NBA

In the Cards: Finding the next, next, next Michael Jordan

A burgeoning card collecting obsession sends one determined man on a hunt for the next, next, next Michael Jordan rookie card.

I feared telling my girlfriend how much I spent on sports cards. My resurrected hobby might be the closest I’ve come to addiction. At first, the rush grew stronger with each pack bought. The hysteria of outlandish values and toilet paper-like scarcity due to the pandemic stoked my appetite. I reassured her that the value of the cards would appreciate.

The truth is a few might. Most definitely would not. She isn’t into sports, but the stock market analogy gave her some inkling why I opened my laptop every half hour (or more often) to check box scores. A 46-year-old self-employed writer and editor, my sports expertise definitely outweighed my finance savvy.

With Opening Day fever, my first misguided mission came in collecting the Topps 2021 Series 1 baseball cards. I believed in 20 years people would look back on these pandemic years of card scarcity with a mix of lament, awe and, of course, nostalgia. I will. During a month or so of spring, I even looked forward to my girlfriend handing me a grocery list. I opted for Walmart where they sold cards instead of our local grocery store.

If investing was my primary goal, though, I violated most fundamental collecting principles. I’d never collected with an adult savvy and my eagerness to jump back into sports collectibles blinded me. That Topps Series 1 I spent hundreds of dollars building pack by pack, not to mention gas money, I could buy on eBay right now for $24. Hopefully, I’ll be around to see its worth in 2041, but my expectations have sunk.

Like any investment, whether stocks, homes or sports collectibles, the key is “buying low” and “selling high.” I came in at peak craze, the worst time to buy, thinking values would keep ascending. Trading cards were alternative investments like Bitcoin, articles said, and Wall Street hot-shots teamed up to form investment groups that drove card prices into the millions.

Since those numbers were a fantasy land, the good news was I already owned valuable cards. As a child, luck guided my best purchases. Gung ho about baseball and football cards in the early 1980s, my younger brother reminded me how we bought some NBA packs at the batting cages while practicing for our imagined MLB careers. I was 12 when we bought a few packs of 1986 Fleer NBA cards. Our lawn mowing or car washing chores could have afforded these packs, probably for less than $1 each. This was Fleer’s first basketball set, so it includes what’s considered Michael Jordan’s rookie card along with several other first-year cards of stars. Neither of us landed Jordan’s rookie. However, I did get a Dominique Wilkins rookie ($15,000 most recent sale in top condition) and my brother owns Karl Malone ($4,300) and Hakeem Olajuwon ($6,500) rookies. The following year, we each landed a Michael Jordan. My brother has Jordan’s regular card and I landed his more rare All-Star sticker.

By the mid-1980s we’d learned something about card collecting. Unlike my older baseball cards, many of my basketball cards looked untouched in their protective plastic pages. I can’t say if my Michael Jordan will qualify for a perfect 10 score, called “Gem Mint” condition, but I’m dying to know since it last fetched nearly $48,000. For much of March, I envisioned selling my collection and buying the house that’s eluded me during the pandemic.

For the Jordan and Wilkins cards, no plastic case, bubble wrap or cardboard would make me comfortable sending without learning how to insure them first. So I gathered some guinea pigs of which I owned doubles or triples for a cross-country trip to PSA, the best-known grading service company. Before I could even second-guess paying $200 to grade the 1987 Bird Fleer Sticker (a perfect one getting $1,000), PSA suspended grading because of a backlog.

How do you find the next Michael Jordan rookie card?

With the chance at liquidating my old inventory gone and the thrill of buying new packs fizzling, I needed another direction. “The Last Dance” documentary on Jordan and the Bulls undoubtedly helped fuel the trading card boom. I needed to find the Next Jordan…or Kobe…or LeBron. Of course, the “Greek Freak” and Luka Doncic are legit candidates. Zion, too. Yet their best cards already cost thousands. Plural. I needed the Next, Next, Next Jordan.

In early March, I scouted NBA’s Rookie of the Year candidates. LaMelo Ball was the frontrunner. I knew Ball’s hype machine father and older brother Lonzo. Anthony Edwards of the Timberwolves? I knew nothing about this guy with an outside shot for ROY. They both already had cards going for more than $1,000 on eBay, but I tracked the sales of lower-priced cards. Then, I saw the headline in late March: “LaMelo Ball expected to miss rest of season with fractured wrist.”

It’s rare for a No. 1 pick to feel like an underdog, but “Ant-Man” Edwards had played only one year at Georgia. At only 19 years old, Edwards had improved markedly since the All-Star Break. Barring an injury, I decided he would win ROY. Mind you, I’d never seen him play.

Nevertheless, I needed to act before everyone realized he was the Next, Next, Next Jordan. I found an already-graded “Gem Mint 10” Pink Panini Prizm for $350. That was more money than I’d ever spent on a card. After I bought it, the seller thanked me: “A hard one to sell on my end.” That’s the last thing you want to hear. I wondered if the pink held less value for “manly” collectors. If so, I liked it all the more.

The immediate payoff of cards came in following sports closely again, as the pandemic heightened my desire for light-hearted diversion. When I finally could watch Edwards against the Nets and Knicks, my encased pink Edwards card sat on the floor next to my recliner, out of sight from my girlfriend. I’d tell her about it after it doubled its value.

A shooting guard like Jordan, Edwards looked a bit like his Airness. With a sinewy frame, he hung a little longer than others on some shots. And he can dunk. I learned Edwards had endured tragedy at 13 years old, losing both his mother and grandmother to cancer in a span of months. His older brother and sister assumed legal custody. Perhaps he’d gained a unique perspective because he looked playful on the court and during interviews. I watched him poof up his locks, presumably watching his own image on Zoom. When Edwards said he had no idea who A-Rod was, I’d found a new sports hero.

Edwards won Rookie of the Month in March, April and May. A month after I’d bought my pink Edwards card, I delighted when another one sold for $500. Then came the news: A surprise comeback by Ball. I admit hoping Ball rushed his return and lingering effects would hurt his game. Yet Ball returned to superstar form in most games and helped the Hornets seal a play-in playoff game.

Before the Rookie of the Year announcement in June, I read the book Mint Condition my brother loaned me. Dave Jamieson’s book proved a timely introduction to the godfather of card collecting, Jefferson Burdick, who took the hobby to another level in the mid-1900s. I’d never heard of Burdick, who’d lived in nearby Syracuse. Burdick joked that collecting cards left no time for romance and never married. In spite of chronic arthritis, he maintained a factory job that afforded him the cards he filled in his apartment across the street from work. He created The American Card Catalog and admonished fellow collectors who tried driving card prices up to a dime. To Burdick, the pictures on cards held historical value. Eventually, he began donating his collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. He mailed cards from Syracuse before moving to Manhattan and stationing a desk at the museum. After years, Burdick mounted his last card. He said to museum staff, “I shan’t be back.” Burdick checked into a hospital days later and died within months at 63 years old.

After reading about Burdick, I knew my collecting needed to be about more than investment. His folk legend cushioned the blow when Ball won Rookie of the Year. Around the same time, the card market fell off. People’s lives started returning to something like normal. My pink Edwards card is now valued at around $100.

As our house-hunting prospects dimmed, my girlfriend, who holds dual citizenship between the U.S. and Brazil, began persuading me to return to her native country. Before I could list my concerns, she anticipated one.

“You can’t buy your cards,” she said.

I laughed. My addiction hadn’t reached that level yet, had it? Mostly, I thought I could use a break from the hobby. Also, I love my girlfriend and want my life to transcend far beyond trading cards (and I have now confessed my emotional and financial investment in Anthony Edwards). Still, I had one question for my girlfriend before we left for Brazil.

“Were you serious when you said your nephew lined up on Saturday mornings for soccer cards?” I asked.