2011-12 SP Authentic Basketball: Upper Deck Tries to Fill the Hoops Card Void

by Juan Martinez

Now that we are weeks into the 2011-12 NBA season lockout, let’s take a look at one of the first products of the year by Panini Upper Deck… Oh…

Well, that intro came out wrong.  The sad irony of the NBA lockout for basketball card collectors is that their wish – or at least part of it – has come true.  A large proportion of the community was saddened by Upper Deck’s loss of the NBA license and their subsequent fall from grace.  The erstwhile maker of Exquisite Collection and exclusive provider of Michael Jordan and LeBron James autographs in their NBA uniforms were now relegated to making cards associated with the dreaded “C” word: college.   But with Panini having their hands tied with the lockout and unable to produce cards in the meantime, Upper Deck is the interim leader of the basketball card hobby.  The question now is will products like 2011-12 SP Authentic be enough to entice the NBA faithful?

SP Authentic 2011-12 basketball boxBoxes of 2011-12 SP Authentic Basketball are currently selling online in the $110-$120 range.  I bought my box from the Frank and Sons show in City of Industry, Calif.,  for $105.  Each box contains 24 packs with 5 cards per pack.  The on-average stated number of hits per box is 3, which could be a combination of autographs, Jordan Brand Classic jersey cards and the North Carolina floor pieces.  Also worth noting is that if you buy a 12-box case of this product, you are guaranteed either a Michael Jordan or LeBron James autograph with the possibility of a second.

Here is the rundown of my break:

Base Cards: Complete non-SP set (1-50) with 6 Rookie F/X Short Prints (David Thompson, Gail Goodrich, Rick Barry, Russell Westbrook, Cory Joseph, Bismack Biyombo) and 60 doubles

There are 100 cards total to complete the base set.  The first 50 cards are the commons which are a mix of college legends (and LeBron James) and this year’s crop of NBA rookies.  The second 50 are short-printed and inserted at a rate of 1:4 packs and adds more legends to the mix.

The look of the cards is classic Upper Deck: clean, sliver and white washed-out background with spot UV coating on the player pictures.  It’s a testament to Upper Deck’s team that even though this is boilerplate design, they manage to top every other trading card company out there. The Rookie F/X short prints are lifted from the 1998-99 SP Authentic sans the serial number, which would insult most collectors’ intelligence nowadays if Upper Deck had nerve to number something to 3,500.  The 1998-99 Rookie F/X cards were historical because it was the first-ever serial numbered rookie cards in basketball.

If you’re buying this product with hopes of getting a little Jimmer time, then that’s fine. Fredette is by far the rookie to pull this year, but Upper Deck is missing several key players from thi2011-12 SP Authentic Mack autographs year’s draft class, namely #1 overall pick Kyrie Irving (signed with Panini), #2 overall pick Derrick Williams (ditto), #3 overall pick Enes Kanter and 2011 NCAA Tournament MOP Kemba Walker, among others.  Yup, I said “among others.”

SP Authentic Autograph: Shelvin Mack (Not bad considering he made consecutive Final Four appearances)

In a sad sign of the times (pun intended), single-player autographs in this year’s SP Authentic are on-sticker and are just parallels to the base set.  No (single-player) Sign of the Times, no Chirography.  While multi-player autograph cards had long conceded to using stickers, this is the first time Upper Deck has used them on single-player cards. While the design of the base cards was done in a way so that the sticker can rest in a spot that does not detract from the overall look of the card, it is very disappointing to see a set with such a legacy of on-card autographs go by the wayside.

(Note: It is totally possible to miss these cards while you’re sifting through the base, so keep an eye out for the change in background color.  The regular autographs have a blue background and the even rarer gold parallels have the aforementioned background color.  Rookie F/X autographs are extremely limited and are distinguished by the rainbow foil accents on the branding.)

SP Authentic 2011-12 LeBron autographBy The Letter Manufactured Patch Autograph: LeBron James (Letters are supposed to spell out his high school team, but he is pictured in the card wearing a Nike “Witness” shirt, which would have been fine if he was in Cleveland and this was 2008).

Yup, I’m the one that pulled the main hit of the case.  While it doesn’t suck to pull a LeBron James autograph, Letterman cards have just about run their course.  They are a fine idea for die-hard collectors who want to get every letter, and they work well in the college setting because now you have collectors who more fans of the schools rather than the players, but a little moderation would be nice.

Other autograph inserts in the product include Home Court Signatures that have signed wood pieces with their school logo, College Pride feature mini-replicas of the player’s jersey that are signed and embedded on the card, and multi-player Sign of the Times sticker autographs

Jordan Brand Classic Jersey: Malcolm Lee

I have no idea who Malcolm Lee is, but I know he played in the 2008 Jordan Brand Classic based on the design of the card.  Nice touch by Upper Deck to retain a particular design depending on the year.  At some point, collectors will able to finish the sets once the remaining players have exhausted their college eligibility.

North Carolina Floor AutBrad Daugherty 2011-12 SP Authentics UNC floorhentics: Brad Daugherty

For last season’s SP Authentic product, Upper Deck only used Jordan for their UNC-used floor cards.  This year they added other 80s UNC icons to the set like Sam Perkins and James Worthy.  While that probably won’t sit well with most collectors who mostly just care about Jordan only, it’s a nice niche that hopefully gets expanded to feature other schools in future releases.

Dummy cards so that jerks don’t pack search: 21 (And jerks would probably still pack search anyway)

There really isn’t that much that separates SP Authentic releases on a year by year basis.  A lot of the design choices and insert sets that you saw in the previous decade are still here and they remain as solid as ever.  The sublime look of the base cards make them enjoyable to keep and the Rookie F/X cards are well-executed to show off the brand’s legacy. I wish Upper Deck would take more chances with the product now that they really are the only place for new basketball cards, although the upcoming 2011-12 Fleer Retro might resolve those concerns for me.  Unfortunately, the disappointing use of sticker autographs and gaping holes in the checklist is what knocks this product down a peg from other years.

For around the $100 and the 1 in 12 chance of getting a Jordan or LeBron autograph, 2011-12 SP Authentic is a solid buy and if you have the funds, I would recommend picking up a box.  What will be interesting to see in the coming weeks is if the NBA lockout forces the season to be cancelled and shuts out Panini completely.  Will collectors be content to scour eBay for cards they need or will the itch to bust wax drive demand for anything new through the roof?  Upper Deck is not where they want to be sitting on the periphery of the basketball card market, but the potential is there.  Just don’t call it a comeback.

Juan Martinez is a southern California-based writer. Follow him on Twitter.