by Andrew Polaniecki
We all collect different things. Some people collect high end items such as horses, cars or even planes. Some people collect smaller valued items such as stamps, coins, and even rocks. Heck, I bet you could find someone who really puts their toe jam into a jar. I remember growing up my grandfather had a 30 year long collection of stamps. No matter how hard he tried, he could never pique my interest away from basketball cards regardless of how many “limited edition,” one out of a million stamp sets he would give to me.
What do I collect? Well that’s not really the proper question to ask me. A more prudent question to ask me is, Who am I? Well I am a jersey collector. A rare, but not uncommon breed that comes with being part of a small but sometimes highly competitive sub-community that for the most part exists solely online.
This piece may not hit home for everyone. Who am I aiming to reach? Well if you once dreamed about owning one of those Champion brand replica jerseys, and begged your parents for years until you actually got one, this article is for you. If you saved up every dollar until you hit forty to buy one of those Champion replicas yourself, then this article is for you. If you were a teenager who regularly watched MTV’s Total Request Live or BET’s 106 & Park during the early 2000’s just to see which rapper was wearing which Mitchell & Ness throwback then this one is for you.
To start things off, let me start by saying that I am a thirty-year-old man who is the biggest kid at heart. I do not have the slightest obsession with wearing another man’s shirt bearing his name. He certainly wouldn’t wear mine. Do I have the biggest collection in the world? No. Do I have the most valuable collection in the world? Hardly! What draws me to collect are the memories or the stories associated to each jersey I own one way or the other. This may be a favorite player or team from childhood, or a player that I have now become friends with through various business endeavors.
My obsession with the hobby started when I was eight and it is an obsession that I never grew out of. It all started back in ’93 when I would go over to my best friend’s house, almost weekly, and we would watch all of the NBA on NBC games together. He used to come downstairs in a different jersey every week depending on the team that was playing.
He had so many! I clearly remember he had Ewing, Barkley, Jordan, Magic and Kevin Johnson. At halftime he would lend me one to put on while we played basketball in his driveway and we each pretended to be the player we were wearing. I never had my own though. I wanted one more than anything else. His mom told me she would get them from a flea market. I begged my mom to take me to the flea market even though I didn’t know what a flea market was, nor did I have any interest in fleas. My passion for the hobby doesn’t stem from anything related to my life now, but rather a growing and continuing interest ever since those days in my friends driveway before I ever got my first one.
I’ll never forget that moment. I probably begged my parents for an entire year until I unwrapped a black Orlando Magic Shaquille O’Neal Champion replica jersey for my ninth birthday. My parents surprised me with it by packing it in my suit case for my birthday weekend that I spent at my grandparents. I left on a Friday, and they told me I couldn’t open it until my birthday on Sunday. It was killing me all weekend. I knew exactly what was in that package, but I could never figure out who it was of.
The wax wrapping paper was somewhat see through, and I could tell it wasn’t a Knicks or Bulls jersey (my two top choices) which had my chomping at the bit even more. When I finally got to open it and saw that it was a Shaq jersey I screamed! I was officially in the game! Not only did I have my first jersey, but it was a jersey my friend didn’t have in his collection and it gave me extra bragging rights. I was hooked.
Shortly after obtaining my first one, due to holidays, I was given a couple more and my collection was starting to take shape. Six months after I received the Shaq, I was given a blue Patrick Ewing Knicks jersey. Six months after that was my tenth birthday, and this was shortly after Michael Jordan returned to the NBA in ’95. I was given by my grandparents his brand new red #45 jersey. It only kept growing from there. Divorce is awful for a child, but one of the only perks is double the presents and I started raking it in. I quickly added an Anthony Mason, Dennis Rodman, Larry Johnson, Charles Barkley, and Penny Hardaway all within a couple of years. I hung them all up on my walls to make my bedroom look like a sporting goods store. I was quickly closely closing in on my dream and goal of owning ten jerseys in my collection. Why ten? Well that’s double digits of course.
While my collection was becoming one to boast about, a single trip to the mall one Sunday afternoon brought me right back down to reality. I was walking around the Roosevelt Field Mall and I came across a type of jersey that I had never seen before. This jersey was beyond different than anything in my collection. This jersey reflected something of a much higher quality than any jersey I had ever seen.
I stumbled across my first authentic jersey.
What was this I was seeing? Heavy duty mesh!…. pinstripes!!….. SEWN ON NUMBERS!!! I thought that my jerseys were like soiled wash cloths compared to this. I now had a new birthday wish, but at $100 a pop I knew that it would always remain at that–a wish. A wish that was finally met for my 13th birthday as a gift from my cousins. I’ll never forget when I reached into the gift bag and felt for the first time the heavy duty mesh, and dual layered tackle twill sewn on numbers. It also featured a special tag at the bottom of the jersey different than any of my previously owner jersey. Made by Starter this special tag stated words no other replica or authentic jersey ever stated before ’97. It was a tag that any jersey collector only dreamed about having attached to one of their replica jerseys.
What is the fascination with collecting game worn jerseys? Well to real collectors it’s all about the second tag. I’m not talking about the neck tag, or the washing instructions label. I’m talking about the tag you could never get. When I say the word “get” I also mean buy. The second tag I am referring to was non-existent on your replica jerseys. It was non-existent on even your authentic jerseys. Up until a certain point due to demand It was non-existent on any retail store jersey all together. The only way you knew it even existed was seeing this anomaly on television or basketball publications. It piqued your interest so much you would stare at the television when a player’s jersey became un-tucked just to try and figure out what that second mystery tag was on the real jerseys the players wore. More so than that, you were constantly asking yourself how come you never had one of those tags on any one of your jerseys? What do you have to do and where do you have to go to see what that tag is up close?
As a 10-year-old I spent at least a year religiously looking at every basketball card or picture I had that showed this tag to try and figure out what this tag was all about. Dennis Rodman would always throw his jersey into the crowd after each home game, and I would try to just grab a glimpse of the jersey to figure out what this mystery was. It wasn’t until I went on a tour of Madison Square Garden and had the opportunity to go in to the Knicks locker room that I finally got my answer. Upon entering the locker room my mouth hit the floor. My extensive year long research which to an 11-year-old would be equal to an eternity, was about to conclude.
Lay before my eyes was Patrick Ewing’s locker, and inside of it hanging was Patrick Ewing’s jersey. I lunged ahead of the tour group towards the locker and the jersey, turned it over and looked down and what I saw is turned me into a jersey collector for life.
“DESIGNED AND TAILED EXCLUSIVELY FOR THE ’95-96 NEW YORK KNICKS.”
My first thoughts were both filled with happiness and disappointment. I finally figured out the mystery, I thought how cool it was that every team had their own custom tag. Then the disappointment hit when I realized I would never be able to own something so exclusive. It could never be bought. It was exclusive, never to be made available to the public.
This was all before eBay ever existed. This was all before memorabilia auction houses were as popular as they are today. eBay changed everything for everyone. Today, between eBay, Amazon and websites like Fresh Direct you can live your entire life without ever leaving the house. You can find anything you ever dreamed of and that includes game worn memorabilia. Through just a couple of specific keywords like “PRO CUT JERSEY,” and “GAME WORN JERSEY” and you are taken to a collectors fantasy dream. Hundreds if not thousands of game worn jerseys for you to sort through and pick which player you would like to add to your collection. Don’t like what is there today, wait until tomorrow and there will be 30 new jerseys posted over night. If you’re still not happy there are at least three game used memorabilia auction houses that run monthly auctions. The once unattainable is now the over saturated.
This hobby, just like many other hobbies, is filled is with people who try to make a quick buck even if it means deceiving individuals. There are more counterfeit jerseys in this hobby than there are legitimate authentic jerseys. Factories in China produce knock offs at an alarming rate at a price that is a fraction of a retail jersey. The most scary any typical issue that this small but huge community of jersey collectors face are the eBay sellers who guarantee their items for sale to be game worn when they were never even touched by the athlete. These individuals spend their days buying blank jerseys in bulk, and customizing them to a B or C level player and then re-list that once blank jersey as a game worn jersey. Sometimes they will even take the unique exclusive tag from one jersey, and reapply it to another hoping that it will sell for more money attached to another name.
They also know the average buyer will assume, “hey who would ever fake a bench warmer?” Stripping names or numbers from traded players old jerseys and replacing it with different names wearing the same number is not uncommon too. I see individuals post their newly acquired jerseys like this all the time on social media or in forums. They are all excited about their latest acquisition just to learn later from experts that they were duped because the font on the back of the jersey is wrong, or they come to the realization that a 7-foot center could never actually wear a 44+2 length top.
The scariest part about all of the counterfeit items out there is when they hit the secondary market and then brought to high end auction houses who are thirsty to take quick consignments for high buyer premiums. I have seen and sometimes have written to call out just about every single major auction house about items they have falsely listed.
Here is the play: John Doe buys one of these custom blank jerseys from Josh Doe. John Doe then takes it to one of these auction houses and tells them that it’s game used. They go ahead and list it in their current online auction as game used with the description reading, this jersey was presented to us as game used and in our opinion it is game used. Wait a second! Read that last part back to yourself and their statement “in our opinion”.
It was presented to them as one thing without any certifications or photo matching provenance and in their opinion they state it is game used because John Doe who has no actual knowledge of the history of the jersey told them so?! I should tell them Michael Jordan chewed my Doublemint gum in Game 6 and have them run that as game used as well.
If only these auction houses did a quick completed auction search on eBay they would see that the jersey in front of them was just sold by a known counterfeit seller two weeks earlier. Why would they though? They hope no one catches it, and they know someone out there will buy it and pay the buyer’s premium on top of the hammer price. By now Josh Doe’s once blank jersey has circulated around the market enough times that once the high end auction house completes the sale then the newest owner is 100% assured that their once blank jersey is game worn because they got it from said auction house with their official letter of authentication, which is authenticating an item that they never fully researched to know if it actually is authentic.
At the end of the day, though, why does the auction house care though? They cover themselves by stating it was presented to them one way, and use the word “OPINION” to state it’s game worn. Opinions are never facts, and through terminology they can never be held accountable. They have hundreds of jerseys listed a month and made 30% off of each sale for doing nothing more than listing your item on consignment. Pretty smart on their end, pretty unfortunate for the collectors like myself. True story, I once called out one of the largest sports memorabilia auctions houses on a jersey I knew was 100% a fake. Their response to me was buyer beware. I never placed a bid with them again, and I made sure to tell everyone I knew that bought in the past through them to do the same.
Everything involved with this hobby has changed. Unfortunately, in my opinion, for the worse. It all starts from the root of the manufacturer and the products they are currently releasing. The quality of jerseys are just not the same as the high quality they once were. Granted everything is designed now to be lighter and more ventilated for players comfort but the lack of high quality craftsmanship had led collectors to resort back to specifically collecting the vintage Champion uniforms. Take a look back at the history of uniforms. Seventy-plus years ago they wore flannel, a thick heavyweight material almost like a sweater. Numbers were hand cut and sewn on. Over the decades, materials became lighter. Technology also allows for mass production. Players used to be given four jerseys a year, two home and two away. Nowadays due to companies like Meigray and Steiner Sports, two of the industries leaders in memorabilia who both possess exclusive deals with teams to deliver game worn items directly to fans with guaranteed provenance, some players wear a new uniform every game. Some players like LeBron James sometimes even change uniforms at half time so that their team can sell more game worn uniforms at a 5 digit price.
Scarcity is key. There are more LeBron and Stephen Curry game worn jerseys on the market from one single season then there are total jerseys available from individuals’ entire careers that spanned the ’90s or previous decades. It’s the vintage Champion uniforms that collectors want. Not even the ’80s Sand Knit jerseys have the same appeal. True collectors will scope out these vintage uniforms from 20-plus years ago and pay a premium for a no name player just because of the uniforms scarcity or design like that of the ’90s Phoenix Suns fireball jersey, or the Atlanta Hawks mid-’90s uniform that featured a huge black and red hawk with its spread wings from pit to pit. By a certain point it’s not even about the player it’s all about the design. The most popular designs from the 90s that will forever carry a premium include: Atlanta, Phoenix, Toronto’s purple dinosaur theme, Vancouver Grizzlies and the Orlando Magic.
A unique example of choosing quality over design can be learned from the Golden State Warriors lightning bolt design that were worn famously during the Latrell Sprewell era. Here is a uniform that carries all of the characteristics of other unique screen printed designs from the ’90s. Bold and colorful. Very colorful. Joseph would be salivating.
However, Champion no longer held the exclusive and these uniforms that were made by Starter, and then Puma lacked the same quality that the other team’s uniforms possessed. To this day one of the most unique designs is often overlooked in the premium dollar category due to it not being manufactured by Champion. It is interesting to note that of all the teams that were just mentioned for carrying a premium, all five of those teams–with the exception of the Raptors–maintained their contract with Champion through ’02 while Nike, Puma and Starter had contracts split among the other teams.
While the Raptors switched to Nike in ’97, Nike kept the original template that Champion manufactured with minor tweaks until ’99 when they changed the uniforms to resemble the same template being used by other teams like the Lakers and the Mavericks. Suddenly, originality was being replaced by fabric technology.
In ’97, when Champion lost the exclusive contract in the NBA the downward spiraling quality shift was set to full speed ahead. By ’01, the majority of the teams who were supplied by Nike all featured the same template adorned with their own team colors. Competing brands like adidas and Reebok began to adapt their own Dri-Fit materials and applied them to the teams uniforms that they held the contract with. Once Reebok acquired the exclusive NBA contract across the league in ’03, the once high-quality thick polyester, sometimes double layered, was now a thin nylon. Double or triple-layered twill was now a double-layered kiss cut twill about half the thickness that uniform numbers used to be.
To go with the hip-hop culture store bought authentic jerseys were also approximately four inches longer than they were five years earlier making them almost unwearable to the average sports fan, but were selling well to the MTV and BET generation.
When adidas took over the exclusive agreement with the NBA they tried to capitalize off of both the average and high end collectors by retailing four different levels of jerseys. There are replicas that feature screen printed name and numbers closely resembling that of what a kid would see on TV close enough that a kid feels satisfied to be wearing their favorite players jersey.
Then there are the Swingman jerseys. A concept started by Nike in ’00. Combining the lesser qualities of a replica mixed with the sewn on numbers of an authentic jersey. The manufacturers logo would be affixed to the shoulder strap as well separating even from a distance any confusion between a Swingman and authentic. Then there are the authentic jerseys. Up until recently, this was the closest a collector could get to the real thing on the retail market. Almost identical to what the players wear save for a generic tag, sizing system and sometimes minor cosmetics. Sizes range from 40-60 in intervals of four.
Adidas took it one step further knowing that there are collectors out there who won’t even wear an authentic out of ego and will only wear pro cut or better which at one point were only available to the players. Pro cuts, to those with no knowledge, are tailored to each players specification to fit their torso accordingly. To give you an idea, Allen Iverson who stands at a 6-0 even, and weighed 165 pounds soaking wet during his playing days, wore a 44+4. MJ at 6-6, 220 wore a 46+3. Shaq standing at 7-1,, 350 pounds plus, started in Orlando wearing a 52+3 and by the time he retired he was up to at 60+6.
In 2010, adidas issued limited edition retail pro cuts that came in a special box and were all sequentially numbered. These jerseys retailed for an astronomical $350 and were made of only star players. How Danilo Gallinari ever got one beats me but never the less it gave fans the first opportunity at acquiring jerseys with adidas’ latest technology of mesh numbers, the thinnest most breathable uniform numbers placed on any uniform in any sport.
While collectors did go crazy for these when they first come out and didn’t shy away from dropping a pretty penny, they quickly saw that even these high quality pro cuts were nowhere near the quality of the standard game jerseys players worn not 10 years ago. Now you can get one of these boxed jerseys on eBay depending on the player for $60 and up on eBay.
So where does this bring us all to today? Well up until the early ’00s, only a few teams had one alternate jersey saved for special occasions. Now some teams may wear six or seven styles in one season. Why? Well for no other reason than for the League to sell more merchandise. Which brings me to the current state of where the league is at right now in regards to uniforms. Unfortunately for lifelong jersey collectors like myself, our biggest hobby nightmare has come true.
Starting in ’17 that NBA has announced that advertisements will start appearing on uniforms where the NBA logo once appeared for almost 30 years. What happened to tradition? People have asked me my thoughts, and my response has been the same three words to all of them. I HATE IT!
This move only continues to steam roll ahead that this game once fueled by blood, sweat and tears, is now fueled by money more so than ever. Could you imagine if Burger King sponsored the Bulls uniforms of the ’90s and Michael Jordan, a lifetime Nike endorser, was flying towards the hoop with a big burger patched on to his uniform? On the other hand, maybe to the new collector these patches will be like the new second tag to us older collectors. Maybe seeing that their replica jersey is missing the State Farm patch they see on TV will allow them to dream to one day own a jersey with that patch they just saw but is not available in stores. One thing will always remain the same though, and that’s the quality of what has now become vintage.
Hard to believe that what I once saw on TV as a kid only 20 years ago is now considered vintage, but as the saying goes….. they just don’t make ’em like they used to.
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