In my last post, I looked at the active NBA players who have a Champion jersey. Champion’s last season of producing replica jerseys was 2001-2002, so anyone drafted 2001 or prior would be eligible. My list included 11 players: Kevin Garnett, Vince Carter, Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce, Elton Brand, Andre Miller, Jason Terry, Metta World Peace, Mike Miller, Jamal Crawford and Tyson Chandler. Fellow Champion enthusiast Mike made a good call-out about Pau Gasol needing to be included on the list. After all, Gasol was the #3 pick in the 2001 NBA Draft. But surprisingly Gasol, along with fellow 2001 draftees Richard Jefferson (#13 New Jersey Nets via Houston) and Tony Parker (#28 San Antonio Spurs) are not on the list because Champion never produced a replica jersey for them. Champion Europe did produce Gasol Grizzlies jerseys and Parker Spurs jerseys, but Champion USA did not.
But the mention of Pau Gasol, and his recent signing with the Spurs, got me thinking about Memphis Grizzlies Champion Jerseys. It’s fascinating that Champion didn’t produce Gasol’s rookie jersey for the 2001-2002 season. Not only was he the #3 overall pick but he went on to win Rookie of the Year. Champion produced replica jerseys from 1991-1992 through 2001-2002, and Pau Gasol is the only Rookie of the Year during that span to not have a rookie-year Champion jersey. In addition, Champion made rookie-year jerseys for the top 5 draft picks in every draft between 1991-1992 through 2000-2001. For 2001-2002, Champion produced rookie jerseys for 7 of the top 10 picks, including the #6 pick Shane Battier….who was drafted by the Grizzlies. So Champion made a jersey for the Grizzlies #6 pick, but not their #3 pick who would go on to win ROY, two NBA titles and is a potential Hall of Famer. It gets even crazier when you look at the Memphis Grizzlies jerseys that Champion did produce for the 2001-2002 season, which you can see in the Team Gallery.
Whenever an NBA veteran announces his retirement, my automatic response is to check Ebay to see the impact on the popularity/market value of his Champion jersey (sadly, I do the same when a former player dies). Kobe Bryant’s rookie-style Lakers Champion jersey started selling like crazy in the months leading up to his final game, and still remains tough to find. A couple of years ago you could purchase a Kobe rookie-style jersey for $30, now people are paying over $100. With Tim Duncan stepping away from the game a few days ago after 19 seasons, I realized that in the not-so-distant future there will be no players left from the “Champion jersey era.” The last Champion jerseys rolled off the assembly lines during the 2001-2002 season…14 seasons ago! I thought it would be fun to look at the 11 active players that have been around long enough to have their names immortalized on the back of a nylon jersey with heat pressed letters. Before next season starts, this list will shrink. Andre Miller is currently the oldest active NBA player at age 40. Elton Brand came out of retirement this past season and could possibly be retired again but hasn’t made an official announcement. Jason Terry, Metta World Peace and Mike Miller are currently unrestricted free agents but want to keep playing. Kevin Garnett and Vince Carter are signed through next season, and Dirk Nowitzki and Paul Pierce have deals that run through the 2017-2018 season. That leaves Jamal Crawford and Tyson Chandler as the last two players remaining on this list since they are currently under contract through 2018-2019. So by the 2019-2020 season, no one will be able to rock a Champion jersey in support of an active NBA player.
UPDATE: It’s important to note that there are three additional players from the 2001 draft still active in the NBA that are not included on this list: Pau Gasol (Memphis Grizzlies via Atlanta), Richard Jefferson (New Jersey Nets via Houston) and Tony Parker (San Antonio Spurs). Champion did not produce replica jerseys for these players (Champion Europe did produce Parker and Gasol jerseys).
From 1991-1992 through the 1996-1997 season, Champion held the exclusive uniform license for the NBA. Champion produced the on-court uniforms for all 29 teams, and was the only licensee able to produce replica and authentic jerseys for retail. Starting in the 1997-1998 season, the NBA divided the uniform licenses between Champion, Nike and Starter. While Champion could no longer produce authentic jerseys for the 19 teams now held by Nike or Starter, they still had the exclusive license to produce replica jerseys for all 29 teams. Replica jerseys fueled NBA merchandise sales in the mid-90s, in part due to strong draft classes in 1993 (Chris Webber, Anfernee Hardaway, Jamal Mashburn) and 1994 (Glenn Robinson, Jason Kidd, Grant Hill). In addition, the Jordan-led Bulls had dominated merchandise sales in the early 90s, but in the 1994-1995 season were overtaken by the Charlotte Hornets, led by Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning. Michael Jordan’s retirement prior to the 1993-1994 season officially marked the end of an era that had featured Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas. There was a new group of up-and-coming superstars, and Champion was in the right place at the right time as fans scooped up jerseys of their new favorite players and teams.