Dear Commissioner Stern, the certified mailing reads below a Wynnewood, Penn., return address. This letter is to inform you that I wish to apply for the 1996 NBA draft… Since I am 17 years old, my parents have also signed this letter on my behalf.
Very truly yours, Kobe B. Bryant signed the letter, along with Joe W. and Pamela Bryant.
That was just the start of a tour through basketball history that NBPA senior counsel Ron Klempner offered last month at the union’s headquarters, as he stood, tossing document after document onto the center of a conference room table.
Another piece of paper hosts the scrawled pencilings of Charles Wade Barkley’s (nickname: Chuck) player questionnaire. “What do you see yourself doing career-wise when you retire from sports?” the form asks, offering two full lines for a response. “Relaxing,” he put down, or someone did for him.
“This is some real s—,” Klempner says as he continues to rifle through the foot-high stack, flinging contracts and letters signed by the likes of George Gervin, Larry Bird and LeBron James.
Some papers have historical significance: docs connected to the league’s first collective bargaining agreement, salary cap and drug program, plus records from lockouts and lawsuits past. A manila folder emerges with a JOHNSON MAGIC sticker attached. Other pieces veer towards esoterica. There is a stack of signatures from players who came together to protest the changing of the regulation basketball in 2006. A collection of 1990s Knicks stars—Patrick Ewing, Larry Johnson, Latrell Sprewell—signed a sheet to verify they’d received 1099s. On top of it is a hot pink sticky note, addressed to Klempner and signed by Chris Dudley, who wrote, “Didn’t realize I still had these… Hope it didn’t cause too much of a problem.”
The note’s irony isn’t lost on Klempner. Until a stroke of COVID coincidence, the NBPA wasn’t aware of its collection’s holdings either. And had it not been for his insistence, thousands of notable papers could have ended up in the trash.
Sports memorabilia is in the middle of a boom unlike any before. The 41st National Sports Collectors Convention kicked off last week with news of a Patrick Mahomes card fetching $4.3 million, the largest in the football category. According to Wikipedia’s accounting, 24 of the top 25 card sales of all time have happened since the start of 2020. Companies are being acquired, going public, and launching entirely new categories, like NFT collectibles, amid the frenzy. But when it comes to business-specific memorabilia (player contracts, league memoranda, etc.) things remain sleepy, relatively at least.
CollectibleXchange founder Brandon Steiner said the modern market for sports business relics dates back to the mid-2000s, when a pair of Mickey Mantle contracts went for roughly $100,000 each. James Naismith’s 13 rules of basketball document set a sports memorabilia record when it sold for $4.3 million in 2010, and the sector hasn’t been immune to the recent influx of interest—and cash. In 2014, a Bill Russell contract sold at auction for $10,000, with the holder receiving a $20,000 offer this March. Last year a signed version of Michael Jordan’s “I’m back” fax sold for nearly $30,000, while a Mantle contract with trading card company Bowman eclipsed the $100,000 mark.
But for every contract that has hit the market, there are many more, folded up in retirees’ garages, stuffed away in agencies’ filing cabinets, or deteriorating in team storage lockers.
“It’s frustrating,” Steiner said, adding that he’s spoken with teams about opening up their vaults. “I’m licking my chops wanting to do something. I understand it’s a team and a brand, and they don’t want to look money-grabbing, I get it. But if I had my druthers, I’d be digging into those archives.”
The director of sports auctions at Heritage Auctions, Chris Ivy, said there are likely “hundreds of millions” in value sitting out there. With teams now able to keep digital versions of their archives, he’s hopeful some will begin offering up more access.
Without looking at the NBPA’s documents, Steiner is confident they’ve got at least a six-figure stash on their hands. Individual pieces like Kobe’s letter or a LeBron James contract could easily fetch $25,000. Some documents, like player-by-player votes on a lockout, could be bundled, Steiner said, while others could be used to sell cheaper copied versions.
But the union isn’t reaching out to any auction houses. Some of its collection could end up at the Basketball Hall of Fame, and the PA is also building out its own archive—named after its first president, Bob Cousy. It’s doing so with the help of Heritage Werks, which has supported dozens of sporting organizations’ efforts to digitize and leverage their collections. Heritage Werks founder Keir Walton said he focuses on helping companies improve their messaging and branding programs more than creating potential merchandising opportunities.
Early last year, the NBPA’s priorities were put to the test, when roughly 1,000 cardboard boxes of materials arrived at the union’s midtown Manhattan offices, following a dispute with their storage provider. With the building empty due to the pandemic, a conference room hosted papers rather than people.
There were plenty who felt fine junking the boxes. The papers would be mostly useless, it would take untold hours to sort them, and the organization was looking to help its current members rather than wade into nostalgia. But Klempner, a self-identified “extreme hoarder in some ways,” felt otherwise. He said he would’ve paid for a storage unit himself, if necessary, to keep the files from the dump. In the end, he prevailed.
Starting in February, he and a few others began spending one day a week dealing with the mess. The boxes had piled up with little organization, as employees left the group or as the union moved offices. “Every day when I’d come in, I’d find stuff,” he said. He set aside things like original contracts and proposals from the first WNBA bargaining sessions, scanning everything he could. One day, he plucked out a spiral notebook with a clipart image of a lock and a picture of Donald Trump below the word cloud: “Yo, Billionaire owners… YOU’RE FIRED!” It was filled with business ideas from the 2011 work stoppage.
Then people came back to the office this summer, and the boxes returned to storage, now numbering around 500 following the pruning. As part of Klempner’s tour, he took the storage center’s elevators down to floor 00 and wound his way to the NBPA’s locker. Inside were white, brown and yellowed boxes stacked eight high in some places. Some offered vague clues of what lay inside—the names of past employees or litigious agents, a date, a team name—but most offered only mystery. Thousands of similarly stuffed bins and boxes surely sit in crowded darkness across the sporting world.
In this locker, a small plastic table stands in front of the boxes, next to a folding chair. On the desk is a mini portable fan and a tiny LED lamp, inviting someone to hunker down and find out what else might be out there.