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Hideous collectibles of the NBA Draft's golden age

Basketball cards that look like the covers of smooth jazz albums. Basketball cards that look like hostage photos. We may never collect like this again.

The most important thing to know about the boom years in trading cards during the early 1990s was that no one involved with it knew what the hell they were doing.

I participated in it, and am very much included in this. It did not seem strange or unlikely to me, at that time, that I might someday pay for college by selling off my collection of Billy Owens rookie cards, provided I kept those cards well-protected in hard plastic sleeves. I thought this because I had not yet seen Billy Owens try to play in the NBA, and because I didn't know how much college cost -- anyway, who was to say I wasn't going to have a basketball scholarship, I was on the travelling team, and we won the Tri-County Championship. My excuse is that I was 12 years old.

The people making and selling those basketball cards to me did not have that excuse. They seemed startled by the fact that so many people were purchasing so many cards, and they responded by making as many of those cards as quickly as they possibly could. Not multiple sets of these cards, mind, but just printing hundreds of thousands of the same cards, all of which looked more or less like this:


With the exception of Christian Laettner's extremely good hair, there's nothing above that suggests much thought on anyone's part. It looks like someone from Upper Deck asked the third pick of the 1992 NBA Draft to sit on a guardrail near the long term parking area at Newark Airport, walked a few feet away and down some steps, and took the picture just as Laettner was saying "tell me when you're taking the picture, please."

We could take issue with Laettner's Cross Colours dungaree selection and every single aesthetic aspect of the card itself, but the fact of the matter is that this basketball card is, in its way, totally perfect. It reflects, in a way that is not necessarily flattering but is totally accurate, both the degree of seriousness that all involved brought to the endeavor AND the dubious fashions of the era.

There will never be basketball cards like this again, both because today's rising NBA rookies dress a lot better than they used to, and because cards this deliriously janky simply could not exist in this comparatively staid and notably less teal era. Here is what we're missing. Here are the cards we will never see again.

Draft Night Proof-Of-Life Cards

Then, as now, the NBA Draft is a big night for those selected. Then, as now, they spend most of the evening being shuttled from one media availability to another, being photographed and interviewed and fielding various phone calls. This chaotic churn begins 90 seconds before their selection is announced, when Adrian Wojnarowski tweets the name of the team that's selected them, and ends more or less when they retire, with periodic breaks for rehabilitating injuries or playing in Milwaukee.

At some point, the heaviness of all this begins to sink in. Here is what that looks like:

At their best, this type of card manages to convey both the rush of excitement and delight and the sudden oh-shit-this-is-really-happening-now madness of the moment. There are novels to be written about everything going on in this Yinka Dare rookie card, for instance.


All those novels should start with a 45-page description of his suit jacket.

The Smooth Jazz Cards

Sometime between the end of the NBA Summer League and the beginning of the NBA season, this year's rising NBA rookies will go to the NBA Rookie Shoot and have their pictures taken. They'll be photographed scowling, smiling, dunking, jumping, and so on in the uniforms they have not yet worn in NBA games. This is not a perfect solution -- the photos inevitably come out kind of same-y, and at the Rookie Shoot I worked during my time at Topps, Renaldo Balkman wandered off, in his Knicks uniform, and was AWOL for a half hour or so in suburban New York. Still, the Rookie Shoot does what it's supposed to do.

The Rookie Shoot also looks especially good when you consider the alternative to those same-y photos, which is this:


This is a notable card because it looks like the cover of a jazz guitar album with a title like Beyond The Arc or Perimeter Explorations. But it's less notable because basically every rookie card from this set looked more or less like it. It took some close examination just to determine that Bryant Stith hadn't just put on Horry's shirt when he was done with it.


Some of this may have been a product of the times, to be fair. The early 1990s were an era in which everyone, male and female, dressed more or less like a screensaver, and NBA Draft picks are not exempt from that. Anyway, it could always have been worse. There could have been jeans.

Michael Jordan: The Denim Collection Cards

Are these good looking cards? No they are not. But the people behind them deserve some credit for anticipating, all the way back in 1992, how Michael Jordan would dress in 2014.


Swap out that unfortunate stone-washed backdrop for futuristic (circa 1993) graphics, and the effect is still remarkable.


All golden ages must end, of course, and this one was too goofy to last. But while the cards that came out of that time did not turn out to be quite the investment anyone involved hoped, that doesn't mean they're worthless. In monetary terms, yes, it does mean that. In every other sense, though, they're priceless. Including the sense in which they are unsellable at any price.