How bobbleheads became the NBA’s biggest little status symbol
- Nick Friedell is the Chicago Bulls beat reporter for ESPN Chicago. Friedell is a graduate of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University and joined ESPNChicago.com for its launch in April 2009.
Editors’ Note: This story was originally published on March 10, 2020. Jan. 7 is National Bobblehead Day.
IT’S MIDWAY THROUGH the second quarter of a Jan. 18 game between the Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks, and Nets guard Spencer Dinwiddie is collecting himself after a hard foul and fall. As soon as he steps to the free throw line inside Barclays Center, the cheers echo from a corner of the arena.
IR-ON MAN, IR-ON MAN! TO-NY STARK, TO-NY STARK!
Dinwiddie is in the midst of the best season of his career. At the time, he’s averaging 21.2 points and 6.5 assists per game. He’s drawing All-Star consideration. And he has become a leader on a team dealing with superstar guard Kyrie Irving’s shoulder injury.
But this? An Avengers-level chant? There could be only one thing worthy of the craze taking over.
It’s Spencer Dinwiddie Bobblehead Night.
Dinwiddie and the Nets partnered with Marvel to create the first bobblehead of his six-year NBA career, one inspired by the iconic superhero and complete with a futuristic black jersey and outstretched right arm equipped for anything from game-winning 3s to saving the world.
“When they told me, ‘Hey, we’re going to do it,’ I was like, ‘Man, that’s so cool,” Dinwiddie says. “Y’all not only thought about me but are going through the hoops to make it my favorite superhero.”
To become bobble-worthy, players have to rise to a certain level of prominence to get their likeness on a 5-inch figurine. Like a signature sneaker or seeing your jersey worn by fans, the bobblehead has become one of the biggest — or smallest — status symbols in the league.
“One hundred percent,” Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green says. “It’s one of those ‘Mama, I made it’ moments.”
As appreciative as Dinwiddie is to have his own bobblehead night, he wishes the schedule-makers could have been more selective in picking the Nets’ opponent that night. Brooklyn lost by 20.
“Damn, guys, you shouldn’t have scheduled Milwaukee,” Dinwiddie says. “Y’all could have given me a layup like the Hawks or something. Everybody would have been like, ‘Hell yeah, we blew them out on Spencer’s bobblehead night.'”
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“THERE HE IS!” Warriors senior vice president of communications Raymond Ridder says to D’Angelo Russell as he enters the locker room.
As Russell walks the halls before a Jan. 14 game against the Dallas Mavericks — he wouldn’t be traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves until Feb. 6 — the reminders of his big night are everywhere.
Boxes carrying the “Iceman Edition” bobbleheads, the final of five such giveaways the Warriors have put on for the 2019-20 season, are stacked up just outside the locker room for players who want one for themselves. Fans wait to get inside the arena and snag one of their own.
“Growing up, you always envision yourself having a bobblehead,” Russell says. “And then you see the features on it — it’s kind of what people remember you as. You get the icy-type vibes going.”
Green already had his own bobblehead night at Chase Center on Nov. 25, but it’s the giveaway nights at the Warriors’ former home that resonate most with the three-time All-Star forward.
Three hours before opening tip, Green would make his way to Oracle Arena via I-880 South, and he would see a similar scene play out each time. The lines stretching around the building would grow longer and longer as he crept closer to the arena entrance off 66th Avenue. “It’s a surreal feeling,” Green says.
And it’s never gotten old.
“It’s almost like this night is dedicated to you,” Green says. “You see fans pouring in where the first 10,000 fans get this bobblehead. … They’re actually piling in this early.”
Players compare bobblehead nights to seeing their likenesses in a video game, a different way to connect with fans lucky enough to get their hands on the collector’s items.
“It just kind of puts you in awe a lot of times,” Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal says. “To see fans, and especially kids, really want a bobblehead or really want your jersey, that’s something you only dream of.
“Sometimes we take it for granted, don’t understand the importance of it, how a little bobblehead can make somebody’s day.”
CHAUNCEY BILLUPS IS an NBA champion, a Finals MVP and a five-time All-Star.
His was also the first bobblehead given away at an NBA game.
“Get the f— out of here!” Billups says, laughing, when told about his place in NBA history, made on Dec. 7, 2000, during a game between the Timberwolves and the Wizards.
“I wasn’t even the star of the team, y’know what I’m saying? Pick [Kevin Garnett].”
According to Phil Sklar, the co-founder and CEO of the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame in Milwaukee, the Timberwolves were the first team to bring bobblehead giveaways to the NBA after seeing the success of several baseball teams.
Including Billups, the Timberwolves would give away the first four bobbleheads in league history, with Terrell Brandon, Wally Szczerbiak and Sam Mitchell following suit soon after. (Garnett would finally get his in January 2001.)
“At that time in my career, it meant so much to me,” Billups says. “I was a journeyman already. That was my fourth team in four years. So I was trying to find something, and then to, now, feel appreciated by a team and a fan base — that meant a lot to me.
“I had no idea that that was the first one.”
But Billups says the Timberwolves never told him about the promotion. The first time he found out was the day he walked into the arena.
It was probably for the best. His debut in bobblehead form wasn’t exactly a flattering one.
“I remember that bobblehead,” Billups says. “Wasn’t very impressed with how it looked. … I just thought I was a little more handsome.”
Fast-forward almost 20 years and players around the league are still thinking the same thing.
“I remember the first time that I had my bobblehead,” Bucks All-Star Giannis Antetokounmpo says. “I was really excited about it. But at the same time, my bobblehead didn’t look nothing like me.”
The reigning MVP’s sentiments echo throughout the league. As happy as players are to have their own bobblehead, they can’t believe how different the actual figure is compared with real life.
“They never look like you,” Cleveland Cavaliers center Andre Drummond says. “They still can’t get it right. I don’t even know what my first one looks like. I still think it’s cool because it has my name there and I know it’s for me, they made the attempt to do it.
“But yeah, it never looks like your real face.”
On Nov. 18, the Houston Rockets gave out a Russell Westbrook bobblehead to fans. It was the first bobblehead night of his 12-year career after never getting one with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Even Westbrook could see that things were a little … off.
“It was close enough,” Westbrook says. “I’d say about 70%.”
“It’s weird, because you start to analyze every little thing,” says Rockets forward P.J. Tucker, who had his own bobblehead night in January 2018.
Although players might have reason to complain, bobblehead design has come a long way since they rose to hoops prominence when Billups’ bobblehead first appeared.
“Through the years, the skill, artistry and creativity added to what used to be a basic bobblehead doll has evolved tremendously,” says Chris Fryar, co-president and owner of Alexander Global Promotions, one of the biggest bobblehead makers in the world.
“Back in the early days, when we helped create the bobblehead craze, the expectations weren’t too high. Teams wanted and fans expected an item that had the team name, colors and player’s name and number … the likeness was secondary.”
Times certainly have changed. As bobblehead popularity continues to grow, so, too, have the expectations that come with each mini-figurine.
For bobblehead makers such as Fryar, who first saw their rise in prominence as a sales executive for the Seattle SuperSonics, the biggest issue is in mass-producing so many bobbleheads at once; each doll is hand-carved and hand-painted even when organizations order thousands at a time.
Although the process continues to improve, critics remain — none harsher than the players themselves.
“I got a lot of freckles,” Tucker says, “but they gave me a lot of freckles. Thanks, but I don’t have that many freckles. …
“[And] they messed my hair up. I ain’t going to lie. I was mad about my hair.”
BY THE END of this season, 18 teams will have participated in 33 bobblehead giveaways, according to the league. The grand total: 336,500 bobbleheads distributed.
While more than half the teams in the NBA have one or two giveaways a year, the Warriors are among the league leaders in the bobblehead game. Warriors chief revenue officer Brandon Schneider says the team has had 66 versions totaling 630,000 bobbleheads since Golden State started such giveaways during the 2002-03 season.
Stephen Curry has had 10 versions. Green and Klay Thompson have had six apiece. The organization tries to tie in a player’s interest to every bobblehead. Thompson had one with his beloved dog, Rocco, but he actually prefers another model.
“I like the surfboard one, though, man,” Thompson says, referencing the bobblehead given out at a Santa Cruz Warriors G League game held at Oracle Arena last season.
Thompson can’t surf. “But I would love to do [it] one day,” he says.
Curry has a bobblehead celebrating his love of popcorn. Now-retired fan favorite Shaun Livingston has one with his three championship trophies. The Warriors have had three preseason games in San Jose over the past few years, which has meant three bobblehead nights with Curry, Thompson and Kevin Durant decked out in San Jose Sharks hockey jerseys.
“You don’t want to just have a Steph Curry bobblehead every year and it’s just the same thing,” Schneider says. “And you get more and more creative — we’ll have a couple of ideas, and then we’ll go to the players and make sure that they like that and that’s how they want to be portrayed.”
The process of becoming a bobblehead starts long before the season begins as teams try to plan out their promotional calendars. Once they do, teams discuss which players could work for each night. Nets vice president of team marketing, Mark Fine says most players want to be involved as much as possible when planning what the bobbleheads will look like.
“In my experience, players care,” Fine says. “We love that they care because that makes them more willing to really help us on the business side really push this out through all of our channels.”
For Dinwiddie’s Iron Man bobblehead night, the Nets’ marketing team came to him for his input in July. It was a similar process for teammate DeAndre Jordan when Brooklyn turned him into a “Jedi Jordan” for his giveaway on Dec. 21.
“I was into it a lot,” Jordan says. “The face, my hair, what I wore. But they did such a great job with it, it was easy for me.”
Another Star Wars superfan can relate to the unique thrill each project creates.
“You grow up and you go to certain games, and as a kid, you get bobbleheads on the giveaway nights,” says Brook Lopez, former Nets and current Milwaukee Bucks big man. “So it’s cool to kind of be on the other side of that now, to be the bobblehead.”
The Nets turned Lopez into his own version of a Jedi in 2015 and “Chew-Brook-A” in 2016, but now he’s hopeful the Bucks will create a Brook-and-Robin Lopez joint bobblehead in the near future for the twin brothers and Milwaukee teammates. His latest idea requires a bit more moving parts.
“They should be like Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots, right?” Lopez says. “A Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em bobblehead. There we go! That’s a good one!”
ONCE THE EXCITEMENT of bobblehead night fades, many bobbleheads end up in the same place: mom’s house.
“My mom is my biggest fan, so she’s always been more excited than anybody else,” Drummond says. “She takes like 100 and hoards them.”
While some teams make some extra bobbleheads to sell inside their respective arenas, many players get extra shipments sent back home.
“I’ll usually keep one box at the house for people who come over and they see the bobblehead, like, ‘Man, where mine at?'” Green says.
For Thompson, bobblehead life is much simpler. Unlike many of his peers, the laidback, All-Star sharpshooter keeps his out of view.
“In the closet,” he says.
No matter where the bobblehead lands, each one remains special for the players. They know how much time and work brought them to this level, and they appreciate what each figurine represents.
“You never grow up thinking you’ll have your own personal bobblehead,” Beal says. “And then when you make it, it’s like, ‘Damn, here’s a little mini statue.'”
ESPN’s Ohm Youngmisuk contributed to this story.
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