Why NBA Fans Can’t Get Enough of Jersey Patches

Why NBA Fans Can’t Get Enough of Jersey Patches

NBA jersey patches celebrate league-wide events, like the All-Star Game, and commemorate basketball’s legends, from Kobe Bryant to Bill Russell.
NBA jersey patches celebrate league-wide events, like the All-Star Game, and commemorate basketball’s legends, from Kobe Bryant to Bill Russell.

T he real estate on an NBA jersey is something like holy ground. Unlike, say, NASCAR racing suits, professional basketball players’ jerseys have limited places to affix addenda – and most of that is dominated, understandably, by a player’s name and numbers along with the team’s own branding.

Sometimes, however, the NBA finds something that’s worth paying tribute to directly on a jersey.

“It really starts with the 9/11 patch,” says Christopher Arena, the NBA’s head of on-court and brand partnerships. After the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, the league created a patch in the shape of an American flag over a red, white and blue ribbon, and placed it on the right shoulder of every player’s game wear. That in turn opened the door to adding other patches, such as ones celebrating special anniversaries, in that spot – and a new NBA tradition was born.

While the NBA itself designs patches meant to be used across all the teams or for league-wide special events, such as the All-Star Game, the individual teams create their own for club-specific events – such as the 70th-anniversary patch worn by the New York Knicks in 2016.

While these special occasion patches were originally located on the shoulder – making them ideal for being noticed on camera – circumstances of commerce led to a change in recent years. Since 2017, Nike’s iconic Swoosh has been a fixture of every jersey’s right front shoulder. The left was held by the NBA’s own emblem until 2014, when – in anticipation of future sponsorship opportunities – the league moved its logo to the back of the jersey’s collar. That gave rise to a new idea: placing special event patches on the back of the neck, over the NBA logo. In 2023, for example, the league placed a snowflake patch atop its own in honor of the league’s five Christmas Day match ups.

A 2023-24 Indiana Pacers Jersey worn by Tyrese Haliburton bears the NBA patch at the collar. Estimate: $6,000-10,000

Arena notes the difference between a patch and a strip, which commemorates a notable death – such as NBA commissioner David Stern, who was memorialized with a black strip on the left shoulder of every player’s uniform after he died in January 2020, and Nate Thurmond, whose Golden State Warriors celebrated with a distinctive yellow band featuring Thurmond’s number, 42.

Sometimes, however, events conspire to force exceptions to the rules. “There’s a spot above the swoosh that we’ll use for massive events,” Arena says. When Kobe Bryant unexpectedly passed away a few weeks after Stern, the Los Angeles Lakers found themselves lacking a traditional way to pay tribute to him – so they added his initials above the Nike logo on the right. “It was a small patch, but it was there,” Arena says.

The entire league did something similar to commemorate the passing of Bill Russell, the legendary Boston Celtics center. The NBA affixed his number 6 to the uniforms above Nike’s logo.

But what is it, exactly, about patches that makes them so appealing to collectors?

“There’s a host of factors that go in to the collectability of game-worn jersey,” says Brendan Hawkes, an AVP specialist in Sports, Streetwear and Modern Collectibles at Sotheby’s. That includes the player who wore the jersey, of course – Michael Jordon’s game-one jersey from his “Last Dance” at the NBA Finals holds a sale record at $10.1 million – but also usage, recognizability and editions. “Patches typically add value to a jersey’s market value because they signify unique, one-of-one moments,” Hawkes continues. “Collectors value patches as a sort of easter egg that adds a distinctive element, differentiating jerseys from standard-issue pieces.”

In other words, patches add a note of exclusivity, along with an element of time and place, to a jersey that otherwise might appear identical to one worn in a previous season. And rarity, of course, adds value.

“The demand for game-worn sports memorabilia has exploded over the last five years,” says Hawkes. And it only continues to grow. “Compared to a category like trading cards, which features sets and editions that are manufactured and produced by companies, game-worn jerseys represent an opportunity to own a piece of history – one-of-one moments that only an individual can own, akin to a work of art.”

“Collectors value patches as a sort of easter egg that adds a distinctive element, differentiating jerseys from standard-issue pieces.”
- Brendan Hawkes, AVP Specialist, Sports, Streetwear and Modern Collectibles

Adding to that rarity is the fact that jersey patches are (apart from those massive league-wide events) largely defunct. “We don’t really have the old type of patches anymore,” Arena says. The absence of the Christmas Day patch in particular was missed by one notable fan. “This was amazing!!” LeBron James tweeted on 24 December 2023. “I do wish we had Xmas day uniforms across the league still.” The king’s wish is the league’s command – this year’s Christmas game will see the patch’s return.

Anniversary logos and similar pieces of flair haven’t gone away entirely from the clothes worn on the hardwood. Nowadays, teams commemorate special dates and occasions with patches on their shooting shirts, worn while warming up before the game.

No matter what sort of clothing they’re found on, the men wearing the jerseys on the court appreciate the anniversary logos, Arena says. “It’s a jumping off point for the players to understand the history of the team.” As a result, Arena says, everyone on the team tends to get swept up in the excitement of commemoration. And that passion extends beyond the teams to the league itself, as well. “Anniversary patches are fun. They all have their own cool little niche,” he says. “They’re all my children – I can’t pick one.”

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