SB Nation

Amy K. Nelson | February 5, 2013

Poster boys

How the Costacos Brothers built a wall art empire

SEATTLE, 1984 – It all began with Prince. Naturally. One morning in his grandparents' house that sat atop his home city, John Costacos – just 23 years old – awoke to hearing “Purple Rain” on the radio.

A University of Washington graduate whose football team had the best defense in the country at the time, Costacos came up with the idea of making a "Purple Reign" T-shirt to honor the team, featuring a lineman in a purple jersey falling from a cloud in the sky. Costacos printed up the shirts, traveled to a road game at Stanford one fall weekend and sold them in the parking lot. The idea was brilliant. By the end of the first week, he later estimated he had sold 20,000.

Together, they created one of the most influential businesses in the history of sports marketing.

An idea was born. Along with his older brother, Tock, he parlayed those T-shirts into series of sports-themed posters that, like that first T-shirt, played on pop culture. Together, they created one of the most influential businesses in the history of sports marketing. Its lasting impact eventually would extend all the way to a New York City art gallery, where, 25 years later, those posters were viewed as art and sold for thousands. At one show Ultimate Fighting Championship president Dana White bought the entire gallery collection.

"The poster made you cool," NBA analyst and former player Charles Barkley said. "You didn't make the poster cool."

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Shawn Kemp Reign ManSuddenly every major athlete of the era wanted to appear in a Costacos poster

The posters were not only distinctive because of their originality – marrying pop culture and sports during an era of affluence when athletes were marketed as icons – many of them also projected a nuanced yet important image of athletes not as caricatures, but as men worthy of superhero status. That aspect had particular resonance among black athletes who had rarely been promoted in such a positive way.

Working out of their father's garage in downtown Seattle with a small group of childhood friends, the Costacos soon maxed out their credit line to create a business that captured the biggest sports stars of their era in a way that had never been done before. They convinced the athletes to pose for photographers in get-ups that were at once playful and positive, creating lasting and captivating images. They called Giants’ slugger Kevin Mitchell "Bat Man" and dressed him in a cape; running back Herschel Walker was "The H-Bomb," exploding out of a sea of fire.

"What the poster did was help me create my image," says Shawn Kemp, the one-time All-Star for the Seattle SuperSonics. "Because that stuff was big; there was no Internet, no YouTube. That stuff was very important back then, to do those little things to get your name out there."

The business really took off when Chicago Bears quarterback Jim McMahon's poster debuted in the fall of 1986. Suddenly every major athlete of the era wanted to appear in a Costacos poster, and it seemed as if nearly every young boy and girl in the country wanted one on his or her bedroom wall.

"They had a theme, a concept, that really took off," said baseball Hall of Famer Andre Dawson. "And it was interesting and exciting because it was different."

Now, nearly three decades since Prince inspired the brothers' business – and helped transform the future of athlete marketing – the brothers, the athletes, sports executives, agents, art dealers, friends and family members all reflect on a business that was unlike any of its time.

Watch the documentary

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John Costacos: I didn’t know anything about the T-shirt business and sold 23,000 shirts quickly and thought, "Oh this is kind of a good business to be in." So we were talking and came up with "Real Men Wear Black" for the Raiders. But it was really difficult; we couldn’t make enough money on each shirt because we weren’t able to manufacture our own. I was at a store in Seattle, called the Locker Room and I asked the women working there "What do people ask for that we don’t have?" And she said immediately, "A poster of Kenny Easley."

Kenny Easley was the NFL's 1984 Defensive Player of the Year and one of the fiercest players of his era. A fan favorite because of his play, Easley was temperamental and no easy get. Yet John was determined. He called Easley's agent, Leigh Steinberg, leaving a voice mail on a general answering machine. Jeff Moorad, a young agent new to the firm, picked up the message.

Jeff Moorad: The Costacos project was one of the first I ever worked on, and certainly the first with Kenny Easley, who was a pretty intimidating guy. In fact, probably the most intimidating player I ever met, even off the field.

John: We were so lucky because I think a lot of agents wouldn’t have even called back. And Jeff said, "Why should I do this with you? You’ve never done a poster." I said, "Because I’d never done a T-shirt before either. But we made that work and we will put our life in everything to make this a success."

Jeff Moorad: I was taken by John and his commitment to doing the right thing artistically. Showing Kenny Easley in a dark alley, wearing leather, obviously depicting him as "The Enforcer," was a perfect way to show one of the toughest defensive backs who has ever played in the NFL.

The real crazy idea that we did was to go after Jim McMahon the first year.

John: If Jeff Moorad hadn't called me back, I don't think we would have had a poster business.

While the Easley poster was the first one shot in the spring of 1986, it hadn't even been released before the brothers went after arguably the most popular and polarizing athlete in the country at the time.

Jim McMahon as Mad Mac

Tock Costacos: The real crazy idea that we did was to go after Jim McMahon the first year.

John: I don’t know where the idea came up but Mad Mac popped into my head and I thought "How can Jim McMahon say no to this? It’s too good an idea. It would be perfect for him." It suits his personality. Really he was the biggest name in sports; he was in commercials, he was rebellious, he was great. I told Tock, "Let’s send a letter to Jim McMahon’s agent."

Tock: Why wouldn’t you go after the biggest name in sports, right?

John: We talked about it but it was like, "If we can get him, he can always say no. But if he says yes, if we get him – we can get anybody."

John had an artist friend draft a poster board modeled off the Mel Gibson movie Mad Max, with McMahon dressed in post-apocalyptic regalia posing with a live bear cub. In his letter to McMahon, John included an 8x10 transparency from the Kenny Easley shoot – they were only 10 originals– and sent the letter out with a gut feeling that his shot-in-the-dark would work.

Jim McMahon: I saw a storyboard and I said, "Yeah, this looks pretty cool." And it just went from there.

Tock: I'm sitting at my parents’ house and John calls and he says, "Are you sitting down?" He goes "We just got McMahon but we have nine days to do it – what are we going to do? This may be the most elaborate shoot ever. With all the guys in the trucks and the bear and everything – we have nine days to pull this off."

Jim McMahon: I would have never thought of Mad Mac. They got the poster up against the Soldier Field backdrop and then you got guys on trucks. It looked like the Mad Max poster or movie set.

Tock had flown home from a Greek convention in Dallas earlier that week. On the plane he befriended a Chicago man and told him about the brothers' new business. The man told Tock that if he ever needed anything in Chicago to give him a call. A day later, Tock was on the phone.

Tock: It was checklist; we needed like thirty guys with football helmets, with no logos, and we needed a couple of semis and maybe some other four-wheel drives with the big lights and everything on them and…

John: … a generator truck … a photographer and a live bear cub.

Tock: He calls us back on two days later and he had everything.

Amy: When you're on the plane to Chicago to shoot the NFL Super Bowl MVP, what are you thinking?

John: Here we go.

The poster's release coincided with a Sports Illustrated feature on McMahon written by Chicago-based sportswriter Rick Telander, who was on the Bears' charter. John and Ray were on the same plane with the posters. Soon after, the lead of Telander's feature on the quarterback referred to McMahon as "Mad Mac." In Seattle, AP wrote a story on Telander's feature and an AP photographer called John and asked for a transparency of the poster to run alongside the piece. Once it hit the national wire, the Costacos’ brothers’ phones never stopped ringing.

Tock: You know, at the same time we are now in mid-September and the NFL season is starting up and everybody is doing a story about him. He is on Letterman and he is on the Good Morning America and he brought the poster with him on both those venues.

John: This was in 1986, this was pre-Internet, you know? To get something like that that quickly it was massive for us. It was great because the really aggressive agents would call. Steve Rosner calls me up on the phone and he said "Look I am Steve Rosner, Lawrence Taylor’s agent, you interested in doing a poster? Let’s talk." That’s how it happened.

Jim McMahon: They were original ideas, and I think that’s why the other guys liked to do them. And they made us look good.

The brothers set up shop in their father's downtown garage with a few of their childhood friends.

we sold over 100,000 the first year. You have to realize we didn't know what we were doing

John Costacos: We just did it all on debt and borrowed the money, hired the people, printed the posters and my father was in the parking business and he has gotten a little parking garage in downtown Seattle, it was built back in the ‘20s and it had some empty offices up on the top floor.

Chris Georgas, friend/sales manager: It was cold in the garage. The desks were scattered all over and Johnny was in the back. His brother had the office in the corner. And it was a little bit chaotic. We were all running around.

John: We moved into there, bought a phone system, and hired people and it just took off. The phone was ringing off the hook.

Tock: We were shipping thousands of posters and literally our warehouse was running 24 hours a day.

John: I know we sold over 100,000 the first year. You have to realize we didn't know what we were doing.

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One of the keys to the brothers' success was their different yet complimentary personalities. John, 14 months younger than Tock, was the face of the company and the driving creative force, usually using his R-rated sense of humor to put the athletes at ease. Tock was the businessman, handling the adult portion of the operation.

Tom Rees, friend/co-worker: Tock would always be to work on time and he would stay late. John would get in late and leave early. But, then again, John never really stops working. He is on all the time. He must make 100 phone calls a day. He’s totally connected. Tock is a details guy. And you needed both, that’s the amazing thing. John was the balloon and Tock was the string.

Eva Costacos, John and Tock’s mother: Johnny was very persistent and he found the agents.

Charles Barkley: John's personality is infectious, like he’s got batteries. I’m pretty sure if I looked up his ass, he’s got batteries.

Jim McMahon: They weren’t the corporate types you normally deal [with]; they were just kind of off the wall and "Hey, we’re doing this. We just started this thing." Their energy [and] enthusiasm was fun to be around. That’s why we did a lot of posters.

If players love you, you can do anything with them

Shawn Kemp: I didn't know who John was, but it didn't take me very long. Ken Griffey was a very good friend of mine. I'd go over to his house at night and we'd play video games. He had the posters all around his place, so it didn't take me very long to get familiar with how strong they were into the game.

Christian Okoye, Kansas City Chiefs running back: All the players they shot loved them, because they were very nice people, very comfortable. They made you feel comfortable when you go to their warehouse. If players love you, you can do anything with them.

Charles Barkley was the first NBA player the Costacos Brothers featured in a poster. A shy kid from Alabama, when Barkley first walked into Jerry Costacos' garage one afternoon in 1987 he towered over the two Greek bothers and their sister, Marianne, only 21 years old at the time. Thirty years later Barkley still remains friends with the family, and is particularly close to Marianne. Interviewed in Philadelphia in August 2012, John flew to Philly to surprise Barkley, sneaking up behind him five minutes into the interview and then joining in.

John: This was our first basketball one and I didn’t really know what to make of him, because you know, he’s …

Charles Barkley: At that time, I was really quiet and shy.

John: Yeah, especially quiet and shy.

Barkley: I don’t open up to strangers that often. Not only were you strangers, you’re strange, which compounds it. But there was something about their family that made me like them.

John: We had to send somebody out to get a jock strap.

Charles Barkley: Yeah, I remember that.

John: This is kind of what broke the ice, because my sister said she’ll go get it, because there was a sporting goods place not far from there. She asked "Small or extra small?" before she left. I think that’s what broke the ice.

Charles Barkley: (Barkley laughs.) A rubber band and a peanut shell will do. I remember that, because that’s like a unique situation.

John: You got to understand. My sister is like – she’s not even 5 feet tall. She’s a little tiny person.

Charles Barkley: You mean, just a little bit shorter than you. That’s what you really mean, right?

Charles Barkley and the Costacos BrothersRay Carr, Charles Barkley, John Costacos, Tock Costacos (L-R) at a family Christmas party.

Barkley may have been the first NBA player the brothers featured on a poster, but others followed, including Kemp. Part of what made the Costacos Brothers unique was their creative process, how they came up with ideas. Tom Rees, a friend and employee, was responsible for the poster title "Reign Man," showing Kemp performing one of his signature dunks. The nickname stuck and to this day is still something Kemp trades on.

Tom Rees: We had production meetings at least once a week where we’d get together either in a conference room or sometimes if it was nice enough we’d grab our baseball gloves and go out in the parking lot and throw the ball around and come up with ideas. It was always kind of a standing order that you would come with a notepad and keep it by you. I used to keep one by my bed stand. I would jot down ideas as they came to me. For example, Shawn Kemp, the "Reign Man," which was a name that I came up with right around 1992 or 1993; it wasn’t unusual for us to come up with nicknames for players. What made that one special is that the Sonics broadcaster Kevin Calabro picked up on it and used it all the time.

Kemp: John helped me out in so many ways, he probably doesn't realize it. Because just from that image alone, being a youngster, I was able to capitalize on it.

Ray Carr, friend/co-worker: You really couldn’t go use the competition as an example to do what you were doing because no one was really doing what Johnny was setting out to do. What John taught me is: Don’t be afraid to be creative. If you are creative, use your creative skills and have fun with it.

Tom Rees: We shot Bo Jackson at the apex of his career. I had spent the whole night building the set for the black and blue poster. About an hour before the shoot, John said "Hey, you got to go pick up Bo," and I was completely unprepared for it. I was all dirty. I said, "I don’t even have any gas in my car." He goes "Here take my car," which I think was like a 1985 Cutlass. So I pull up in front of Bo’s hotel and I park in the loading zone and I walk in and Bo’s sitting there in the lobby. We get in the car and I didn’t even know what to say to this guy because he’s just larger than life. It's just the two of us driving in this crappy Oldsmobile.

Another athlete the Costacos captured at the apex of his career was Kemp, who was beginning to develop a reputation for having one of the most dynamic dunks in the NBA. The poster only enhanced his image.

Kemp: I got big enjoyment out of slam-dunking. I still play and I still love to dunk the basketball. I think the reason that you see me smiling is because I was so successful at it, but also it was fun and it was challenging. You get known for it and you carry that, a badge of honor, around with you.

John: There wasn't a lot that was very exciting going on in Seattle sports when Shawn Kemp came to town in 1989. None of us knew anything about Shawn Kemp. We hadn't ever seen him play and since it was pre-Internet, there wasn't any way to learn about the top high school players, which was in essence what he was. I was skeptical until I saw him dunk. It was awesome. The fans came to love him pretty quickly. He made some mistakes, but the dunks were so huge and athletic that the Key went crazy whenever he did it. He was huge in Seattle.

Kemp: It was fun, because when you're a young person, you look for opportunities to broaden your horizon – you look for things that excite you. The team can come to you with so many things that are unexciting. So when you finally find something that you get excited about, it means a lot to you. When it comes to posters, I've always been a fan. I had a Larry Bird poster, a Magic Johnson poster, a Dr. J poster growing up. So when they told me they were going to do a "Reign Man" poster, I was excited.

John: That was always fun for us when we came up with a good name for someone and the national broadcasters and sportswriters used it. It was nice because it took on a life of its own and we were along for the ride.

By '95, everywhere that I would go, every guy was trying to do a poster
with you

Kemp: I would like to see a collage of all of the posters that he done back in the ‘90s. Because he was a busy man doing a lot of poster work.

John Costacos: I'll e-mail you the latest so you can see them. Sports Illustrated's got like 40 of 'em now on their website.

Kemp: By '95, everywhere that I would go, even to the All-Star games, every guy was trying to do a poster with you.

In the early ‘90s not only were the Sonics and Kemp hugely popular, but so, too, was the Seattle-based band Pearl Jam. John’s neighbor was bassist Jeff Ament and John came up with the idea to shoot the band and Kemp together.

Kemp: The poster with Pearl Jam with Jeff came out to be a very good poster, and it really did well in this area for a lot of community work that I did. Kids love that, being that I'm a black guy, that I reached out, doing different events with white guys who were rockers at the time. It's a cool, unique twist. I did that shoot in cutoff sweats.

John Costacos: It was the grunge years. Ament was in his grunge shorts and I think he had on his trademark stocking hat.

Kemp: I think that's what it takes – it takes people to kind of go outside of their box a little bit to communicate with others.

Most of the athletes the Costacos' worked with were paid a $2,500 flat fee, with a guarantee against 7.5 percent royalties, an arrangement that proved lucrative to the athletes and the Costacos. Yet apart from the money, the brothers most valued the endless stories that resulted from the business, from on-set near disasters to practical jokes and friendships.

Tom Roberts, friend/employee: I didn’t know Wayne Gretzky was that tall. I guess it had something to do with the skates or whatever, but we’re on the ice and we have all these pucks around him and the goal. He’s really a nice guy but he was very patient because we couldn’t get the shot right.

John: I had never met Wayne. We were down on the ice at the Forum and we’re putting the pucks in the net and all of a sudden I turn around and here’s Wayne Gretzky skating towards us. Tom and I talked about it afterward. We felt like Wayne and Garth, "We’re not worthy, we’re not worthy." Meeting Gretzky the first time was pretty cool – I don’t know how to explain that, but there was just something about Wayne Gretzky skating up to us on the ice ready to go and we’re just looking up and going "Wow, we’re shooting a poster with Wayne Gretzky."

Andy Bernstein, LA photographer: You’re putting guys in really funny positions, you know? I mean [former Indians slugger] Cory Snyder’s holding a smoking baseball, which almost burned his hand off.

You can never do that today.

Kirk Gibson, former LA Dodger: We shot "Big Game Hunter" on a road near Dodgertown. Here we are out in the boonies. I remember the whole jeep and we had the cage back there; those were supposed to be the pitchers I captured with my gun.

Andy Bernstein: As John probably told you, he didn’t have a license in the beginning for any of the leagues, any of the teams. He had to exploit whatever kind of publicity a guy had or a nickname. And he actually gave a lot of guys nicknames. It just mushroomed from there.

Andre Dawson: The concept, because my nickname was "the Hawk," was to create a poster where I come eye-to-eye with a hawk. This thing was 40 pounds. I caught glimpses of myself looking up at him, and he was staring down at me. I'm like "Wow, as long as he doesn't get a hold of my neck …"

Christian Okoye: They called me, because my nickname was getting very popular.

John: The "Nigerian Nightmare." I don’t think we created that. That was already out there.

Okoye: If you see the poster, the way they dress some guys up ... the Broncos player and Chargers player, hiding underneath the turf. When I got there and saw what they were doing, I did not have any questions whatsoever, because I knew it was going to be good.

One nickname the brothers did help develop was "The Bash Brothers," for Oakland A’s sluggers Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco.

Here I am, in Soldier Field with McMahon, Payton, and Payton’s Lamborghini and a trunk full of guns

John: They were doing the forearm bash, that's what everybody was calling it. Well, we had already made a deal and we were going to call it "The Blast Brothers" and make it look the same. But then we said, "Well, let's change ‘The Blast Brothers’ to ‘The Bash Brothers.’"

Ray: Do you remember the show Miami Vice? Obviously, Chicago Vice is a take off, perfect. When you think of the white silk suit, and Don Johnson, McMahon [was] perfect, perfect fit. Crockett and Tubbs, McMahon and Payton.

John: [I remember] Walter Payton showing up and telling me he was leaving because we weren’t ready to shoot, and getting to the door and turning around, going "No, I’m just messing with you." That was my introduction to Walter Payton. He was a great guy. And then there was the arsenal of guns that he brought for the shoot. That was kind of funny.

Ray: Walter liked the idea of having guns in the shot and I said, "Well, we don’t have any guns, Walter. It's not really an option for this shot. It's not really going to happen." He goes, "Well, I do." At that point he proceeded to open his trunk, which was full of weapons. Here I am, once again, in Soldier Field at probably 9:30 at night with McMahon, Payton, and Payton’s Lamborghini and a trunk full of guns.

McMahon: Walter enjoyed shooting the weapons.

Another Costacos Brothers trademark was casting friends and family in the posters, and giving them credit lines. The poster of Brian Bosworth "The Land of Boz" was one of their most ambitious, featuring a Playboy bunny as Dorothy, and the son of a friend as a "bozkin."

John Costacos getting a lift on the set of Brian Bosworth's shootJohn Costacos getting a lift on the set of Brian Bosworth's shoot.

Ray Carr: I remember the Boz idea. I remember talking about it with you and Tock …

Tom Rees: You were the only one that could talk to him.

John: As soon as he (Bosworth) announced he was going to go pro I sent a letter to him at the Oklahoma athletic department. His agent called a week later. There’s no Internet or anything at the time so I was his eyes and ears in Seattle. He was like "What are they saying in the papers about him?" He was holding out, trying to get the biggest contract possible. I was probably the first person he met (in Seattle) outside the Seahawks.

We went out to have dinner with him. Some lady and her husband came up. She was so excited to see him. She goes "Mr. Boswell, I’m your biggest fan." [John is laughing] So I started calling him "Boswell" ever since and he's gotten mad at me… One time he said, "I’m going to kick your little Greek ass [laughing]." Another time he said, "You call me that again I’m never talking to you again."

Jerry Costacos: I think the most memorable shoot was Ickey Woods (Cincinnati Bengals running back). Their mother had complained that I was in a poster and they didn’t put her in a poster. It was a little sore spot with Eva.

Eva Costacos: I thought it was ridiculous, because Jerry was working all the time.

Jerry: She says, "I bore you, I brought you in this world, I looked after you, and your father was working, and you didn’t put me in a poster."

Eva: I read to them, I had all these creative things – and here they put their dad in two posters. I said "I cannot believe that they didn’t put me in a poster." So, I made them put me in a poster.

John, (pointing to the poster): That's Ickey's wife. That is my mom. Those are our neighbors. She worked for us. His dad worked for us. That is my dad's boyhood friend and a stuffed Bengal tiger that she had at this house. The rest of the people worked for us. That is our dad [dressed as the ref with his arms raised]. These other people worked for us.

Tock: We put our dad in our first catalogue as a referee. Underneath all of the posters, you have the title of the poster, and then in the margin it just says "Our dad."

In the mid-80s, Joe Ruback was a college freshman living in a dorm. Ruback, today known as "License Plate Guy," travels to every New York Giants game wearing license plates around his neck and has always been a huge Giants fan. When he was in college he had the Costacos' Lawrence Taylor "Terminator" poster up on the wall of his dorm room. After a weekend away he returned and discovered that the poster had been ripped down. He wrote the Costacos a letter, asking if they would send him another poster. John read the letter and sent Ruback ten LT posters.

John: Ruback is Mr. Giant. On his Facebook page, under "Religion" it says "Giants."

Ruback: When he sent me those posters, he made a friend for life.

John: He started calling me and saying, "Well, what else are you going to do, everybody loves this player, what do you think of this?" He became our eyes and ears. Remember, this is 1987, and we are getting a lot of information from our friends in other cities. We had this college kid was a big sports fan in New York saying, "What do you think about this guy?" and "No, don’t do that guy, nobody likes him."

Ruback: Who does that? Who sends a kid posters and says, "Enjoy." I loved the guy. He was my idol. I wanted to meet that guy. I wanted to work for that guy.

John: I never met him and then in 2010 in the fall I get this phone call: "Hello, is this John Castacos? You might not remember me but this is Joe Ruback from New York." I was like "No way!" He and his wife had come to Seattle for the Giants-Seahawks game. I had never met him. That’s when I first met this guy who probably called me once a week for the first four years of our business.

Tock: Great guy. We’re watching Sunday Night or Monday Night Football and my wife, Terry, said, "’Honey, I think I just saw Joe on TV." I said "Joe who?" She goes, "'Joe Ruback, you guys’ biggest fan." John was in New York and I know John keeps in touch with him. So I text John and I go, "Terry swears she just saw Joe." John had been watching the game, too, and he says "I just saw him too. I texted him, he’s at the game."

One of the trademarks of the Costacos posters is that they would give credit to special friends or others who helped, like local police departments, at the bottom left corner. On the LT poster, a special thanks is given to Joe Ruback.

John: It was nice of the Oakland Police to let us use their car. The A's got them for us. It was great. We said, "Do you know anybody in the police department? We would like to get a police car."

McMahon with Costacos FamilyThe Costacos family poses with Jim McMahon after a shoot.

While most interactions with athletes were primarily business relationships, a few, like Barkley and Jim McMahon, remain close to the family. When McMahon was the backup quarterback in San Diego, the Chargers played Seattle on Halloween weekend. Facing a curfew, McMahon devised a strategy to escape detection.

Ray: It's the night before the game but he still wanted to hang out with us at the party so we were trying to figure out a way -- how can we get McMahon out so he can go to the party and have a good time?

McMahon: Ahh, the big (Halloween) party at the mall.

Ray: McMahon doesn’t do anything normal. We’re out front of the hotel and rather than him just walk out, all of a sudden, from the second-floor balcony, with this sheet thrown over himself, he jumps off the railing.

John: I told him, "If the team can't prove it's you, they can’t fine you."

McMahon: I got away with one there.

John: So here’s this big party, here’s Jim with a Cookie Monster mask.

McMahon: We stopped at a 7-Eleven and got a Cookie Monster mask. Everybody was in all these extravagant costumes, and I show up in jeans and that Cookie Monster mask.

Ray: It was a 5-year-old’s Cookie Monster mask .

In 1996, the brothers sold their company to Day Dream Publishing

Jim McMahon: It was hard to drink. You had to lift it up [to drink] but it was fun. It was a good party. … Good thing I had the mask or everybody would have known who it was. They would have been saying "Aren’t you playing tomorrow?" Yeah, maybe.

Ray: Just Halloween with the Poster Boys, just another crazy day.

Once the Costacos Brothers got licensing deals with all the leagues and their respective unions, their personal creative influence began to become diluted, and as the company began to grow it operated more like a real business. In 1996, the brothers sold their company to Day Dream Publishing. John traveled through Europe on a motorcycle for six months, while Tock stayed with the company for a few more years.

Eva Costacos: Johnny sort of couldn’t create like he wanted to create. I think they found as they grew there were a lot more barriers in their way. It just wasn’t as much fun.

John: It really began to change in the early ‘90s when the sales of licensed sports products quit growing. We were getting pressure from some of the licensors to increase the number of players we were doing. … We were having to create so many posters in order to keep the licensors happy that I got away from the creative side of it. It wasn’t as fun for me. It just was the natural progression. … I loved the creativity and working with the players. I was still doing some of it but it wasn’t full time, so it wasn’t as fun.

Jerry Costacos: After they sold it I thought, "Gosh, this is the end of an era." It's something that you’re never going to see again. And then the gallery opened and I got really excited. I thought, "Well, there’s a resurrection here to what they did. Somebody really appreciates an era of sports that was really unequaled."

Posters that originally sold for as little as a few dollars now were going for $2,500 apiece

Adam Shopkorn grew up in New York City in the ‘80s, a sports fan who decorated his walls with many of the Costacos Brothers’ posters. Although he later became an art gallery dealer, he remained a sports fan. He called John Costacos cold and eventually convinced the brothers to cooperate with a gallery show. The first such show, "For The Kids," opened at Salon 94 in New York City on June 23, 2011. Posters that originally sold for as little as a few dollars now were going for $2,500 apiece.

Adam: Having grown up with a demographic of adults who grew up with these posters, I just wanted to bring them back into the public consciousness.

John: Adam said, "I think you guys defined an era in the imagery of sports. You guys came in and you turned it on its side and did something completely different. A lot of people followed what you guys did." I never really thought about it that way. I wasn’t going to argue with him. You want to do an art show in New York with my posters? Be my guest. So I said, "Okay, you have to talk to my brother."

Tock: He just seemed legitimate. I didn’t understand, but "OK, if you want to do the art show, I am fine with that," you know? But I didn’t see the point of it. When we got interviewed over the phone maybe a week or two before we went to New York, one of the questions was "What was your artistic inspiration?" I’m thinking to myself "It was Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone movies."

Adam: I just think the work should be shown in a different context. Mounting them and framing them immortalizes them.

Dana White, UFC president: As I walked around the exhibit and saw the posters it was very nostalgic for me. They're posters that I remember, and they’re athletes that I remember. I didn't go there to buy anything, I just went there to see it. I liked them a lot, and there were so many there I liked I said "What's the point in only getting a few? I might as well snatch them all." Plus, A-Rod was there, and I didn’t want him to start snatching them up before I could.

John: That Dana White came in and liked this stuff… that means a lot. He was probably in the demographic of the kids that we were selling to. So to have that guy be a successful grown-up who can choose anything to put on his walls and he chooses our stuff? That feels really nice.

Tock: John and I went to the gallery in New York and saw all of the posters in one place for the first time over 20 years. Then I understood why Adam had seen what I was still looking at.

Costacos brothers with the Bash brothersJose Canseco, John Costacos, co-worker Scott Figueroa, Mark McGwire after Bash Brothers shoot.

In January, 2012, Shopkorn opened "For The Kids" at the Country Club gallery in Los Angeles. Five former Raiderette cheerleaders, whom John shot in 1992, traveled to the show, as did friends, photographers and even the former Playboy playmate Ava Fabian who played Dorothy in "The Land of Boz" poster. At the gallery they reflected on the Costacos Brothers' legacy.

Jeff Moorad, agent: I think Costacos became known as a little bit of the anti-culture poster, rather than more traditional sports posters. They were willing to capture personality.

Jerry Costacos: They should be remembered for innovative posters that had a substance to them.

Christian Okoye: If you think back when these guys were doing this work, they were it. Back then, if you did a poster with Costacos Brothers, you knew you’d made it. It’s kind of like if you’re on Madden video [game cover] … because not everybody gets featured. If you did a poster with these guys, you should be proud of yourself. You did something right.

If you did a poster with these guys, you should be proud of yourself

Jim McMahon: They just did things differently business-wise and then friendship-wise. There’s not many relationships that I had with other guys that I’ve done endorsements for. In fact, I don’t think I can think of any – once you’re done with a shoot you’re pretty much done. With these guys it was a lot different.

Chris Georgas: There’s no question that the Costacos Brothers’ legacy is definitely going to be about persuasion. These athletes are very guarded and closed. They don’t want to be persuaded, pushed, pursued and prodded. Only Johnny would be able convince somebody like Brian Bosworth to dress up like the "Wizard of Boz."

Tom Rees: I think the legacy would be that they created memorable images of players from a time when there was nothing like that around. Everything before then was not as creative. That was a magical time for sports, I think, the ‘80s. It started with the ’86 Bears in my opinion, Jim McMahon and Walter Payton and those guys. We just tried to ride that. We tried to make it fun, bringing cartoons to professional sports, and we had a great time. We really didn’t know what we were doing. We were just making it up as we went along. We knew there was a market for it because stuff was selling.

Joe Ruback: John and Tock were way, way ahead of the game.

Charles Barkley: I think they came in at a really good time, but I think they were just very smart guys, who had a great concept, and it was cool to be a part of it.

Andy Bernstein, LA photographer: I’ve been around athletes for my whole career, 33 years. You’ll never have athletes do this again, ever, even if they’re getting paid big bucks by Nike or Reebok or Adidas, because this is all tongue in cheek, real campy stuff.

Adam Shopkorn: It's an inside joke to the whole bunch. We have to get the modern-day athletes today to see this work, because I think they’ll appreciate the spontaneity and the improvisation. If they were to do something like this today, maybe people would be able to relate to them a little bit more.

John: I think both of us probably feel really good to have been really, really good at something… I think we were the best at what we did…I think we both feel really, really lucky to have just happened to find something that we were really, really good at and maybe the best at for a while. That’s a pretty good feeling.

Video Team

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About the Author

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Amy K. Nelson is senior correspondent for SB Nation. She is currently trying to make YouTube video magic for SB Nation's online television launch on March 1. She is a former resident of Costa Rica, loves wine and The Wire.

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