I don't remember much about eighth grade, and maybe that's for the best. I tried to talk to Danielle Dube before our English class watched To Kill A Mockingbird and abruptly forgot how to speak. I fussed over homework, fingers smudged in blue Papermate, until it had reached my unknowable standards. I was intense and driven and thoroughly tangled, like any 14-year-old. I do not want to remember more of it than I do, and I don't.
But I remember those cards, even 25 years later, because this was a time in my life when NBA HOOPS cards mattered to me, and because the cards in question are the strangest basketball cards ever made.
This was, if not a more innocent time, at least a simpler one. In 1991, there were only so many ways to know professional athletes. There was Sports Illustrated for Kids and Sports Illustrated (which could be daunting) and NBA Inside Stuff with the luminous Willow Bay and the insufferable Ahmad Rashad. There were Zander Hollander's funny and comprehensive Complete Handbooks. And then there were basketball cards—straight-laced and mostly dull, give or take the odd appearance by Kevin Johnson's Color Me Badd bowtie.
In that environment, and really in any other, it just did not compute to see Reggie Miller hanging tough and Michael Adams cornering the market on wheat and Muggsy Bogues taunting the laws of space. This is a different thing than saying these inexplicable cards are valuable; an estimate by Randy Reynolds of Sports Card Forum pegs the cards' value at around 10 cents. "As for their place in the card world, they are ultimately forgotten," says Chris Olds, managing editor of Beckett Baseball and Beckett Sports Card Monthly.
This all makes sense, except these cards are also priceless.
There was a time the NBA had to court fans, and court hard. This was after Larry and Magic, and even at Michael Jordan's transcendent peak. The NBA was not always the NBA, and in those thirsty old days it could not afford to be aloof or Olympian or anything but down-for-whatever.
The NBA saw basketball cards as an "opportunity," says Scott McCauley, the former vice president of marketing at SkyBox International, who worked on NBA HOOPS in the early 1990s. Cards, he adds, were "an inexpensive gateway" to get kids to watch games and—if all went well—buy NBA merchandise.
But they were pretty much dormant until Bill Jemas led the creation of SkyBox and HOOPS. "Baseball cards were outselling basketball cards 1,000 to 1, with MLB cards topping $500 million in annual sales and NBA cards barely breaking $500,000," Jemas says. "Our sales teams knocked on every door: Topps, Score, Upper Deck, but none of them were interested. All we had was Fleer and Fleer sucked. So, we had to do it ourselves."
According to Jemas, the goal was to reach young fans. Little else was defined. "The league office was so small," he says. "I didn't have many superiors—really just the commissioner and president." Cardboard was among the concerns of David Stern and Rick Welts, who is now the Golden State Warriors' president and COO.
"[They were] great bosses in so many ways," Jemas says. "Knowing I didn't know what I was doing, they still let us learn by doing, learn from mistakes. They understood how important creativity is in card making, and gave my team a lot of creative freedom."
That freedom included going to NBA's Entertainment offices in Secaucus, New Jersey to sift through a library of player photos to get ideas for a set or to use for the cards. "We'd laugh," McCauley says, "because most of the photos were taken at Brendan Byrne Arena, because that's where the NBA's photographers were."
"That part was fun," says Sherry Wallace, former marketing manager for SkyBox, who worked with McCauley. (SkyBox International, formerly Impel Marketing, was the umbrella company for HOOPS and SkyBox brands of cards.) "Sometimes we got lucky and got a great shot."
Wallace said photos like the ones in those team cards could be there. "Here's how unscientific and loosey-goosey it was with the photos," recalls Doug Drotman, who handled PR for HOOPS, and gleefully hunted for photos in New Jersey. "When Skybox signed David Robinson to his endorsement deal, they came up with a whole subset of these cards with his whole life story. I told the brand manager, I jokingly said, 'I actually presented Robinson with [an award] at halftime of an NBA playoff game.' They found the picture and put it on a card. I'm in that David Robinson set. That's how unofficial it was."
Adds Drotman, "Back then, the cards were less about limited production and things like that and more about something cool that would get people's attention. Back then there were 400-, 500-card sets. You could always bury a few fun ones in there."
That the Denver Nuggets were photographed in business attire was no kitschy accident. The "stockbroker" photo was the basis for one of many popular promotional posters developed by the team's former marketing director Susan Hagar. There was "The Lunch Bucket Brigade." And "Off and Running." And "All Fired Up."
(What about the Pacers and the Hornets? Dale Ratermann, then the Pacers media relations director, said the motorcycle shot was probably for a poster night of some kind. Harold Kaufman, the Charlotte Hornets' vice president of communications at the time, declined an interview request through his current employer, the New York Mets.)
"One thing we loved is it showed our players in a different light," Hagar says. "They're people, and they can have fun. That's what it was. Let's show a different side. Let's be something other than basketball players."
Hagar declines star billing. "I was marketing director, and it was my responsibility. But being a small organization, it was always very collaborative," she says. "It wouldn't be uncommon for someone in another part of the organization to offer ideas and suggestions about themes, locations, costuming, and props. Many of the best concepts were developed that way." The players joined in. Danny Schayes brought his trombone to one shoot. His Dalmatian, Murray, appears in "All Fired Up." Radio announcer Jeff Kingery contributed the title.
"It was a lot more fun than everyone standing in line with their uniforms and there you go," says Schayes, who remembers opposing players admiring the photos. They hung in Schayes' old house—the 18-year NBA vet had recently moved when we spoke—and rarely went unnoticed by guests.
That free agency didn't arrive in the NBA until 1988 probably sustained the creativity. Since "we all really knew each other," Hagar remembers, colleagues turned into lifelong friendships. The players and coaches knew they were in good hands. "It would have been very difficult to pull off without their enthusiastic support," Hagar says.
"Maybe it was a little kinder, gentler, a little more personal," she says of her time with the Nuggets. "It sure was fun."
So what happened to this confluence of cards and fun, and why will we not see cards like this again?
"As the league continued to grow, the biggest shift I saw, which is commonplace now, was players hiring marketing agencies and representatives outside of their agents for endorsements, publicity, and imaging," says Jay Clark, who worked for Nuggets' media relations from 1987 to 1994. "The best example for us in Denver was Dikembe Mutombo... That was pretty new back in 1992, but today's players are like corporations with their branding!"
Corporations, even finger-wagging corporations of one, are not known for their senses of humor. "It's hard to be fun-loving when you take yourself seriously," Jemas says. "Unfortunately, people in pro sports right now take themselves way too seriously."
They also rarely have time to spare for such rigorously choreographed fun. Schayes says the shoots with the Nuggets took at least a half a day. Now, as the PR guy for one NBA team told me, "We simply don't have the time to do that type of stuff."
More than that, though, players do not need cards or posters to make a connection. Not with Twitter and Instagram and the nonstop machine of NBA media, which includes myriad online outlets, video games, and (yes, still) cards. "It's just so hands-on and it's just so amazing as far as what you can do," McCauley says.
Schayes points out that the franchises in those three HOOPS cards had roots in the grab 'em-by-the-lapels ABA, which brought the world ball girls in bikinis and the three-point line. The Nuggets and the Pacers, of course, joined the NBA in 1976. Carl Scheer, the Hornets' president and general manager from 1987 to 1990, was an ABA alumnus. Scheer, the man who helped create the slam-dunk contest, was Denver's team president and general manager for 10 seasons.
Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, Schayes says, there was "still an ABA feel to the teams." Today, he ventured, "I don't think Brooklyn sits around talking about its ABA roots."
Basketball cards also grew up, sort of. "By 1992, the card companies in every sport had flooded the market with cards, undetermined collectability, and the NBA was no exception," Jemas says. "We killed and cooked our golden goose."
"In 1991-92, there were no 'higher-end' and fancily designed sets dominating the market like Finest, Chrome, or SPx, let alone mega high-end sets such as Exquisite or Flawless. Gloss and gold print weren't even the norm yet—plain Upper Deck was your priciest at just over a buck a pack!" says Reynolds, an assistant manager at Sports Card Forum. "That is because the market was still family- and kid-driven then, whereas now it's [geared] toward richer consumers who want the flashy, rare stuff." Some of these are adults collecting with their kids, says McCauley, now director of national accounts at MJ Holding Company LLC, a North American distributor of trading and collectible cards. All of them are taking part in a hobby that's much different than the loose, goofy thing that birthed these bizarre, charming, cards.
Any ex-collector can attest to this. When I recently visited The Hobby Shop, the cards and comic Xanadu that devoured my allowance as a kid, a pack of HOOPS cost $3.99. I had to request them from the other side of the counter, like I was buying a pack of Marlboros.
The whole act felt strangely, incongruously adult. As strange as it was to see the Charlotte Hornets fly through space, this new reality—practical, reasonable, predictable—felt even stranger.