An NBA ring, an auction and a vast fortune: The Bryants’ war drags on four years after Kobe’s death

Pamela and Joe Bryant, estranged from their son since he married Vanessa Bryant, have put up for sale the championship ring that the basketball player won and gave them in 2000 for a mere $30,000. The athlete, who died in 2020, stopped them from selling his memorabilia 11 years ago

Kobe Bryant
Kobe Bryant and his father, Joe, at a baseball game in Los Angeles in June 2009.John W. McDonough (Sports Illustrated via Getty Ima)
María Porcel

The Lakers’ 2000 season was nothing short of brilliant. A 21-year-old Kobe Bryant rose as the unquestioned star while Shaquille O’Neal racked up non-stop points, establishing the team as the best of the season and earning the famous NBA championship ring. The boyish Bryant gave the gold and diamond piece of jewelry to his proud father, Joe Bryant, who had also been an NBA player but never matched his son’s accomplishments. Today that image seems rather unreal, erased by time and its vicissitudes. A quarter of a century later, the world has changed. Kobe got married, had four daughters. The Bryants drifted apart. Never again were they that close-knit family. Kobe died four years ago, when he was only 41. And now, to many people’s surprise, it has come to light that Joe and Pam, the athlete’s parents, are selling the ring. They have put it up for auction for just $30,000, although following a dozen bids it almost reached $100,000. The most surprising, or serious, or peculiar part of the story is that they had tried to cash in on Kobe’s belongings before, but his son put a stop to it.

When Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash in Los Angeles — along with his second daughter, 13-year-old Gianna — he left behind a social, cultural and sporting legacy, but also an economic one. In addition to being a superb athlete, he was an intuitive investor who amassed a fortune estimated at around $600 million, according to Forbes. However, it would seem that neither his parents, nor his sisters, have seen a single dollar of this. They are not deprived, but have no access to the player’s earnings. His legacy is administered by his widow, Vanessa, who manages everything for his three daughters: Natalia, Bianka and Capri. And, as far is known, she has had no relationship with the Bryants for years. Just as Kobe did not either.

Kobe Bryant hugs his mother, Pam, after winning a game in March 1996 in Hershey, Pennsylvania.
Kobe Bryant hugs his mother, Pam, after winning a game in March 1996 in Hershey, Pennsylvania.Pete Bannan (Getty Images)

During his childhood, the boy grew up in the shadow of his father, a basketball professional turned coach who was frustrated by his mediocre career (by the 1970s and 1980s, when he played, he was too tall, too bulky, and did not fit into the defensive positions he was assigned at the time). Because of his job, Joe Bryant lived with his family in Italy and Philadelphia. But as soon as they sensed that the boy had a real chance of following his father’s path and even surpassing it, they moved to Los Angeles, where they could envision the possibilities of a career in sports and also in business. It was the mid-1990s, Kobe was just a teenager and his parents were guiding him. In a 1996 interview with Jay Leno, with Joe and Pam sitting in the audience, the host joked about the 198-centimeter 17-year-old in a suit and tie: “You don’t have to cut the lawn ever again.” Kobe responded: “The good thing is that now I can give my parents an allowance.”

It was only a half-hearted joke. For years he paid for their houses, luxury cars, expenses and also whims. Bryant was always extremely generous to those he loved. When he met Vanessa Urbieta Cornejo (or Vanessa Laine, since she had changed her last name to that of her mother’s new husband after her father fled to Mexico and never came back), he filled the high school where the girl was studying with huge bouquets of flowers, and she attracted so much attention when he went to pick her up in his Mercedes that she had to finish her senior year at home. It was his romance with Vanessa that distanced Kobe from his parents. His parents were not thrilled with the pair’s relationship or its swiftness: they met while shooting a music video — back when Bryant wanted to be a rapper — in 1999, when she was 17 and he was 20, and on her 18th birthday in May 2000, they announced their engagement. In April 2001, the two married. The Bryants were also not impressed by the fact that their son did not choose an African-American girl, but rather a Latina. Only 12 guests attended the wedding and Joe and Pam Bryant were not among them.

From then on, there were disagreements, also in public. Vanessa Bryant began to take the reins of their home, their finances and their professional and personal decisions together with her husband. Meanwhile, the player’s parents began to lose power. In a 2015 documentary, the athlete acknowledged that it was “very different to have somebody that I was so close to, because I had been so used to growing up in isolation,” and that in his wife he had found someone compatible, who saw the world in the same way he did.

Kobe and Vanessa Bryant at the 2018 Oscar Awards.
Kobe and Vanessa Bryant at the 2018 Oscar Awards.Kevin Mazur (WireImage)

The problems only got worse. By 2002, Bryant was such a superstar that his number was retired in tribute. In attendance at the event were his parents, though seated in a different area from Vanessa. In 2003, at an important playoff game, his mother asked him to leave a ticket at the box office in his father’s name, which he did, but Joe never showed up. “I knew he wouldn’t come down and see me. He never does,” he told the Los Angeles Times at the time, going so far as to say that such distancing was “natural”: “I’m sure it’s tough on any parent when their child grows up and starts stepping into their own.” But at that time Joe had not yet visited Kobe’s new home, nor had he met his first-born daughter, Natalia, born in January of that year.

“It’s not about basketball,” said the shooting guard, reflecting on his failed relationship with his father. “It’s about having someone to go to a ballgame with. It’s about having someone to hang out with. That’s what I miss.” In that same talk, the father claimed that when his son made the decision to be with Vanessa, his wife and he decided “that it was time to back off, that’s all.” “It’s his life. We’ve got nothing to do with it. We’ve done our job.” “Twenty years from now, when his own child grows up, he’ll understand what I’m doing,” Joe said. A couple of years later, when Joe started coaching the Los Angeles Sparks, the city’s women’s basketball team, a reconciliation ensued. In 2010, Bryant and Gasol’s Lakers won the championship and Joe and Pam were again in the stands (although it was rumored at the time that it was not Kobe who had invited them, but a fan).

Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna, at a basketball game in New York in December 2019.
Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna, at a basketball game in New York in December 2019.Paul Bereswill (Getty Images)

However, it all came back to haunt them. The most painful blow came in 2013. The player’s parents put several of their son’s personal belongings up for auction, including two school uniforms and that very 2000 ring they are trying to sell now, a quarter of a century later. Bryant was so enraged that he even took to Twitter (now X) to vent his anger. “When u give Give GIVE and they take Take TAKE at wat point do u draw a line in the sand?” he tweeted, along with the hashtags #hurtbeyondmeasure, #gavemenowarning and #love?.

For that reason, he decided to sue Goldin, the auction house, but the auction house sued back, claiming that Pam was the owner of the objects and that she had already been given $450,000 for them to pay for a house that she and Joe were going to buy in Las Vegas. In the end, the parties reached an agreement and sold only six items to reach the half million dollars, which was slightly more than Goldin had anticipated. Kobe’s parents released a statement expressing their “regret” over their actions: “We apologize for any misunderstanding and unintended pain we may have caused our son and appreciate the financial support that he has provided over the years.” But the bond had been broken for good.

Joe and Pamela were not present at Kobe’s retirement in April 2016. By that time they had not spoken to each other for three years. In an interview with the sports outlet ESPN that year, the hurting player acknowledged that everything was very difficult between them: “Our relationship is shit,” he said. “I say [to them], ‘I’m going to buy you a very nice home, and the response is ‘That’s not good enough?’” he said. “Then you’re selling my shit?”

He also spoke about his sisters, Sharia and Shaya. “They’re very smart, college-educated. I’m really proud of them. They were able to get their own jobs, get their own lives, take care of themselves. Now they have a better sense of self, of who they are as people, instead of being resentful because they were relying on me,” Bryant explained, once again suggesting that money had been a turning point in their family relationships. “It was tough for me to do. But it’s something you have to do, something you have to be very strong about,” he said with pain in his voice.

From left to right Michael Tabb (Kobe Bryant’s brother-in-law) and his wife Shaya Bryant (Kobe’s sister), with their two children. Behind them, Pamela and Joe Bryant. At the end, Michael and Shaya's daughter. The family came to collect an award for black athletes in Las Vegas in May 2022.
From left to right Michael Tabb (Kobe Bryant’s brother-in-law) and his wife Shaya Bryant (Kobe’s sister), with their two children. Behind them, Pamela and Joe Bryant. At the end, Michael and Shaya's daughter. The family came to collect an award for black athletes in Las Vegas in May 2022.Ethan Miller (Getty Images)

Shortly before his death, two other developments increased the distance in the family. In 2018, his parents would not attend to see him win the Oscar for Best Animated Short Film for Dear Basketball. He was with Vanessa, now a world away from the teenager he took to Disneyland on their first date, and now one of the most powerful women in Los Angeles. And in 2019 the Bryants were back at it again: Pam put that 2000 championship ring, one that Kobe commissioned for her at the time, up for auction. It went on sale for $20,000 (its price, for the gold and gemstones, would have been between $50,000 and $150,000) and she sold it for $206,000.

Now history is repeating itself once again. Bryant’s ring that he gave to his father has gone on sale at Goldin for only $33,000. The auction site explains that it weighs 60 grams, is made in 14 karat gold, with 40 diamonds and in Kobe’s size, with several engraved words, such as “Lakers,” “Bryant” and the numbers “8″ and “2000.” “Obtained directly from the Bryant family, this ring is a true one-of-a-kind, and we can confirm that it is the only championship ring ever given by Kobe to his father. This ring comes with a LOA from Pam Bryant,” claims the auction house website. Its final price is expected to exceed the 2000 championship ring sold in 2019.

The reasons for the sale remain unknown: Is it because the Bryants need money? Is it public revenge against Vanessa? A way to remain in the limelight? Fans of the late player have showered the family with criticism. Some are even encouraging Vanessa to participate in the auction, to take the jewel and put it in safekeeping. The bidding closes on March 30. That is when the end of this penultimate chapter of the Bryant war will draw to a close.

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