The $400 Michael Jordan Autograph

by Juan Martinez

I am a two-time member of the “Michael Jordan autograph card owner” club.  It is this mythical club in the minds of basketball card collectors who have busted countless Upper Deck boxes over the years hoping to hold in their hands the signature of the greatest basketball player of all time.  Induction into the club is to be among the greats of the hobby, it almost feels like a rite of passage; you are not a true collector until you have one in your possession.

The year 1996 was the inception of the club with the release of 1996 Upper Deck SPx Basketball, which featured a redemption card for a Michael Jordan autographed holoview card.  Back in 1996, pulling this card was the equivalent of winning the basketball card lottery and with the Internet still in its infancy and eBay just a passing fancy of Pierre Omidyar, it was the stuff of legend. Stories of the card were far and few in between and the closest most people every got to being with the card was by staring at the latest picture in Beckett’s basketball magazine.  Exclusivity was the key to the club; not everybody could get in, and buying your way into the club was not a cheap proposition.

In the following years, the club grew.  1997 SPx Basketball had another Jordan autograph redemption card and 1997-98 Upper Deck Basketball saw the first live Michael Jordan autograph card to be seeded into actual packs. Each season saw more and more Jordan autographs make their way to the hands of collectors and box busters.  Even as the number of members in the club grew, the sales prices were still astonishing to witness.  It was not uncommon to see those early Jordan autographs sell in the five digits easily.

By 2004, we were seeing multiple Jordan autograph inserts serial numbered to as high as 100.  Sticker autographs soon made it easy to slap Jordan’s signature on anything with his picture on it.  Upper Deck was soon producing the $500 a pack Exquisite Collection, which made it relatively easy to own a Jordan autograph provided you had the money to make it happen.  Prices were soon dipping below four digits, and pretty soon, owning a Jordan was no longer a product of serendipitous chance, but rather a slightly pricey grind.

This year, All-Time Greats Basketball released and while a six-pack case would set you back $1800, you were essentially guaranteed a Jordan autograph in a North Carolina Tar Heels uniform.  The best you can hope for if you “only” pulled a Jordan autograph that isn’t a parallel, a dual or a nine-player booklet? $400.

That feeling of holding a winning lottery ticket you once had if you pulled a Jordan autograph?  It is now maybe a slight fist pump, much like MJ used to do when he made game-winning shot.  A lot of collectors have cried over this as if it were the end of the world.  If more people have Jordan autographs, then it becomes less valuable in their minds and that ruins the hobby. Those are the same people who think they can get away with selling a Shaun Livingston Exquisite gold rookie for the same price as a Jordan autograph.

The $400 Michael Jordan autograph should be treated as a watershed moment in the hobby.  It democratizes collectors and allows them – with a little bit of saving – to own the Holy Grail.  Despite what your opinion of Jordan is today, in light of his epic(ly bitter) Hall of Fame speech to his role as a hardline owner in the NBA lockout negotiations, he will always have that undeniable shine from his playing days.  And while many would discount the $400 autograph because it is from his North Carolina days, his career as a Tar Heel is hardly anything to be embarrassed about.  From the shot against Georgetown to his player of the year honors, North Carolina was Jordan’s launching pad to greatness.

Think of $400 as the entry level into Jordan autographs.  If a lot of people have a Jordan autograph, it encourages them to either branch off into other collections or go even further down the rabbit hole to collecting Jordans in a Bulls uniform and even some his (still) higher-priced Upper Deck Exquisites.  Without an NBA license for the foreseeable future, the more collectors that get introduced into the hobby with the UNC autographs, the more likely they are to chase down those Bulls autographs and we might one day see those earlier cards hit five digits once again.

In 1996, I was only fortunate enough to pull the other SPx autographed redemption card from that set (Penny Hardaway).  It would take me nine years to pull my first Jordan autograph which was immediately followed up with a second Jordan months later.  So while I might not have the most elusive of Jordan autographs, Mike still touched the card and signed his squiggly “M” and “J” on it.  $400 or $15,000, it is all the same to me.

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