Kobe Bryant, known to fans by his nickname, the "Black Mamba," is widely believed to be one of the greatest basketball players of all time. His untimely death in January 2020 shocked the basketball world, Lakers fans in particular, and the whole city of Los Angeles. This also led to a surge in the value of his memorabilia, particularly his rookie cards from the late 90s.
Kobe was drafted right after high school by the Charlotte Hornets as their 13th pick during the 1996-1997 NBA draft. He was subsequently traded to the Los Angeles Lakers, with whom he'd spend his entire 20-year career. His iconic time in the NBA included 18 All-Star appearances, five NBA Championships, two Olympic Gold medals, numerous MVP designations, and the record for the second highest number of points (81) scored in a single game. After he passed, he was voted into the Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
In this article, we’ll break down what you need to know about the nine best and most expensive types of Kobe Bryant rookie cards, including their history, how much money they’ve been sold for, and observations about buying a special card to honor this basketball legend.
Value of the Best and Most Expensive Kobe Bryant Rookie Cards
Rookie cards of great players inevitably increase in price once the amazing career feats start to pile up. Over 20 years, there were plenty of chances for Bryant’s accomplishments to boost the value of his Rookie cards, which were first produced in 1996 by the likes of Topps, Fleer, Upper Deck, and Bowman’s.
10. 1996 Hoops Kobe Bryant Grant Hill's All-Rookie-Team #3 - $19,200
This intriguing rookie card is full of Kobe greatness, with the Lakers’ airbound guard leaping up for a shot. It was part of a high-value series honoring Grant Hill with his pick of an All-Rookie Team featuring the amazing crop of rookies from 1996-1997, including Allen Iverson, Ray Allen, Stephon Marbury, and Antoine Walker, with the group's names all appearing on the cards. In February 2022, a PSA 10 Gem Mint copy sold for an impressive $19,200.
9. 1996 Skybox Premium Kobe Bryant Rubies #55 - $21,600
Skybox’s Premium Rubies were top-shelf cards with unique designs, quirky font choices, and excellent imagery. They’ve definitely retained the high value their names suggest. The rare “Rubies” parallels version featured foil matching the color of its name, although even that gorgeous detail can’t pull away from the power of Kobe’s picture of him in a dominant pose on the court, ball in hand. The value of 1996 SkyBox Premium Star Ruby #55 Kobe Bryant is still there with a PSA 10 Gem Mint copy selling for $21,600 in February 2022.
8. 1996-97 Fleer Metal “Precious Metal” Kobe Bryant Rookie Card #181- $39,600
This sleek silver “Precious Metal” is a rate precursor to the valuable Precious Metal Gem that began the following year. Yet another glorious Kobe Bryant rookie card, but one that shows him in a quieter moment than most. That doesn’t limit the impact of this exceptional collectible - in May 2021, a PSA 10 Gem Mint copy sold for $39,600, adding another top flight rookie card to our list.
7. 1996 Bowman's Best Rookie Atomic Refractor Kobe Bryant #R23 - $56,580
A relatively calm-looking Kobe Bryant is featured on this 1996 Bowman's Best rookie card. Of course, an Earthbound Kobe hasn’t stopped this from becoming a high-value and sought-after card with its crisp image and flashy font. The variants of this card include both a Refractor and Atomic Refractor parallel. The latter fetches more money, even though both are highly valued. A gorgeous PSA 10 Gem Mint copy of the 1996 Bowman's Best Rookie Atomic Refractor Kobe Bryant #R23 broke the $50,000 barrier in April 2021.
6. 1996 Topps Finest Kobe Bryant Refractor #74 - $98,400
Another valuable Topps Finest from 1996 is the “Apprentices” series that also came with a protective plastic coating to prevent damage to its unique design elements. The furious action in the image shows Kobe flying up toward the net in his gold home team uniform, likely adding to its interest to collectors and further driving up its value. The dynamics of the image has that unique feel of 1990s sports trading cards. In May 2021, a PSA 10 copy sold for just shy of $100K, a worthy way to honor the memory of this legendary player.
5. 1996 Ultra Platinum Medallion Kobe Bryant #P52 - $109,200
One look at the exceptional action photography of this card shows you why a PSA 10 Gem Mint copy fetched over $100,000 in a May 2021 auction. Kobe’s got a commanding look as he preps for a layup and perfectly positioned text does nothing to distract from this compelling image - it actually enhances the feel of the card. Dark borders on this card means chipping can occur, so higher-grade copies can expect to be valued much higher than those that have developed dings over the years.
4. 1996-97 Topps Finest Gold Refractor #269 Kobe Bryant Rookie Card - $206,400
Unique trading card products often endure as popular and valuable treasures through the years and this Kobe Bryant “Heir” card is a great example. This Topps Finest series came with a thin layer of plastic on top to protect the fragile card elements, so cards with that barrier still unbroken will fetch more money on the open market. That is proven out by the BGS 10 Pristine copy sold in March 2021 for a whopping $206,400. That copy had three 10s in the sub-grades as well. By comparison, a BGS 9 Mint copy sold for $7,800 just a year later. What a difference a point makes.
3. 1996 Flair Showcase Legacy Row 0 #31 Kobe Bryant Rookie Card - $430,500
Here’s a trio of high value cards for number three on our list, all from Fleer’s premium line, the Flair series. This set featured a tiered system of rarity called Rows. Row 0, the Showcase level, was the rarest and, thus, the most valuable. With only 150 copies of each athlete in this exclusive set, which differ from the base set in colored fonts and images, these cards are highly valued by collectors for their unique designs. While prices for near mint and mint copies have fluctuated between five and six figures, a BGS 10 Pristine copy, with three of four sub-categories also graded a 10, sold in May 2021 for $430,500.
The Row 1 Legacy Collection card in the same series is no slouch when it comes to value. This card also bears a unique design and has become a valued collector’s item as well. The card features a great action shot of a rookie Kobe driving the ball forward to take a shot. A PSA 9.5 Mint copy sold in March 2021 for $136,530.
The last 1996 Flair Showcase Legacy Row 0 #31 Kobe Bryant Rookie Card in the Legacy Collection has another valuable variant with a dynamic image and a surface difference from the base version highlighted by the teal font. This thrilling shot captures the energy and verve of young Kobe brilliantly, and that’s surely adding to collectors’ willingness to pay so much for this card. While lower-grade copies have sold for less, in March 2021, a BGS 8.5 Near Mint copy sold for $39,600.
2. 1996-97 SkyBox E-X2000 Credentials #30 Kobe Bryant Rookie Card (#260/499) - $602,400
The 1996-1997 Skybox E-X2000 basketball cards featured unique imagery in a limited edition set, adding up to a top value Kobe Bryant rookie card. The "Credentials" variants were numbered to 499 and featured die cut images of the players along with off-white colored foil borders framing the dynamic action shots. Couple this rarity with a PSA Gem Mint 10 rating and it’s not surprising the value of this card topped $600,000.
The base version deserves mention, too. The card is pretty much identical to the "Credentials" variant with a green border, the same amazing action shot of Kobe in-game, and a lower value. Of course, that lower value is still five figures: a PSA 10 Gem Mint copy sold for $87,100 in Feburary 2021. Prices have cooled a bit in the last year or so, but it’s still a much sought-after card.
1. 1996 Topps Chrome Refractor #138 Kobe Bryant Rookie Card - $1,752,000
This is it, the most desired and expensive Kobe Bryant rookie card available. While that was another year of a dominant Chicago Bulls, a truly impressive lineup of rookies like Bryant, Allen Iverson, Ray Allen, Derek Fisher would debut in the NBA, making that year a banner one for rookie cards.
The standard card is valuable enough, but it’s a BGS 10 Pristine copy of the refractor parallel that went for $1.75 million. It’s not hard to tell why this is so valuable: The card is dazzling, with 10 ratings for all four sub-categories as well. This doesn’t happen often and BGS claims this is only one of two copies of this card that have been awarded this ‘perfect’ rating. It’s an ideal collectible to honor this exceptional athlete and end our list.
The Valuable Legacy Kobe Bryant Rookie Cards
Kobe Bryant was one of the greatest players to ever set foot on the court. Kobe’s legacy remains alive with fans, and the value and compelling imagery on his rookie cards are a testament to his excellent athleticism as a basketball player.
Our hope is that this guide helped you find the right Kobe Bryant rookie card to seek for your own collection. Owning even a small part of his amazing legacy will bring up the value and excitement of your sports card collection while honoring this superstar who was taken from the world way too soon.