In the first of an ongoing series, long-time collector Tim Gallagher takes over the Editor’s Blog to share 50+ years of memories from chasing basketball autographs.
In the early 1980’s a fortuitous convergence of geography, hotel ownership and a superstar player’s absence from my collection reignited my passion for pursuing basketball autographs.
My basketball autograph collecting story started in 1967 by obtaining signatures in-person at University of Dayton college games, Cincinnati Royals NBA games and relentlessly through the mail. Early successes with local hero, Dayton All-American Don May, and through the mail with my favorites like Rick Mount, John Havlicek and Oscar Robertson lit the fuse and I was off and running.
HIGH SCHOOL YEARS
Even after my beloved Cincinnati Royals with Nate “The Skate” Archibald, Jumpin’ Johnny Green and Tom Van Arsdale abandoned me and moved to Kansas City in 1972, there was still plenty of big time in-person basketball within a couple hour drive of my childhood home. College programs like Dayton, Cincinnati, Xavier and Miami of Ohio (and their visiting opponents) were in reach, as were the ABA Indiana Pacers and in the 1973-74 season the ABA Kentucky Colonels played some of their home games at the University of Cincinnati’s Armory Fieldhouse. Dayton would also host occasional NBA preseason games, including the first ever pro matchup between Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton in 1974.
Those ABA games were so much fun! The Pacers had Hall of Famers Roger Brown, Mel Daniels and George McGinnis in those years. The Colonels had their own trio of Hall of Famers in Louie Dampier, Artis Gilmore and Dan Issel. Seeing Julius “Dr. J” Erving of the New York Nets, Billy Cunningham of the Carolina Cougars, Johnny Neumann of the Memphis Tams and Wilt Chamberlain (wearing sandals!?) coaching the San Diego Conquistadors are some of the enduring memories. And almost all the players, even “Coach” Wilt, were accessible and cooperative signing after the games.
After high school graduation in 1976 I was off to college at Bowling Green State University in northwest Ohio, a mostly rural area and even further from any basketball hubs. Since I was doing things college students do, collecting sports cards and autographs certainly wasn’t “cool”, and I did indeed have other priorities at the time. There were some trips to see the Pistons play at Cobo Hall in Detroit and the Cleveland Cavaliers play at Richfield Coliseum, but most of my college buddies did not grasp the concept of waiting after the games for autographs, and one of them was usually driving (I didn’t have a car in college), so we were on the road home after the final buzzer sounded.
On college school breaks when the schedule aligned, the lure of seeing a legend like “Pistol Pete” Maravich, Earl “The Pearl” Monroe or my all-time favorite player, Brian Winters, play in person in Indianapolis’ Market Square Arena against the Pacers was still strong, so I would make the two-hour drive each way to see them play. I would be poised for post-game autographing with my manila folder filled with basketball cards, magazine photos and index cards and properly warmed up ballpoint pens.
A LITTLE “BIRD” TOLD ME
One special tip from a Pacers locker room security guard led to getting a most memorable signature. The guard saw me patiently waiting for the players and stated, “If you’re collecting autographs you should get that blonde headed boy leaning against the wall over there.” I said, “Who is he?” My new uniformed friend replied, “That’s Larry Bird and he’s going to play for Indiana State next season.”
Recall this is the mid-1970’s and awareness of young hoop prospects is nothing like it is today, plus Larry was “off the grid” for a time after his very brief enrollment at Indiana University in Bloomington. So even an avid follower of the game like me had not heard of Larry Bird. I went ahead and inked Larry on an index card that night and the next season I started hearing about a new phenom lighting it up in college basketball… and I was quite proud to already have Larry in my collection (his signature was a bit different as a teenager).
THE “MAGIC” OF MARCH MADNESS
My hometown University of Dayton Arena hosted many NCAA tournament “March Madness” games in the 1970’s. I found a way to attend almost all of them. In fact, UD Arena has hosted more NCAA tournament games than any other venue! One especially memorable game at UD Arena was the 1978 regional final, with Michigan State playing Kentucky. The Spartans were led by Greg Kelser and a rising freshman named Earvin “Magic” Johnson. Kentucky, who would go on to win the NCAA title about ten days later, had stars Kyle Macy, Rick Robey and Jack Givens.
My autograph pursuits were limited during these years, but I was so enamored by Magic Johnson’s game (I had seen him play two nights before in the regional semi-finals) I decided that after the game I would get him to sign an index card for my collection. I took my familiar postgame spot and waited for the Michigan State players to exit the arena tunnel. Greg Kelser came out first and I inked him on an index card. I got those butterflies in my stomach anticipating doing the same with Magic. Well, when Magic emerged the crowd of well-wishers had grown, he was quickly whisked away from the frenzy into a private car and was gone… and I stood by glumly with my index card still blank, intended for Magic’s signature.
My disappointment in that missed opportunity would grow as I watched the following seasons. Sophomore Magic Johnson, pitted against Larry Bird in the historic 1979 championship game, won the NCAA title. Then in 1980 as a rookie with the Lakers, Magic led Los Angeles to an NBA title. And sadly, still no Magic Johnson in the Tim Gallagher autograph collection.
JERRY BUSS, A HOTEL, BASKETBALL & “MAGIC” AT LAST
By 1980 I had graduated from college in Ohio and followed a then-girlfriend out to Phoenix, AZ. I was getting my business career under way, working for a bank in the city and getting my “adult life” going. I kept a close watch on basketball and attended my fair share of Phoenix Suns games but did not make time to get in-person autographs. I had signatures of most of the current basketball stars of the time already, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Nate Archibald, Larry Bird (thanks Pacers security guard!), Adrian Dantley, Dr. J, Paul Westphal… although not Magic Johnson. And that nagged at me.
The names of NBA team owners were not widely known to fans in the 1981-82 season. No one was really interested. Just a few blocks from my bank’s downtown Phoenix headquarters there was a hotel with bright signage that read, Jerry Buss’ Camelback Sahara. Wasn’t Jerry Buss also the owner of the Lakers? How many Jerry Buss’ could there be? Wouldn’t it make sense that the Lakers would stay at their owner’s hotel when they came to town? A lightbulb moment. The same Lakers who Magic Johnson, a gaping hole in my autograph collection, plays for? I checked the Suns schedule to see the next time the Lakers were playing at Phoenix and circled the date on my calendar… and waited.
The Lakers were finally in town. That sunny Phoenix afternoon after work I made the short trip from the office over to the Camelback Sahara hotel. As I turned the corner, I saw the idling team bus parked curbside. Bingo! Not a soul in sight, but in a short while players in Lakers road purple warmups started trickling out from the lobby, walking to the bus. My folder was in hand, my ballpoint pen ready. First Norm Nixon, then Michael Cooper, Jamaal Wilkes… and finally… Magic Johnson. I had Magic sign an index card and a couple Sports Illustrated tear out photos. And he was really nice about it, flashing that million-dollar smile. The feelings of collecting satisfaction and joy enveloped me. It was almost too easy!
THE COLLECTING JOURNEY CONTINUES
That afternoon in Phoenix I realized I was now-living in an NBA city, no other collectors present (at least that day, it was the Lakers, where were they?), so the mostly extinguished flame to collect basketball autographs from all the teams and players was relit. It took a little “Magic” to get me back on my collecting journey, but it is a road I haven’t left since that day.