Just about 25 years ago, the trading card company Skybox International released its inaugural set of NBA cards. Do you remember that? That was a thing.
I used to collect trading cards. This was back when I was in elementary school. The sport didn’t matter. If there was a card for it, I wanted it. Really, it didn’t even have to be a sport. It just had to be a card. MTV used to have a series of rapper trading cards tied in with Yo! MTV Raps. I would have killed for those. There were wrestler trading cards, comic-book character trading cards, Simpsons trading cards, horror movie trading cards. Looney Tunes and this card company called Upper Deck released a series called Comic Ball, which featured cartoon characters playing baseball. My grandma bought me a box for my birthday the year they came out and I swear to God I would’ve married her right there if that was a thing that was allowed. I seem to remember a series of cards based on famous racists from history, but that can’t possibly be right.
Anyway: I really liked trading cards. And I don’t know that I ever cared about any of them more than that first Skybox series, from the 1990-91 season.
Look at them. LOOK AT THEM.
They’re goddamn beautiful. They were beautiful back then because they were so futuristic and ambitious,1 and they’re even more beautiful now. The picture above is from a box I bought recently on eBay for $12.95, which is maybe the best deal of my life because I would’ve happily paid $1,295 for it, or even $12,950 if I ever had that much money. I spent two full days slowly opening all the packs (36 come in a box) and organizing each of the cards (a mammoth 15 per pack) into different groups. It was so much fun.
They had a projected stats line on the back that showed what a player would average if he were to play 48 minutes per game, preceding the advanced analytics movement by nearly two decades.
I’d originally thought this was going to be a thing I did with my sons; we’d open up the packs, and I’d talk to them about how I’d done the same thing with my dad when I was close to their age, talk to them about some of the players in some of the packs, make some comparisons to NBA players they know about now from the games we’ve watched together, on and on. It was going to be very dope. But then one of the boys opened up one of the packs a little too aggressively and ended up bending a Joe Wolf card and I was like, “OK, you know what, never mind. You guys gotta get away from me right now.” I mean, those weren’t the literal words that came out of my mouth, but you get it. My blood turned black when it happened. And I don’t even like Joe Wolf. I don’t even know who Joe Wolf is.2 But you can’t unbend a card, dude. What if it would’ve been a Dominique Wilkins card or a John Stockton card or a Larry Bird card or, heaven forbid, a David Robinson card? If one of them had bent a David Robinson card — man, best-case scenario is that I just never love that kid fully again. Worst-case scenario is now I have to have a very long conversation with the adoption agency about what sort of home I’m hoping he lands in. So get away from me.
He played center for the Clippers that season and averaged 4.8 points, 3.0 rebounds, 0.8 assists, 0.3 blocks, and 0.4 steals per game.
A thing I used to do before I’d open a box of cards was make a checklist of players I was hoping to get. The nerdiest thing I can remember doing is opening up packs during Shaq’s rookie year and quietly chanting, “I feel like a Shaquille, I feel like a Shaquille,” to myself. I think that means I was hoping that, if there weren’t a Shaq card in there, my mystic voodoo words would somehow morph one of the non-Shaq cards into a Shaq card, but I think maybe it also means that I didn’t have a lot of friends in 1992.
Anyway, the thing with making the checklist: I did that here with this box of Skybox cards, too. These are the six cards I was very much hoping to get:
- Patrick Ewing card
- Scottie Pippen card
- Charles Barkley card
- Reggie Miller card
- Michael Jordan card
- Any Spurs card, but particularly a Willie Anderson card and a Sean Elliott card and ESPECIALLY a David Robinson card.
These are the 10 cards I was semi-hoping to get:
- Shawn Kemp card
- Chris Mullin card
- John Stockton card
- Karl Malone card (so I could crumple it up and throw it in the trash)
- Akeem Olajuwon card (he hadn’t changed his name to Hakeem yet)
- Larry Bird card
- Magic Johnson card
- Isiah Thomas card
- Manute Bol card (he was impossibly tall and I was very taken with that)
- Vinny Del Negro card (he was the NBA player who most resembled me, so I always quietly rooted for him)
These are the two cards I was ironically hoping to get:
- Scott Brooks card (to be clear, I definitely was not interested in this one as a kid; I wanted it now only because I developed a fondness for him while he coached the Thunder)
- Kenny Smith card (same as the Brooks card, except replace coaching with being on TV)
Any other pulls were negligible.
Out of the 540 cards in the box, everything except for the Charles Barkley card showed up, which seemed strange and should have been a little sad but wasn’t because (a) I made it all the way to the fifth-to-last pack before I found a Michael Jordan card and by that point a Jordan was really the only one I was checking for,3 and (b) there were THREE David Robinson cards in the box, and I cried uncontrollably for 45 minutes each time I got one.
I was legitimately excited when I pulled the Jordan card. It was a very neat and exciting feeling that I recognized immediately. It was right then that I realized I should’ve let the boys stay and open the rest of the packs with me.
My personal favorite pack was the one that had both a David Robinson card and a Sean Elliott card in it, but technically the most valuable pack was the one that somehow had a Michael Jordan card, a Dominique Wilkins card, a Tim Hardaway card, a Drazen Petrovic card, and a Rod Strickland card.
There were 21 total Spurs cards, 45 cards of players who could reasonably be considered superstars, four cards of iconic players (one Larry Bird, two Magic Johnsons,4 one Michael Jordan), and also an Isiah Thomas — I’m still unclear about whether he’s classified as a superstar or an icon or somewhere in between.
Although he’s listed as Earvin Johnson on the front of the card.
The most inspirational card was Kurt Rambis’s, because just look at this lightning-strike pose:
A thing I wasn’t expecting was that apparently ’90-91 was a golden era for weird-looking white guys in the NBA. Of all the subsections I broke the cards into, Weird-Looking White Guys was the most populated (76), and I’ve never appreciated anything more than I appreciate the cards for Steve Alford (who was a legit superstar in college), Mark McNamara (LOOK AT HIM DRIBBLING THE BALL), Randy Allen, and Randy Breuer (probably the best year for Randys in the history of the league).
This past Christmas season I was at Toys R Us buying junk for the boys. Up near the registers, they had real, actual NBA trading cards. It was this series called NBA Hoops. I was excited to see them, but less excited to see that you for real got only five cards per pack and each pack was something like $75. The box advertised that there were special insert cards — autographed cards or cards that had swatches of a player’s game-worn jersey, things like that. And those things are cool. I imagine it’s exhilarating to open a pack of cards and find that LeBron James has scribbled on one of them.
But I’m not for that. Give me laser backgrounds. Give me improbable stats that are profoundly flawed. Give me basketballs that are radiating energy lines. Give me a perfectly crisp Joe Wolf. Give me Skybox forever.