If you were an enormous fan of Mark Jackson circa 1990, and you wanted to buy his trading card on eBay in the last few months, you were out of luck.
Turns out eBay doesn’t let you buy anything “affiliated with murders or serial killers.”
Before we go any further: no, Mark Jackson didn’t murder anybody. This also isn’t a joke about Jackson’s first truly boring and pedestrian season. (In 1990, the Knicks legend averaged 7.4 assists, mostly in entry passes to Patrick Ewing.)
But there are, in fact, two murderers prominently featured on Mark Jackson’s 1989-90 trading card. It’s the Menendez Brothers, two of the four people seated courtside in the picture. And the photo was taken after they murdered their parents for their insurance money in their Beverly Hills mansion in 1989.
Miraculously, nobody found out two famous murderers photobombed Mark Jackson’s trading card until 30 full years later. Not until last August.
This discovery did not happen the way you think it did. A guy wasn’t rooting around his card collection and spotted two guilty-looking 20-somethings at Madison Square Garden.
In fact, Stephen Zerance doesn’t even watch the NBA. He was just trying to find photographic proof that Lyle and Erik Menendez did all the outlandish stuff that court documents claim they did in the months between murdering their parents and getting caught.
“My friend and I, who is also a true-crime head, knew that the brothers went on a lavish spending spree after they got an insurance payout from their parents’ death,” Zerance said. “They bought a lot of things: tennis lessons, Rolexes, clothes, businesses, restaurants, cars.”
In all, the brothers quickly spent about $700,000 between the murders in August of 1989 and their apprehension in 1990—almost the exact length of the NBA season.
“Then we noticed they bought courtside tickets to the Knicks at Madison Square Garden.”
Zerance, who writes crime novels, began looking at old photo archives for proof. Nothing. Maybe someone had uploaded a picture or video somewhere else? No luck.
“When Getty Images didn’t have anything, it was like a light bulb,” he said. “There are so many junk cards on eBay.”
Zerance looked up cards on eBay from 1989 and 1990 and zeroed in until he found a match. He bought a bunch for about 10 cents apiece.
On August 12 of 2018, 29 years after the Menendez brothers committed the murders to the week, Zerance posted his findings on Twitter.
“Mood: my Mark Jackson basketball card with cameos from the Menendez brothers in the background,” he wrote.
Mood: my Mark Jackson basketball card with cameos from the Menendez brothers in the background pic.twitter.com/kqmLag0uze
— STEPHEN ZERANCE (@stephnz) August 12, 2018
Almost nobody noticed at the time. As of this writing, the post has two retweets. But months later, in December, a different, anonymous person posted his findings on Reddit.
Reddit is mostly bad but the other day I learned on that website that the Menendez Brothers are in the background of this basketball card and that logistically this would be between when they killed their parents and when they were arrested and I cannot stop thinking about it. pic.twitter.com/fMb5ugLX2m
— John Rosenberger (@JohnJohnPhenom) December 8, 2018
This checks out. Menendez murder happened Aug. 20, 1989. Brothers were apprehended March 1990. Photo was taken at MSG in 1989-90 season and set came out before 1990-91 season. https://t.co/n2vzRBA6Sg
— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) December 8, 2018
NBA internet was enthralled. The Reddit post then made it back to Twitter on someone else’s account, which received thousands of retweets. CNN and The Washington Post wrote stories about it. Nobody knew it was Zerance who found it until we found him, which he said doesn’t bother him at all.
“I’m just glad it went viral, really. It’s a cool little tidbit,” he said.
After all, those 10 cent cards could net him some cash now. Although eBay claimed it prohibited selling the cards, it’s not really enforcing the ban anymore.
They’re going for about $20 apiece on average. One particularly ambitious guy on Etsy is trying to sell his mint condition card for $1,500.
So Zerance has some advice: If you have a favorite player, buy his trading card now, before it gets haunted.
“I’m sure this will continue happening,” said Zerance. “There have to be so many things hiding in plain sight.”
Ben Collins is a writer and reporter for NBC News. He’s also a SLAM columnist and writes The Outlet, a monthly column in which BC muses on…well, whatever he wants. Follow him on Twitter @oneunderscore_.