In 1992, Shaquille O’Neal was heralded as the biggest NBA rookie in years. Fresh off of a three-year career at LSU, O’Neal had become one of the most dominant players in the college game, averaging 24.1 points and 14 rebounds per contest in his final year.
The dominant center was ready to step into a starring role with the Orlando Magic, who quickly scooped him up as the top pick in the league. And fans who had heard about the well-publicized Shaq during his college days were anxious and willing to secure his rookie cards. But what those of us that were collecting at the time remember, a pretty sizable monkey wrench was thrown into the hobby’s plans.
Classic, who previously was more known for its 1980s baseball games, stepped up to secure Shaq to an exclusive rookie card contract. At the time, it was a major deal.
Classic’s board games were arguably more pursued for their cards of major leaguers than they were the actual games themselves. Their board games came with decks of cards, which were collected just like other pack-issued cards. There were even some prize rookie cards to be had in them. Despite all of that, Classic’s role in the sports card landscape was still nominal coming into the 1990s. The company did create some wrestling cards and cards of baseball draft picks. However, it wasn’t until 1991 when they really burst onto the scene.
They continued to issue draft pick cards of athletes but also issued their popular 1991 Classic Best minor league set. However, arguably most popular was their Four Sport set featuring top collegiate athletes that were entering the pros in baseball, basketball, football, and hockey. That set included the likes of Brett Favre, Larry Johnson, Dikembe Mutombo, and plenty of other standouts .Classic’s packs included autographs and inserts, which were all the rage at the time, and they quickly gained a reputation among collectors.
Their biggest splash, however, was saved for 1992. Because while card manufacturers were busy preparing to issue the rookie cards of O’Neal, Classic swooped in to sign him to an exclusive rookie contract. That gave them the rights to issue the first ever licensed cards of the iconic player — well before competitors, Topps, Fleer, Upper Deck, Hoops, and Stadium Club could.
Those companies did ultimately get the right to create O’Neal rookie cards, of course. However, his cards had to wait until Series II, issued in the middle of the season (the deal, reportedly, concluded at the end of 1992. That meant that Classic was the place to go if you wanted to get your hands on a Shaq rookie card.
For a while, the gimmick worked well, I’d say. At least, thinking back to it, I remember buying quite a few Classic packs as a kid in the hopes of landing a few of Shaq’s very first cards. But I also think the novelty quickly wore off. That isn’t to say that O’Neal’s contract didn’t pay dividends for the company. While I don’t know what that contract amounted to, it did seem like Classic, at the very least, sold a ton of product initially. While other sets had Series I cards of Christian Laettner, and the like, Classic was the only one that could boast the earliest cards of O’Neal. They also made good use of the license, including him in their Four-Sport set.
What some collectors might not remember is that O’Neal also signed an exclusive deal for his autograph. That deal wasn’t with Classic — it was actually with Score Board, Inc., the parent company to Classic. But that, of course, allowed O’Neal to sign classic cards, which could be inserted into packs — something that the other companies could not do. And while he likely did not stick to it, at the time, O’Neal even said that he would probably only be signing his Classic cards for fans under the arrangement.
The contract also created one of the more unique basketball cards of the 1990s. Upper Deck, like the other companies, could not create an O’Neal card in their initial series. But their trick was to create a redemption card for an O’Neal rookie after the exclusivity deal ended. Collectors could mail that card in and then Upper Deck would print and mail the O’Neal cards in return.
The problem for Classic, however, is that the cards quickly became a dime a dozen. See, unlike those other manufacturers of basketball cards, Classic was not printing cards of other NBA players, really. Save for a handful of second-year NBA players, their set consisted almost entirely of draft picks ready to enter the league. Why did that matter? Because it severely limited the checklist. Classic included anybody and everybody in order to fill out the checklist to create a 100-card set. And 100 cards, of course, was still a relatively small set. The problem with that was that finding O’Neal’s cards was relatively easy to do. With boxes containing a total of 360 cards (36 packs with each pack containing ten cards), you stood a good chance at pulling 3-4 in each box if the odds worked out.
Another problem with the early Classic cards of O’Neal is that they pictured him in an LSU uniform. Sure, I suppose that was appealing to some degree. It gave you the sense that it was, after all, truly his first card. But that novelty wore off a bit once O’Neal began playing in the NBA. Pretty soon, all you saw was O’Neal dunking the ball in an Orlando Magic uniform and the Classic cards simply seemed outdated. And while they are certainly genuine rookie cards, they almost give off the impression of a pre-rookie issue.
Further, the idea was that Classic would corner the market on Shaq rookie cards. That never really happened, though. They merely printed the first of his rookie cards. All of those other competitors would have their own Shaq rookie cards — just not until a few months later. The idea that Classic would be the only ones with rookie cards of O’Neal wasn’t entirely true.
All of that considered, though, Classic’s first O’Neal cards made an instant splash. The card quickly became a $15-$20 card until, like other things in the junk wax era, it came back to earth. Prices on the card have gone up a bit lately but his regular Classic and Four-Sport Classic cards are still ones you can find for $5 or less in raw condition. His assortment of insert and autographed cards, however, do command more, depending on the specific issue. And of course, his high-grade base cards are considerably more, too. PSA 10s of his regular base (non subset) cards are typically in the $100-$200 range.