The first in a series of articles on one of the hottest elements of the industry: Rare 1990s basketball card inserts (no kidding).
by Juan Martinez
Long before Linsanity took over the NBA and the basketball collecting world (in this age of social media and immediate gratification, two weeks ago can feel like two years ago), the market was in a state of flux. Even though the talent level in the NBA has not been this high since the early 90s, collectors just aren’t invested in today’s products like they once were. Some want to point the finger squarely at Panini’s monopolization as the NBA’s sole producer of trading cards, but even during the final days of Topps and Upper Deck, people were not always happy with their offerings as well.
But that’s not to say that big money wasn’t being spent. In fact, big money was being spent on the most unlikeliest of places or in this case, players. Would you believe 1997-98 Skybox Metal Universe Precious Metal Gems? How about $710 for Derek Harper? $607 for Chris Childs? $700 for Malik Rose? $500 for Keith Van Horn?
I don’t know about you, but nobody should ever spend that much money on Chris Childs, unless your name is Ernie Grunfeld and you insanely think Chris Childs is a championship-caliber point guard. Could it be just crazy New York Knicks fans who can’t get enough of their favorite role players, or is there something else going on here?
And then you see the going prices for future Hall of Fame players like $3,050 for Gary Payton and $4,600 for Ray Allen. Beyond eBay, it’s not uncommon to hear stories about thousands of dollars and cards being passed along all for the right own one of these cards.
What could possibly possess somebody to pay that much money for a card that is not a 1 of 1, does not have an autograph or a piece of game-worn memorabilia? It is just a shiny green card that just happens to be very hard to pull. While aesthetically pleasing to the eye, several cards that are just as rare could lay a claim to being better looking and thousands more inserts and parallels from the 90s were even more difficult to pull. So the big question is why?
To bring this all back to Jeremy Lin, I think the answer is simple: nobody saw it coming.
1997-98 Skybox Precious Metal Gems Green cards have become the de facto Holy Grail of modern basketball cards, 1986-87 Fleer be damned. Precious Metal Gems cards are actually numbered to 100, but only the first 10 cards were given the green treatment while the rest was splashed with red. Released as parallels for a product that was more popular amongst comic book collectors at the time, Skybox Metal just felt like something that you could easily ignore. I know from experience that people were more interested in products like Topps Finest, Fleer Ultra, Upper Deck SP and even Skybox’s own Premium brand. If it weren’t for the inclusion of Skybox’s Autographics set that spanned their entire line, Metal would have been an even bigger afterthought than it originally was.
In the preceding years, you would occasionally hear stories about how a PMG (as it has come to be known among collectors) Green would make it out in the wild and sell for a substantial amount. It was nothing so alarming; usually it was just player collectors driving up the price to get the card in their collection. You might read in Beckett’s basketball magazine that a PMG was one of the hottest cards of the month, but it was so out of anybody’s radar, it just did not resonate. Every once in a while, a Michael Jordan or a Kobe Bryant would go for some crazy number but in the end, it was par for the course with those guys.
Around 2008 to 2009, things started to get interesting. One day you could pick up a Bryant Reeves PMG Green for less than 50 dollars, but then a Rod Strickland would sell almost for 300 dollars. What was once a relatively expensive novelty card had now hit the collecting zeitgeist. Collectors that grew up enjoying cards from the 90s but could not afford to buy boxes were starting to pick up these cards that brought them back to their childhood. Disenchanted fans that no longer saw the appeal in autographs and memorabilia swatches were going back to cards whose value relied solely on design and scarcity. And then finally, prospectors - who had little invested in the card other than its bottom line - started driving up prices of even common players and exhausting excess inventory wherever they could find it.
Now people are willing pay top dollar for even a common player, like say, Chris Childs, just so they can say that they own one. Even the PMG Red cards are now commanding wild numbers. Case in point; a Jordan ended last year for $11,000. That’s a card that has 90 copies; imagine what a Green MJ would go for on eBay.
For those who think this is a fad and that eventually prices will come back to earth much like Lin and the Knicks losing to cellar-dwellars New Orleans and New Jersey, you are going to be in for a very long wait. The Precious Metal Gems brand has become as firmly entrenched in the minds of basketball card collectors as the ultimate cards to own as anything Upper Deck has made and it didn’t even require Michael Jordan to put sign his name on it.
Juan Martinez is a freelance writer based in California. Follow him on Twitter.