There are seminal moments in the life of any sports card collector, and one of mine came on a fall night in 1986.
At the time, I was a 27-year-old sports editor for The Messenger in Madisonville. On this evening I had stopped in a convenience store on Grapevine Road on the south side of town.
It was late, and as I recall, a Sunday night. Other than the clerk up front, I was the only person in the store. Just as I was about to leave, out of the corner of my eye I noticed a box of Fleer basketball cards on a shelf.
Basketball cards? I was intrigued because basketball cards hadn’t been mass-produced by a major sports card company in a few years. I held the box in my hands and noticed only four wax packs had been sold, meaning their were 32 remaining.
I handed the box to the clerk and said I wanted to purchase the remaining packs. Turns out, they were 40 cents apiece, so the price I paid that night was $12.80 (plus tax).
Cutting to the chase, it turns out there were four Michael Jordan rookie cards in the box (good ol’ card No. 57), as well as a Jordan sticker insert. Through the years, in various deals through eBay, with friends, at yard sales, etc., I made about $3,000 profit from my original purchase. Mine are all gone now, with the exception of a few common sticker inserts.
Fast forward to last Thursday night, when someone bought at auction a sealed case (12 boxes) of 1986 Fleer basketball cards for nearly $1.8 million. It was the first such case brought to auction in more than 20 years.
Granted, mathematics was neither my favorite nor my best subject in school, but I’ve always been pretty solid at standard multiplication, and putting the calculator to this auction proved to be mind-blowing.
The winning bidder paid the equivalent of (gulp!) $149,143 per box, which calculates to (double gulp!) $4,413 per wax pack — let those numbers ramble around your gray matter for a moment.
A little background.
Almost from the beginning, the Jordan card was one of the touchstones of the industry, steadily increasing in value as the superstar’s career with the Chicago Bulls ascended. It became significantly more pronounced in the aftermath of the six NBA titles Jordan led the Bulls to in the 1990s, and his multitude of accompanying endorsements.
The Jordan brand transcended sports, and, besides, at the core of it all was the notion that Jordan was generally considered the greatest basketball player of all time.
In the years following his retirement, however, the popularity of Jordan’s rookie card stabilized, and even waned at times, which is perfectly understandable — a new generation of superstar players and dynastic teams emerged in the years following Jordan’s retirement.
All of this changed, however, in the spring when — amid the COVID-19 outbreak — ESPN rush-released “The Last Dance,” a riveting 10-part documentary on Jordan’s life and career. With virtually no other live sports to watch at the time, the miniseries garnered impressive TV ratings, and, well, Jordan’s legacy once again shot straight into the stratosphere.
Since it aired, Jordan’s rookie card has assumed the same trajectory — as last week’s eye-popping auction so clearly revealed.