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THE BIG SCORE

Sweat equity

For the first time, fans can bid on jerseys worn in the NBA Finals. So -- how much are old gym clothes worth?

June 15, 2008|Adam Tschorn | Times Staff Writer

What's the price tag for championship-level sweat and hustle?

Last week, it was $8,040, and rising fast. When Game 1 of the NBA Finals tipped off in Boston on June 5, sports fans could, for the first time, place Internet bids on actual game-worn jerseys from both teams -- while they were still being worn on court. And as of Tuesday, in the cyberspace face-off between Kevin and Kobe, the Lakers' No. 24 was definitely the MVP -- most valuable product.

The rivalry at the register has been brewing all year. Kobe Bryant's No. 24 ranks second on the list of the decade's top-selling jerseys (behind Michael Jordan) -- but he was bumped from his No. 1 spot as the regular season's most popular merch-mover by none other than the Celtics' Kevin Garnett, whose jersey sales have tripled since last season. All of this has made watching the official NBA website's auctions page (auctions.nba.com) almost as much fun as the hustle on the hardwood, as anonymous bidders (some with team-disparaging monikers unprintable in a family newspaper) take turns opening their wallets for the right to buy, essentially, the sweaty gym clothes of a bunch of multimillionaires.

By the end of Game 1, Bryant's sweat-stained road jersey was fetching $6,000 to Garnett's $3,000. Shortly before Game 3, Kobe's jersey had increased its lead, clocking in at $8,040 to KG's $5,019. And the beauty is, though the Finals end when one team notches four victories, the auctions go on like the Democratic primary season, wrapping June 24 for Game 1 jerseys (some of them also worn in Game 2) and June 26 for Game 3's. The auction includes a full roster of jerseys from all 60 active players on both teams.

To find out exactly how this works, we called Barry Meisel, president of the MeiGray Group in New Jersey, the company overseeing the auction. Though Meisel enthusiastically prattled on about security tags sewn into the jerseys for authentication purposes, and the postgame chain of custody, our concerns were a bit more pragmatic. For instance: Are these jerseys washed before being shipped to the winners, or do Lakers fans face the prospect of a malodorous Odom, a grungy Gasol or a wilted Walton? And isn't there something creepy and downright unhygienic about buying somebody else's gym clothes -- no matter how famous?

"In most cases the jerseys are washed after a game," Meisel said. "If the timing of an auction is so tight that we don't have time to launder the item, we'll at least run it under cold water to make it a little more, you know, palatable."

Lisa Goldberg, the NBA's senior director of trading cards, collectibles and memorabilia, said the quick dunk was "for health and hygiene purposes -- we don't want anything to be unsanitary," she said. "But yes, there are some fans out there who would prefer we not."

Collectors say laundering the game-worn uniforms rinses away part of the appeal of a jersey that's logged 48 minutes of championship sweat equity.

"As a collector I'd rather not have it laundered," said David Kohler, president of SCP Auctions in Mission Viejo, who has an extensive personal collection of Lakers memorabilia (including what he says is one of only four George Mikan jerseys in existence). "I can't put a precise value on [laundered versus unlaundered], but there certainly is added value to it."

Rich Russek, president of Grey Flannel Auctions, agrees. "The casual fan probably wouldn't care, but the real collector -- a hard-core guy -- would prefer to have it just the way it came off the court."

And just how high will Kobe's jersey go? Meisel declined to speculate, but compared it with LeBron James' Game 3 jersey from last year's finals, which sold for $25,540. "We expect Kobe's to go for much more than that."

Which would make the MVP's No. 24 home jersey as good as 24-karat gold -- sweat or no sweat.

--

adam.tschorn@latimes.com

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