the defense. She sued Bryant; the case reached an out-of-court settlement.

When the charges were dropped, Bryant released a statement: “Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did. After months of reviewing discovery, listening to her attorney, and even her testimony in person, I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter.”

The rape allegations changed Kobe Bryant the brand because it changed the public’s opinions of Kobe Bryant the person. At the time, however, fans glossed over the fact that the woman said the encounter was nonconsensual, framing it as an indiscretion. “What’s shocking about Kobe’s infidelity isn’t the infidelity; it’s that the protagonist is Kobe Bryant, the infallible player who can do nothing worse, according to his fans’ mythology, than write bad poetry,” Elizabeth Kaye once wrote, taking the voice of Kobe’s fan base. “You see why his admirers are grappling with what might be called an identity crisis — the identity at issue being Kobe’s.”

McDonald’s dropped him. So did Nutella. Sprite increased LeBron James’s visibility in place of Bryant’s. Nike was one of the few companies that did not drop Bryant as an endorser. His career continued, and the sexual assault allegations began to fade into the background. He signed a massive new contract with the Lakers; the team won back-to-back NBA titles in 2009 and 2010.

Nike helped reshape Bryant’s tarnished image, leaning into qualities that brands had previously shied away from: his competitiveness, his ruthlessness, his ego. He went from family-friendly McDonald’s endorser filling in on a kids’ basketball team to the Black Mamba — “a character in Nike commercials and a vicious, selfish shooter,” as Deadspin’s Tom Ley called him. Bryant said he created the Black Mamba character when watching Kill Bill Vol. 2.

Bryant’s career continued, and for many, memories of the incident blurred to the point where they believed he had been exonerated. When questioned about it after Bryant’s death, basketball Hall of Famer Lisa Leslie told Gayle King: “I mean, there was a trial.” There was not a trial. It is worth noting, however, that others never forgot or forgave him for it.

Still, the rebrand largely worked, as some predicted it would. On September 3, 2004, Kurt Badenhausen wrote a story for Forbes headlined “Kobe Bryant’s Sponsorship Will Rebound.” When Bryant died, Badenhausen wrote a bit of a follow-up: “Kobe Bryant’s $600 Million Fortune: How He Won On—and Off—the Court.”

Isaiah Thomas of the Boston Celtics wears Nike Kobe XI sneakers on the court in April 2019.
Mike Lawrie/Getty Images

An underrated aspect of this image rehab was simply good sneaker construction. One of the reasons Byrant’s Nike shoes were so popular is because they were good to play in. Besides Michael Jordan — well, and Chuck Taylor — Bryant was the only athlete and brand pitchman whose sneakers continued to be worn by NBA and college players after his retirement.

“Even now to this day, Giannis Antetokounmpo, his latest line is based on the architecture of Kobe Bryant’s sneakers,” Williams says. The story behind Kobe’s sneakers, designed by Avar, was that they were based on soccer shoes because of Bryant’s dedication to footwork and lateral movement.

“NBA players and people on the street and college and rec ball league and everybody alike — Kobe’s shoes performed,” he says. “They did well on the court. They did exactly what they were supposed to do, and there was always a high expectation of performance for Kobe Bryant sneakers, and he never let people down. Michael Jordan sneakers can’t even say that.”

Many people are like Williams. They feel a connection to Bryant through his sneakers. And whether it feels crass or not, they are going to want Kobe Bryant merchandise long after his death.

Death does not end a celebrity’s life as a brand; the dead celebrity branding industry is vast. Authentic Brands Group, a company that recently brought the world Sports Illustrated-branded CBD, manages the brands of Muhammad Ali, Elvis Presley, and Marilyn Monroe. (It also manages Mini Marilyn, a Marilyn Monroe cartoon look-alike that appears to have a separate licensing agreement from the real Monroe.) A computer-generated likeness of James Dean is slated to appear in a future film. Deceased celebrities now tour as holograms. I saw the Roy Orbison hologram in real life — done with a mix of file footage, computer-generated imagery, and video capture of an actor — and it was pretty impressive, especially when he turned his back and said he wanted to “thank this remarkable orchestra.”

Robert Strand, a New York-based brand consultant, worked for the NBA for several years and even worked with Bryant on the release of his 2003 Hallmark ornament (it resells for about $25 on eBay). He was also part of the posthumous brand audits of Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson, where he learned of a patent for an unreleased pair of moonwalking shoes. Both Jackson’s and Houston’s estates had enormous unpaid tax bills; Bryant had no reported large debts. The Kobe Bryant brand appears to be able to start anew basically whenever his heirs want.

Anthony Davis wearing the Nike Kobe Protro 5 at the NBA All-Star Game on February 16, 2020.
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Derrick Daye, a Los Angeles marketer who lives just a few miles from where Bryant’s helicopter crashed, says a brand looking to do well with the NBA star’s image will consider the work he was doing in his post-retirement career. “He had a big unfinished life,” Daye said. “So I think to honor him, finish the work that he started out to do. And to do that, you’ve got to manage his memory, right?”

Even if no one’s really harmed by it, flipping Kobe Bryant sneakers online after his death feels gross. But the people criticizing it in the wake of Bryant’s death aren’t opposed to new, posthumous Bryant sneaker tributes.

A respectful — or at least respectful-ish — use of Bryant’s brand would likely funnel the profits to something like the Kobe & Vanessa Bryant Foundation or the Mamba & Mambacita Sports Foundation. Already, rumors of new Nike releases are coming: Lakers center Anthony Davis wore a new colorway of the Nike Kobe Protro 5 at the NBA All-Star Game. They will probably cause some consternation over the commerce revolving around a man who died in a tragic accident. They will still probably sell out.

Sign up for The Goods’ newsletter. Twice a week, we’ll send you the best Goods stories exploring what we buy, why we buy it, and why it matters.