Every year since 1986, shortly after the draft, the NBA and the National Basketball Players’ Association have held the Rookie Transition Program (RTP). Typically (in non-COVID years) held in New Jersey, the RTP is effectively a “new hire orientation” for professional basketball players. Through presentations from league officials and current and former NBA players,, the mandatory gathering aims to prepare the league’s latest crop of draftees for the transition – on and off the floor – to life in the NBA. The Program also educates attendees about the resources provided by the league to ease that transition, and deal with the challenges that arise.
The four-day event also includes the annual Rookie Photo Shoot (RPS), during which the players are first captured in their professional jerseys. Since 2009 (though not in 2011 or 2012), the players’ RPS photos have been used to create the Panini Court Kings Next Day Personal Edition set. In 2013, the photos of 35 players were used to create the Panini Court Kings Next Day Personal Edition set. The 35-card set has a total non-serial-numbered print run of 95. Each player received his own complete set, as well as another 60 of his own card to sign and do with as he pleased.
That these ultra-rare cards are the first cards to feature the draftees in their new NBA threads makes them exceedingly cool and highly collectible. That they are hand-signed, on-site – by definition, the first autographed card to feature each player in an NBA jersey – makes them potential treasures.
In attendance that year was a spindly 19-year-old Nigerian kid from Athens, who’d been selected fifteenth over by the Milwaukee Bucks: Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Given all that’s happened since – the five All-Star and All-NBA selections, the four All-Defense nods, the back-to-back league MVP awards in 2018-19 and 2019-20, a Finals performance for ages to capture the Bucks’ first NBA title half a century, which included three of the top seventeen individual Finals performances EVER (by Basketball Reference Game Score), capped off by arguably the greatest showing in a close-out game in the history of the sport – any one of the Giannis cards would qualify as a legitimate masterpiece, destined to be sought after as long as there is a hobby to speak of. The very first card to feature Giannis in a Bucks jersey. The first-ever signed NBA Giannis card. And, again, there are but 95 in existence.
You can be forgiven if your eyes are watering.
Now, take one of these and make it literally the first of its kind to exist.
Also attending the 2013 RTP was a Greek interpreter hired by the NBA to help Giannis get acclimated. As she tells it, the two were together in the lobby of the hotel at which the rookies-to-be were staying when Giannis received the cards which he was to sign. He immediately ripped open the package, pulled out a card, signed it and handed it to her, along with some sage words: “One day, this is going to be worth a lot of money.”
How about the VERY FIRST very first pro card signed by Giannis Antetokounmpo?
That’s as One-of-One as it gets. And, after eight years, it’s coming to market.
The card, one of two authenticated by PSA, but the only one carrying a numerical grade (Excellent-Mint 6 for the card itself; Near Mint-Mint 8 for the autograph) has been consigned by Giannis’s onetime interpreter to Legends Sports & Games in Grand Rapids, Michigan – and longtime owner Lou Brown. The card will be on display at Legends’ booth (#857-859) at the National Sports Collectors Convention from through Sunday, August 1.
The card is accompanied by pictures of with the seller (the interpreter), along with photos of sheets of notes from that orientation, handwritten by Giannis, in Greek. Efforts (as yet unsuccessful) have been made to get a letter from Giannis officially confirming that this is, in fact, the very first card of his from the run to be signed.
To be fair, the guy’s had a bit on his plate in recent weeks.
The Biggest Buck… and Very Big Bucks
Unofficially, roughly twenty cards across the four major sports have ever sold for a least a million dollars.
Such transactions are no longer a rarity. In fact, these days, one might be tempted to deem them “commonplace”. At least sixteen of these seven-figure sales have come in the past year, as have an additional five for at least $900,000. Basketball is the sport best represented in these mega-bucks transactions, with at least ten million-dollar-plus sales in the past ten months.
Giannis himself broke that threshold in September 2020, when his 2013-14 Panini National Treasures One-of-One Logoman rookie card, graded BGS 9, changed hands for a whopping $1.85 million. Not long after, he became the first player ever to have two cards crack a million, when, in December 2020, his Black Mosaic One-of-One RC BGS 9.5 sold for $1.14 million. This was the priciest unsigned basketball card in history until March 2021, when a BGS Black Label Pristine 10 1996 Topps Chrome Kobe Bryant refractor sold for nearly $1.8 million.
In the months since, Anthony Davis, Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Luka Dončić and Stephen Curry, with the latter three each holding the title of “most expensive basketball card ever” for a spell. In February 2021, was Luka’s National Treasures One-of-One 2018 Panini Logoman sold for $4.6 million. In late-April, a 2003 Upper Deck Exquisite Rookie Patch Auto of Lebron James, numbered to 23 and graded BGS 9, fetched a staggering $5.2 million – it was the second time one of these had held the top spot. Then, in early July, a 2009 Steph Curry National Treasures Logoman rookie, graded PSA 8 with a PSA 10 auto, reset the mark, netting $5.9 million. It’s worth noting that a 51% stake in that Curry (and 100% of a $1.8 million LeBron 2003 Exquisite Rookie Patch Auto, graded BGS 9 and numbered to 99) was purchased by sports card-focused alternative investment platform Alt, via its initial fund, Alt Fund I.
At the very least, Giannis looks poised to join LeBron as just the second modern athlete to complete (or, rather, to inspire to collectors to) a seven-figure hat trick. Whether this extra special 2013 Panini Court Kings Next Day Personal Edition is on par with the record-shattering Lebron Exquisite and the Luka and Steph Logomen remains to be seen. However, given the card’s rarity, its fantastic origin story, and the absurdity of Giannis’s legacy-defining Finals performance, which has sparked an ongoing, universal love-in, we can’t rule anything out.
About Emile Avanessian
Emile Avanessian is a strategic consultant, freelance writer and hobby lifer, originally from the United States, now living in Barcelona. His work, focused largely on the NBA and Spanish soccer, has appeared, among other places, in the Los Angeles Times, ESPN, Yahoo Sports, Tifo Football, The Blizzard, Barça Blaugranes and Forum Blue and Gold, as well as on his own site, Hardwood Hype (https://hardwoodhype.com/the-work). You can find Emile talking sports and collecting on Twitter (@hardwoodhype; https://twitter.com/hardwoodhype) and Instagram (@the_hardwood_hype; https://www.instagram.com/the_hardwood_hype/).