Flea Market All-Stars: Chamberlain, Jordan, and Bird—and More Basketball Cards from the Junk Wax Era and Beyond

1972-73 Topps #159, NBA Championship, Lakers are NBA Champs

This was an unscheduled stop. However, the signage promised in bright orange juice hues to deliver “Top Drawer” collectibles, antiques, and other “addictions.” Needless to say, I was pulled slightly off of my scheduled route.

As happens, the second-hand offerings generally underwhelmed. The pieces that stood out the most (aside from the eventual card finds, of course) included a slightly more memorable booth of some Budweiser connoisseur’s liquidation sale, which included dozens of elaborately designed beer steins, colorful but flimsy tin signs from the early 70s to the promotional ilk of the those televised slogan-chiming frogs, and a billiards hall style overhead light with a surprising amount of character—but not enough to overlook the cheap plastic light shade as well as the scattered grime of old beer and cooking oil. (Unfortunately, all of these were also priced to sit rather than sell.) Nevertheless, this flea market’s showroom was about the cleanest that I have ever encountered, with nary a vagrant dust bunny to be found anywhere, which is probably due to the fact that the business is less than a year old. As such, the pristine and tidy order of the establishment facilitated my search for the otherwise easily overlooked: a small wicker basket full of largely junk wax era and later basketball cards organized, for better or worse, in zip-locked and stapled packs of the pre-sorted variety.

Tempted by some more interesting (re: less familiar) cards that some enterprising individual strategically placed at the front and back of the transparent packs, I plunked down three dollars total for a few packs buried near the bottom of the basket.

When I later returned home and opened the packs, I was careful not to manhandle the tightly packed decks while removing them from their zip-lock cases—so to avoid damaging the corners. (I even went to such laughable lengths as employing an office staple remover and then scissors to more gently remove the cards.) Of course, any concern about ruining the condition of some valuable find was soon proven a moot point with the hand-picked selection of commons and over-produced star player cards. Still, material value is far from the primary motive for this addiction pastime.

Ultimately, I discovered some curious relics that inspired me to dig a little bit into the past of some players previously unknown and/or under-appreciated by me, especially with my limited knowledge of basketball history.

First, here is a sampling of cards from the Coca-Cola-emblazoned Collegiate Collection of 1989. Apparently, these come from a series called North Carolina’s Finest.

1989 Collegiate Collection

1989 Collegiate Collection #187, 1971-72 ACC Champs: This almost lovingly gilded card is certainly a visually attractive stand-out. The on-court photo of the team pictures the Tar Heels with their newly won ACC trophy, along with a towering 6’9″ hall of famer in the young yet still mustachioed Bob McAdoo.

1989 Collegiate Collection #187, 1971-72 ACC Champs

1989 Collegiate Collection #61, Billy Cunningham: Another eventual NBA hall of famer is Billy Cunningham, who would go on to be a longtime player with the Philadelphia 76ers. Later, Cunningham was also the 76ers coach, and he led Philadelphia to a championship in 1983.

1989 Collegiate Collection #78, Pete Brennan: Alongside such hardwood legends is an All-American named Pete Brennan, now a relative unknown. Brennan was a successful college player who simply did not fair well in the NBA. He was drafted as a top candidate in 1958 (1st round, 4th pick) by New York—but during one of the (many) lackluster seasons for the Knicks. Brennan averaged few minutes, scored even fewer points, and his time as a player in the NBA would come to an end after a single season and an early playoffs exit for the Knicks.

1989 Collegiate Collection #6, Dean Smith: again keeping in mind my lack of familiarity with basketball history (or simply a dwindling long-term memory), at first I wondered why in the heck a college dean deserved his own basketball card. . . . Then I did some refresher / introductory reading on the stellar career of Coach Dean Smith, who sadly passed away in 2015. He amassed a slew of NCAA Regional and ACC championships, along with two biggies by winning the NCAA Division I championship in 1982 and again in 1993. It seems that he was every bit as remarkable and respected a figure off the court, too; for example, reports indicate how he advocated for student-athletes of color well beyond his own self interest and the purview of athletics. Of course he also coached one of the greatest basketball players and athletes ever. And on how many occasions has Michael Jordan warmly, publicly kissed the crown of another grown man? Dean Smith was one liked guy.

Miscellaneous 1990-2004: Whether technically junk wax, junk foil or gloss, or just junk, the flea market pick certainly yielded some modern star players. These included more Reggie Miller cards than I care to own—not because I actively dislike him but largely due to so many three-point daggers in my Knicks fan memories. Then there’s a downright gaudy card of Karl Malone, of whom I always felt ambivalent—surprisingly so, given his very solid career. . . . It also seemed weird to see B.J. Armstrong wearing a Warriors instead of a Bulls jersey.

Junk Wax--and Beyond

2000 Bowman's Best #70 Karl Malone

1997 Upper Deck #38 B. J. Armstrong

And speaking of the Bulls, this assortment included at least one silly card (courtesy of 1994 Upper Deck and McDonald’s) with Michael Jordan and Larry Bird from their “Nothing but Net” promo days. Given his millions earned from endorsements like McDonald’s (and Nike, Gatorade, etc.), though, it should be evident that money does not necessarily purchase taste: case in point, Jordan’s sweater here is absolutely hideous.

1994 Upper Deck--Highlights, Nothing But Net, 1 of 15

1972-73 Topps #159, NBA Championship (“Lakers are NBA Champs”): Closing this medley out is the lone vintage pick of a presumably 1972-73 Topps basketball card that reads 1971/1972 on the front and ©1968 N.B.P.A. and ©1969 N.B.A. on back. Confusing, no? The front features a rebounding Wilt Chamberlain (he of the infamous claim to 20,000+ conquests). Also on his resumé, Chamberlain went on to appear in Conan the Destoyer (1984), a role for which he was given appropriate screen credit; however, seemingly due to space constraints, Chamberlain’s name credit on the back of this card appears with an amusing abbreviation, “Cha’rlain.”

Well, goodnight Cha’rlain—goodnight you princes of cardboard, you kings of court!

1972-73 Topps #159, NBA Championship, Lakers are NBA Champs

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