When I was a kid growing up in the 1980’s, I was an avid collector of basketball cards. I did it because I loved the NBA, not because I thought the cards had any value. This was the period when almost everyone collected baseball cards, and basketball cards were more of a novelty.
At the time, most of my allowance and birthday money went to basketball cards (the rest went to Transformers, Slurpees and Big League Chew). My Mom used to take my brother and me to an Army-Navy surplus store in Waldorf, Maryland that sold all types of sports cards. During those trips, I purchased several packs of 1986-1987 Fleer, which contains the Holy Grail of basketball cards - the Michael Jordan rookie card that currently sells for as much as $40,000 on eBay.
However, I was extremely unlucky and didn’t manage to snag any Jordan rookie cards. Not all was lost though. I got six Michael Jordan 1987-1988 Fleer cards – nowhere near the value of the Jordan rookie card – but still worth a few hundred dollars each in good condition.
But I did a really, really stupid thing, and I’m still kicking myself about it. Back in the day, I used to wrap my schoolbooks in contact paper. My elementary school required it so that our books wouldn’t get damaged. So I guess somehow I got it in my head that if I wanted to preserve my precious basketball cards, I needed to wrap them in contact paper.
BIG mistake. Because as soon as I put the contact paper on my best basketball cards, including all but one of my Jordan 87-88 Fleer cards, I instantly rendered those cards worthless. Thousands of dollars down the drain. I tried to remove the contact paper from the cards, but that only peeled off the front of them.
So what about the other Jordan card that I didn’t put contact paper on? I gave it to my cousin, for free. Yes, I just gave it to him because … I have no idea. When I realized my mistake with the other Jordan cards, I went to my cousin and tearfully begged him for the remaining card back. He didn’t want to return it to me though, because I gave it to him. Of course, he was right. Since I was desperate for the card (Michael Jordan was my idol), I offered to give him all the rest of my good cards. Thankfully, he accepted.
That Jordan 87-88 Fleer card remains the sole marquee card from my youth collecting days. It’s a great memento, but I feel like I missed out on some golden opportunities. I could be sitting on a bunch of cards worth hundreds of thousands of dollars right now. Instead, all I can ponder is the “what ifs”.
Fast forward to today. I’m trying to turn a room in my basement into a man cave with a basketball theme. I think about all of the various basketball-related memorabilia I can add to the room. Posters, autographed pictures, bobble heads. And then I think about basketball cards. (Yes, because nothing screams man cave like having a pile of random basketball cards lying around.)
The gears start turning. What if I collected basketball cards again, but in a savvier way? If I approached it more like an investor. After all, not many people predicted that Donovan Mitchell would take off like he did. Anyone who had the foresight to acquire a bunch of Mitchell rookie cards early in the season would’ve made a killing. Or so I thought.
After spending days doing research and scouring eBay for potential deals, I came to a couple of realizations. First, basketball cards are a horrible investment. Except for the most exclusive cards, they’re depreciating, illiquid assets, and whatever profit you might hope to eke out gets eaten up by transaction fees. There are so many other places I'd rather park my money.
The other thing that I realized: unlike the ‘80’s cards, certain cards from today have more limited print runs and come with player autographs and jersey patches. Which means you can splurge a little extra for a card autographed by your favorite player or a piece of his jersey inserted into the card.
So instead of trying to make a quick buck, I ended up buying two cards of my favorite players, John Wall and Kelly Oubre Jr., on eBay. I bought a John Wall autographed card for $30 and a Kelly Oubre Jr. jersey patch card for $15 (both negotiated down from the asking price). I especially liked the John Wall card because it was only one of ten issued and features Wall in the Wizards' Stars and Stripes uniform, one of the best ever created. It was a small premium to pay over the regular versions of the cards but well worth the money to me.
I also bought this spiffy Panini Flawless gold case to store the cards. It even came with its own set of keys!
It didn’t matter to me that the cards weren't in mint condition or weren't worth very much. It just gives me a special thrill to look at the cards and to find another way to connect with the game I love. Which, come to think of it, is why I started collecting basketball cards in the first place.
Postscript: After showing this post to my cousin, he disputed that I had given him the Michael Jordan 87-88 Fleer card in the first place. Then he said, "You act like some kind of hero. But you're really just a bully." Wow, I guess this is the thanks I get for being a generous cousin!