Sunday, January 8, 2017

On Basketball Cards

I can still remember the joy of it.

Foil wrappers breaking open at the top seam after I lifted the lip on one side, pinched the other side between my thumb and forefinger and pulled. Do it enough times and you’ll never tear a wrapper again.

Sometimes I saved those wrappers but as days turned to weeks to months to years, I lost most sentimentality about such things, crumpling them in to a hidden pile, not to go out with the regular trash, so that my parents would never get a sense of just how much of my disposable income was disposed upon the world of basketball trading cards.

And I got to the cards. I rifled through these glossy pieces of 2.5 by 3.5 inch cardboard. Each with a full color photograph of a crossover, or a jump shot, or a slam dunk. I was looking for stars. From 1995 to 1999, my prime collecting years, Michael Jordan cards consistently drew the highest valuation of any active player; Shaquille O’neal, Anfernee Hardaway, and Grant Hill weren’t far behind. The cards of lesser stars—the guys who came off the bench for middling teams, were deemed “common cards” all valued at the same base level of approximately five cents (though, for a premium brand like Flair, commons could be marked as high as a quarter).

And then there were inserts—dubbed as such for their random insertion into different packs, at different rates. A 1:5 ratio (one card inserted for every five packs was good); 1:36 was premium—statistically, one card for every thirty-six-pack box. And then there were higher ratios than that. Inserts tended to feature more ornate designs, often themed around a specific style of player like young players on the rise or the NBA’s best dunkers. They had more exclusive rosters, often including only upper-tier players, and the relative scarcity of the cards gave them an immediately higher valuation—insert common cards often worth a dollar more, and inserts of star players typically reaching into the double if not triple digit values. In the latter days of my collecting habit, autographed cards, and cards that encased swaths of actual game-worn jerseys became all the rage and drew exorbitant dollar values, reaching into the thousands.

But my interest started with a single card. A 1990-91 card of Christian Welp, produced by Hoops—an economy brand of the larger Skybox card company (many companies featured different lines ranging from the economy ones that sold for a dollar a pack, to premium that went for five dollars and up). When my best friend started collecting, already a couple years ahead of me in his obsession with basketball, I looked at his cards and recalled this Christian Welp one that had come tucked in a cereal box. I couldn’t remember Welp’s name, though, and thought it might have been Christian Laettner or Chris Mullin—I was sure he was white and the name started with Chris. Enthusiastic at any prospect of a card worth anything, my friend urged me to find the card and bring it over. So I ran home and dug it out a stack of potentially important artifacts, placed in my nightstand drawer to separate them from the rest of the clutter of my room. I remember the sight of that card when I excavated from its miscellaneous pile, amidst copies of TV Guide with covers I liked, a VHS compilation of The Best of WrestleMania, a school paper that my Language Arts teacher had left especially nice comments on. The card was mercifully unbent and a little dusty. And it featured Christian Welp.

I brought the card to my friend's house, already guessing that I had overestimated its worth. But when he looked at it and asked, “Who’s Christian Welp?” I knew for sure that I had a dud—my first common card.

Still, I had discovered that initial rush. The prospect of holding something valuable in your hands that even discovering it was worthless couldn’t wholly diminish. A souvenir from the fundamentally attractive world of basketball, but also the prospect of a long-term investment. I heard stories of how previous generations fed trading cards through the spokes of their bicycles, ruining them worse with each spin of the tires. Mass production and a quorum of serious collectors, conscious of condition, meant that the scarcity of cards from decades past would never truly be reproduced; the market was already inflated, and I was unlikely to see that much return on my investment. I knew that intellectually. Just the same, for every idealistic, pseudo-pragmatic, and personal purpose, I was hooked on collecting and preserving.

That weekend, when my parents brought me to the mall, I spent twenty dollars stocking up on different packs of cards--mostly Upper Deck’s economy set, Collector’s Choice. I came home and found I’d scored a fairly rare insert of the fairly highly valued Hakeem Olajuwan, my first card valued as high as fifteen dollars. The habit was reinforced.

Before long, the random opening of packs had become just one dimension of the basketball card game. There were singles as well. Card shops opened their own packs or bought cards from collectors that were of a relatively high value and put them under glass showcases in their stores. They typically sold these cards for a bit less than book value to encourage sales. Thus there came a choice—buy packs for the inherent pleasure of gambling and chance at an unexpected score, or buy a single and know exactly what you were getting.

I, of course, engaged in both. I burned through any cash I could get my hands on in short order. Moreover, the trading aspect of trading cards drew into sharp focus. It started with my friend who got me hooked and I swapping cards, each having our favorites we protected fiercely, each having the cards we were willing to let go. Our natural predispositions toward quality (him) and quantity (me) came into sharper focus when we made our biggest trade, two cards with a combined value of about twelve dollars on my end, in exchange for all of his common cards—a boon of several hundred cards that was cumulatively easily several times more valuable, but no individual card of which was worth more than a dime.

As an aside, I should clarify that we drew our valuations from Beckett magazines—in particular, Beckett Basketball Monthly, a periodical that featured about fifty newsprint pages worth of pricing guides per issue, stretching back to the 1948 Bowman’s Best series (George Mikan’s rookie card from that series was, for the bulk of my collecting days, the crown jewel of the basketball card collecting world) up to the most recent releases. The other half of the magazine was devoted to glossy color pages with articles about basketball, decent journalism curated and edited with an eye toward rationalizing valuations and spotlighting contemporary money draws.

My trading circles spread to about five other boys on the school bus. Of all of them, I carried the most substantial collection to and from school each day, a white two-inch binder chock full of three-by-three protective plastic sheets in which I organized cards by player--first by their relative dollar values, then in alphabetical order. Others had smaller binders, some just a collection of hard plastic cases, others loose cards with bent edges, bound in rubber bands.

There were good trades and bad trades. On the school bus, we rarely pulled out price guides—at best a nerdy practice, at worst a suggestion that you didn’t trust what another collector was quoting you (albeit with good reason, since most of us inflated our prices to a reasonable degree—sometimes to deceive, sometimes to balance out the perceived mark up on the other end). As my trading circles spread into the school, it became an unexpected delight to trade with someone less concerned with price values, more concerned with collecting cards of their favorite players, or perhaps even purer, for which the pure aesthetics of the card gelled with their sensibilities.

In the latter days of my collecting, I eased from spending money on cards on a weekly basis and making trades daily, into buying a pack on a lark once every few months, and rarely breaking out my binder. But I did settle into that purer space, focusing on my collection of cards featuring my favorite player from my favorite team, Patrick Ewing. Unconcerned with dollar values, I focused on sheer quantity, accumulating two hundred-plus Ewing cards by the time I stopped actively pursuing my collection. A few years later, my best friend bookended the whole experience with a Christmas gift of a 1986-1987 Fleer Ewing card—officially recognized as his rookie card, bearing a book value of fifty dollars.

I still own the overwhelming majority of this card collection. A framed display of seven of my favorite and highest valued cards remains a memento from a different time. The remaining collection sits, split into two cardboard boxes I haven't meaningfully sorted through in over a decade. I realize that I probably should sell off the bulk of it—that I could feasibly score a couple hundred bucks if I struck the fancy of the right buyer on eBay.

Just the same, like anyone who once knew the magic of collecting cards, I crumble at the idea of letting go altogether. I'm holding onto nostalgia, sure, but just as sure continuing to take the sucker’s bet that one day these cards may swell in value, or that I might pass them on to a son or daughter who will care about them as much as I did.

So, I wait. All of those cards, like the joy that once surrounded them, collecting dust.

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