NBA championship rings: how much they're worth, what they're made of and who gets one
As the Phoenix Suns take on the Milwaukee Bucks in the 2021 NBA Finals, we look at the tradition of presenting the title winners with championship rings.
The NBA champion lifts the Larry O’Brien trophy, the treasure that waits at the end of the playoffs, but it’s far from the only symbol of success in the US’ elite basketball league. There’s also the flag that’s hung from the ceiling of the winning team’s court, and, of course, the championship ring given to the victorious players and coaches. That’s how an NBA career is judged: by the number of rings. The 11 won by Bill Russell, the six won by Michael Jordan in six Finals, the 13 won by Phil Jackson (11 as a coach, two as a player)…
Championship rings first produced by Montreal Hockey Club in 1890s
It’s a tradition based on a desire to reward the individuals in a winning team with a memento of their success. There can only be one trophy per team, so there had to be a way of honouring the members of that team, too. Ice hockey's Montreal Hockey Club were the first to commission a championship ring, in 1893 (although it didn’t become a regular part of the NHL until the 1960s) and all four major leagues in the US - NBA, NHL, MLB and NFL - now follow the tradition, as do many college competitions in the country.
In baseball, MLB saw its first championship rings in 1922, when they were made by the Giants to celebrate their World Series victory over the Yankees. The Yankees then won the MLB title the following year, and had watches made for their players. In 1927, the franchise then joined in the tradition of handing out rings and, beginning in 1932, MLB began to distribute them to the league’s winners. In NASCAR, for example, rings are given not only to the winners of complete series, but also drivers who come out on top in particularly box-office races (such as the Indy 500 and Daytona 500). In college basketball, they are presented to the winners of the NCAA Final Four, and also to the three other teams taking part. In every sport, rings might be handed out for conference winners, finalists… but they certainly don’t carry the same value or significance as those given to the overall champions. Rings are also created for emblematic moments such as an individual's induction into a hall of fame or an appearance in an all-star game.
Who gets a championship ring?
There are no rules on how many rings a championship-winning team receives and who is given one. The players and the coaching staff get one, clearly, but teams also tend to include most other people who work for the franchise, as well as giving one to legendary former players. They’re also given to any members of the roster who were unable to play their part in the playoffs, and indeed anyone who featured at all during the season, even if they were cut or traded before winning the championship.
Cost of NBA championship rings now stretches into six figures
In the NBA, rings were standardised between 1969 and 1983, before the league allowed teams to begin producing their own designs. The NBA covers the costs of making the rings, a courtesy that isn’t afforded in every US league. In the NHL and MLB, the franchises must foot the bill, while the NFL - where teams’ huge squads translate into a huge number of rings - contributes up to $5,000 per person.
So there’s now plenty of freedom in what the championship ring looks like, but the basic design is always gems on yellow/white gold. There are two key jewellers of choice in American professional sport - Massachusetts-based LG Balfour and Minnesota-based Jostens - although Tiffany has also become a major supplier in recent years, as has Baron Championship Rings, particularly in the NBA. The company was given the nod by the Cavaliers in 2016, producing what at the time was the heaviest championship ring ever, at 165 grams. Baron Championship Rings was also the jeweller chosen by the Raptors in 2019. The Canadian franchise, which was celebrating its first ever NBA title, opted for five different types of rings: the most expensive, chiefly for the players and coaches, cost more than $100,000 each; the cheapest, at just $13 each, were the 20,000 handed out to the fans in the stands for the first game of the following season, when the flag-raising ceremony took place and the championship rings were presented to the players.
The ring makers reserve the right to sell replicas or other pieces of jewellery (earrings, bracelets…) commemorating a team’s title win. The rings are becoming more and more personalised and replete with inscriptions and symbols, but always bear the name and logo of the franchise, the number of the championship won, the competition… The first rings were relatively basic, with one stone at most, but particularly since the 1990s, they have evolved into bigger, heavier, increasingly ostentatious pieces featuring an ever greater number of gems and references. Nowadays, rings might have over 100 diamonds - not only on the front, but all over its surface - leading their price to hit tens of thousands of euros.
For the Raptors’ most expensive 2019 ring, for example, a total of 650 diamonds were used, including a 6.9mm diamond that was the biggest ever on a US championship ring. The piece also bore 16 rubies, representing the number of games the Raptors had to win during that year’s playoffs, in addition to featuring: the skyline of Toronto; six diamonds in tribute to the city’s nickname ‘The Six’; and the word ‘North’ in reference to the slogan ‘We The North’ used by the Canadian franchise during its run towards the championship. The most expensive ring, such as the one worn by the singer Drake, a huge fan of the franchise, is worth over $150,000.
2020 NBA champions Lakers remember late, great Bryant
The most recent NBA champions, the Lakers, made a ring that remembered legends of the franchise, especially the late Kobe Bryant. Designed by the famous jeweller Jason Arasheben, it was the costliest in the history of the NBA - outstripping the Raptors’ $150,000 - and included 804 gems on each piece. The ring carried references to all the shirt numbers retired by the franchise, with particular attention paid to the two worn by Bryant (8 and 24). It also featured .95 carats of amethyst to acknowledge the team’s 95-stay in the playoff bubble in Florida, 16 white diamonds for each victory that took them to the title win, and 17 purple amethyst stones representing the number of championships won by the Lakers.