Upon Opening a Pack of Basketball Cards for the First Time in Twenty Years…


I bought the two-pack of NBA Hoops basketball cards at Target, while buying the obligatory 18-pack of toilet paper, six-pack of tissues, and two-pack of deodorant.  The cards came at the end of the shopping trip, when I, like all of us at Target, was worn down by the experience, and vulnerable to comforting things, like candy and sports cards.  They were for my six-year-old nephew, at least that’s what I told myself.

A week later, while they were sitting on the bookshelf near the front door, I opened the cards in an impulsive moment of nostalgia.  As a child, my brother and I collected thousands of baseball cards, and I, being a basketball obsessive, decided to extend the collecting to hoops.

The bookshelf, which doubles as a drop-place for keys, wallet and things heading out the door was calling out to me.  So I opened one of the packs, with trepidation.  A memory of my mother telling me to bring the childhood cards up to the attic, on a trip home from college floated in.  To my dismay, here’s what I found inside:

The name on the top card reads Avery Johnson.  The cards were initially intended for my nephew, who is named Avery Hall Johnson.  I thought of my nephew, who has yet to show much of an interest in the NBA, in all likelihood because my brother is not much of a basketball fan.  He’ll watch them in the playoffs, like most, but he obsesses about the Red Sox and baseball in general.  He watches every Patriots game, and even follows the Bruins, but the Celtics have never been important in his life.

Basketball was always more a love of mine than his, or our father’s.  My life was basketball from the time I was ten until I was fifteen.  Basketball camps every summer.  Shooting by myself or finding pick-up games every afternoon and into the dusk on most evenings.  My happiness was directly connected to my success on the court for a few years of my life.  I even had visions of being the next great shoot-first, Division III point guard at a small liberal arts college (that kid at Grinnell who scored 138 points was only 27 of 71 from the college three-point line, but hey, I’m not bitter).  Those visions ended when I realized I had to run cross-country again during my 10th grade season in order to be in shape for basketball and junior varsity competition.  I hated cross-country.  It got me in great shape, but it was about as enjoyable and satisfying as eating a bowl of radishes.  So I stopped running, and I stopped being in shape.  And I got a little depressed.  And then basketball season started, and I couldn’t keep the pace up.  My 5’9″ out-of-shape body was close to useless.  I jacked up as many threes as they let me, and my wobbly knees gave me little hope after the first ten minutes of play.  I stopped playing competitively.  I got more depressed.  And I watched every Celtics game I could.  This was 1995.  The Celtics were just about to fall into a deeply mediocre period for the franchise.  Couldn’t have come at a better time.  They fit my mood perfectly.

Card #1

There’s Avery Johnson, with both arms raised, apparently calling out a play, and the team “Brooklyn Nets,” appears at the bottom.  Johnson, who won coach of the month in November, was the second NBA coach fired this season.  Despite a great first month, and an injury to Brook Lopez, Johnson was dismissed when the Nets went into a funk and his point guard, Deron Williams, made some highly questionable comments about the offensive system the team has set up.  Russian billionaire Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov, who happens to be attempting a run for President against Vladimir Putin in the near future, decided a few bad games and the displeasure of his team’s point guard was enough to fire a high-quality coach who had shown an ability to win in Dallas (67 wins and a championship) and would have done as much as anyone to insist that this Nets team learns how to follow Gerald Wallace’s example and play defense.  What would my nephew have thought if he’d suddenly learned his name was very similar to the name of a coach who’d just been fired?  The nightmares…

Card #2

Derrick Rose, Bulls.  The tragedy of a torn-up knee.  Two cards, two sad situations.  The stats on the back of these cards have been printed in what might be 4-point font.  As if you’re supposed to use a microscope to see the player’s stats.  Well-done, Panini America!  Stick to your delicious sandwiches in the future!

Card #3

Enes Kanter, Jazz.  A healthy and active player, albeit one wallowing in NBA obscurity in the salt desert of Utah.  This is what basketball cards should be about.  Knowledge.  Let’s learn something about this foreign-born young center!  Flip to the back of the card: “The youngest of all the Utah pups was Kanter, who was all of 19 years of age last season.”  In tiny print, a child might discover that Kanter weighs 267 pounds and is from Turkey.  Children will now think that Utah’s basketball team breeds dogs, and that pups can be 19 years old.  Misinformation and tiny print.

Card #4

Meyers Leonard, Blazers.  In a slim gray suit, donning a Blazers cap, is the 7-foot Meyers Leonard, shot only from the hip-up, so you can actually see his face.  Leonard is posed at a strange angle, and his small-mouthed smile seems fragile.  The words “Trail Blazers” and “Draft Night” appear behind him.  On the back we do not learn what number pick he was, but we do learn that “He’ll continue to evolve in the NBA because he’ll have all the time he needs to work on his game.”  As opposed to what, working a second job as a garbage man, leaving him little time to develop the ability to hit a 15-footer? If Leonard can turn himself into the legendary Travis Knight, the Blazers would be happy.

Card #5

Paul Pierce, Celtics.  Yes!  Finally, some Truth!  The old feeling of getting one of your guys as you sift through the pack.  Pierce is driving to the hoop with that classic look of wily determination on his mug.  Flip the card over and you are instantly overwhelmed by the tiny font.  The entire career, season-by-season, dating back to 1998, is laid out for you, now if only you had that high-powered microscope, you might learn what he’s accomplished.

Card #6

Dwight Howard, Magic.  Alright, here’s a question: What day did the Howard trade finally happen?  The Howard trade rumors began what feels like three years ago, but a quick search shows August 11th was the day the Magic actually traded him to the Mike Brown-led Lakers.  The basketball season’s biggest off-season storyline and this trading card company decides to print its cards in July, with Dwight Howard’s name next to the Orlando Magic?!?*@!  If I was a third-grade NBA fan in Orlando, and I got this pack of cards, I’d throw them out the window right now.

Card #7

James Harden, Thunder.  Not joking.  Well, at least this trade happened after the season had started.  Now, if I asked you which young NBA player’s face is most distinctive, Harden and his amazing beard would be toward the top of this list.  And yet, we don’t get the close-up we deserve.  Instead, we get Harden framed two feet in front of the rim, staring very calmly at the rim, while he’s about to throw down a two-handed dunk.  These photo-editors have no imagination.  Even from a mere marketing standpoint, the beard is selling.  I’ve seen countless little Houston fans wearing the fake bushy beards, as they sit munching popcorn next to their dads at the Toyota Center.  On the back of his card, we learn that Harden “garnered 115 of 119 first-place votes” in the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year balloting.  The commentary provided by Panini’s genius staff indicates that “Somewhere out there, there are four voters who may have missed the boat.”  Yes, maybe.  In addition, somewhere out there, Panini trading card people need to be dismissed from their jobs.

Card #8

Larry Drew, Hawks.  There’s nothing that gets a kid excited like seeing a bald man in a suit pointing defiantly off into the distance.  To his credit, Larry Drew deserves a little love.  He’s been an underappreciated coach in Atlanta, where fans can rarely be bothered to show up to games.  On the back of his card, we learn that Drew “juggled lineups and pushed the Hawks to a 40-26 mark” last year.  What we don’t learn is that Larry Drew is also a fatherly player’s coach, who commands rather than demands respect.*

Card #9

Anthony “Unibrow” Davis, Hornets.  Tightly-fitting gray suit, with gray pocket square.  The tie even has a splash of blue in it (he couldn’t find teal, I guess), as Davis knew weeks before the draft the Hornets were taking him #1 overall, and he wanted to coordinate with the complementary cap players are forced to wear after being selected.  Under the cap, we get a peek at the acclaimed “uni-brow” which Davis trademarked days before the draft.  Davis explained that, “(He) didn’t want anyone to grow a unibrow because of (him) and then try to make money off of it.”  How exactly would this work, Anthony?  The poor Greek or Bulgarian kid who has been shaving that thing for years is going to grow it out and then charge people when he takes off his ski mask and gives people a quick show?  For some reason, Davis doesn’t get the “Draft Night” graphic behind him like Leonard.  We do learn that Davis was 6’2” in high school, starting as a point guard, which helps to account for his unusually well-rounded and athletic game for a near-7-footer.  What we don’t learn is how many pairs of pants his mother had to buy him in high school.  The man grew nine inches in just a couple of years!

Card #10

Ronnie Brewer, Bulls.  Wrong team.  Ronnie Brewer, Knicks.  Internet, when did Brewer sign with the Knicks?  July 24th.  Come on, Panini!  Did you guys print these cards before last season even ended?

Card #11

Dwayne Wade, Heat.  Okay, a well-known player on a well-known team that many kids are probably excited about.  What does a Dwayne Wade card have to say on the back?  “By powering right through the Knicks and taking them down in five games in the first round of the 2012 playoffs, Wade made it to his 18th career postseason series in a Heat uniform.”  Right.  No mention of the fact they won the Championship last year.  No mention of the six-game series win over Indiana in Round 2.  No mention of the seven-hard-fought games with the Celtics in the East Finals.  No mention of the NBA Finals against OKC.  Just the fact that they beat the Knicks, an 8th seed, in the first round.  That’s all that really mattered last year.  If the great Panini wanted to give some useful and inspiring information, they might inform kids that Chicago’s public school system failed Dwayne Wade miserably.  Wade was lightly recruited coming out of high school because of academic issues stemming from un-diagnosed learning disabilities, as well as the familiar and detrimental treatment promising young athletes often receive regarding their high school education (demands that he be given passing grades rather than more mentoring and tutoring).  In addition, Wade is a great role model.  His new book, A Father First details the importance of fatherhood in his life.  After a long struggle with his now-ex-wife, he won sole custody of his two sons.  So yes, let’s not give any inspiring or humanizing information about this beloved athlete.  Let’s not mention that he won a Finals MVP in 2006 and won a second championship last year.  Let’s instead mention they survived the first round against the Knicks.

Card #12

Carl Landry, Hornets.  Incorrect, again!  Carl Landry, Warriors.  When was Landry signed?  Oh, what does it matter, they clearly printed these cards at the end of April, 2012.  One full-round into the playoffs.  At that point, Landry was back home, wondering where he’d end up.  Golden State has been a perfect fit.  The Warriors, in need of size, toughness, and bench-scoring, swooped in on Landry.  Along with Jarrett Jack, Big Carl has provided the Warriors with an option when Klay Thompson falls into one of his extreme-shooting-slumps.

Card #13

Paul George, Pacers.  One of my favorite young players in the NBA.  George has a chance to become a great two-way player in the mold of Scottie Pippen and Shawn Marion. With Granger’s injury this year, he’s emerged as an explosive scorer when the three-pointer is dropping (much like Granger).  Flip to the back of the card: “The lanky swingman put up career numbers across the board, while setting new single-game highs in points (30) and rebounds (16) as a second-year pro.”  Wow.  Career numbers?  In a two year career.  You mean his numbers in his second season were better than in his first season?  Incredible.

Card #14

Goran Dragic, Rockets.  Ahem.  Goran Dragic, Suns.  Let’s check the date just for fun.  July 5th.  Four-year deal with Suns.  Dragic, who is one of the skinniest players in the NBA (generously listed at 190 pounds) is an inspiration to all lanky, ultra-lean euro-guards.  His style of play is fun to watch, his Slovenian dribbling skills are a sight to see, and when he’s feeling it from outside, he’s a versatile change-of-pace guard, but he can’t play defense, as his body isn’t really built for any kind of contact.  On the back of his card, we read, “Once an apprentice in Phoenix, Dragic is thriving in Houston.”  And now that he’s back in Phoenix and being asked to start, he’s doing alright.

Card #15

Nicola Vucevic, Sixers.  Nope.  Nicola Vucevic, Magic.  Head shaking.  How are kids supposed to enjoy learning about their team’s players, and actually root for their local team if the cards they hold in their hand give them the wrong information over and over again?  I’m half-serious here.  Why does everyone love the best teams and not their own teams?  Because they don’t even know who is on their team, and because ESPN shows us that the Lakers, Heat, Thunder, Knicks, Bulls, and Clippers are the only teams that exist.  On the back, we learn that Vucevic was “born in Switzerland, raised in Belguim, has family roots in Montenegro and plays NBA basketball in Philadelphia.  You can’t call him for traveling based on his personal background.”  Oh, Panini, you have tossed in a little jokey joke.  How sweet.

Card #16

Tony Parker, Spurs.  A recognizable face who is playing on the same team the card suggests.  I guess if you’ve been on the same team for your entire career, then Panini can’t mess you up.  Pierce, Wade and Parker.  What can we learn about Tony?  I’m guessing the word “Frenchman” will come up.  Flip: “The French playmaker led San Antonio is scoring (18.3 points) and assists (7.7) on his way to a fourth All-Star appearance.”  Everything except for the typo “is” where “in” should be is fine.  Too bad we don’t learn that Tony’s name is actually William Anthony Parker.  In another universe, we might know him as “Wee Willie” Parker.

Card #17

Justin Harper, Magic.  At last, an unknown player.  With the amount of time I’ve spent in the NBA universe this year, I’m perplexed.   Judging by the photo, he’s a rugged swingman.  Tony Allen is looking on from behind, as Harper is about to lay the ball into the hoop.  Flip: “Eighty percent of Harper’s 2011-12 points output came in the final game of the regular season when the Magic hit the road and faced Memphis on April 26.  He scored a season-high 16 points in that outing, lifting his total for the year to 20 points.  The rookie forward capped the campaign on a high note.”  Hmm.  Under the microscope, we observe he shot 29% for the season.  The man barely played.  We’ll have to investigate this.  Bet he’s not even on the Magic anymore.  Wikipedia, what say you?  He’s currently on a Stampede with Idaho of the D-League.  Oh, Justin.  One of the thousands of 12th-man-nba-minimum-roster-spot-fillers of NBA lore.  How’s he doing with the Stampede these days? 10.8 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 42% FG%.  Sorry to say it, Justin, but those 16 points might be the last sixteen points of your NBA career.

Card #18

Brandon Jennings, Bucks.  We end our examination of these embarrassingly inaccurate NBA Hoops trading cards with the explosive young point guard of the Milwaukee Bucks, Brandon Jennings.  In the background of the card, Marshon Brooks is playing something he calls “defense,” which the rest of the league refers to as “the lay-up machine.”  Brooks’ defense is so bad even the Nets have noticed.  Jennings is shown in the middle of his smooth lefty-finger-roll –lay-up.  Flip: we learn that Jennings played in all 66 games last year, and that he was one of only 15 players to do so.  No mention of the career .393 shooting percentage, or the fact that Jennings’ career path is finally settling down after he became the first American to sign with a European team out of high school rather than play one year at the college level.  Understandably taking the $1.65 million dollar contract and instantly getting a $2 million dollar endorsement deal with Under Armour, Jennings’ emotional and isolated season in Italy was well-documented.  Would he have been better served by getting the coaching he needed and playing for a year or two in the messed-up NCAA system that we have?  Probably.  He might have learned something about shot-selection, team-work and defense.  Of course, he could have easily torn his ACL and never received a dime.

What does it mean to love a sport as a child?  It means to immerse yourself into an ocean of adoration, to meditate over the free-throw line, to bounce a basketball up and down the street on walks to and from school, to friend’s houses, to nowhere in particular.  It means to dream of increasing your limited vertical leap, to visualize the shot going into the hoop over and over.  To enjoy the particular way the net moved when you got that ideal rotation from your snapping wrist.  It meant the feeling of complete control, on those few occasions when you knew exactly how easy it was for you to move through time and space, avoiding defenders with your quick footwork and handle, to dish off at just the right time, the way Rondo and Parker and Paul do today.  It means to lose yourself in the moment, over and over and over again, until whole years pass by, and you shout to your mom, “Five more minutes!” from the park across from the house.  It means forgetting about loneliness, alienation, isolation, self-consciousness, fear, hesitation.  Loving a sport means projecting dreams onto your own future.  It starts by holding those dreams in your hand, and wondering about how those guys got there in the first place.

Jonah Hall blogs about his love for basketball, the Celtics, the NBA, and why sports matter at The Darko Index.

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5 thoughts on “Upon Opening a Pack of Basketball Cards for the First Time in Twenty Years…

  1. Ben says:

    I love this. Avery’s name is not hyphenated, as an aside.

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