Basketball

In the rough and tumble of collecting basketball cards, a young man learns about power plays and the surprises of human nature. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

The art of trading basketball cards

The Houston Rockets’ Hakeem Olajuwon basketball card.
The Houston Rockets’ Hakeem Olajuwon basketball card.
Credit: Top Shot Collectables

In early high school, if we weren’t playing basketball, my friends and I could be found comparing and trading NBA cards. Most of us sheathed them in plastic sheets of nine pockets, which had holes punched in their margins so they could be added to ring binders. But one’s most precious cards were proudly displayed within individual cases of hard plastic, comprising two halves unified by four tiny screws. The cost and mechanical assemblage created a respect for the cases themselves, independent of the treasure they held.

In the canteen line one day, our grade’s alpha bully took from his backpack one of these cases. It enshrined a Shawn Kemp rookie card, and exaggerated respect fell from the mouths of Brad’s friends. Attraction to power starts young, and sycophants orbited him. But Brad could offer his satellites no warmth or wisdom, only proximity to his authority. And this proximity didn’t guarantee protection from abuse either. I despised him, and as I watched the moronic gaggle praise the Kemp card, I decided right then to defraud him of it.

The plan was simple. I would find a worthless card, and make it profitable by committing a fraudulent signature to it. But whose signature? I had in my collection a Hakeem Olajuwon, the Houston Rockets centre and a future Hall of Famer and league MVP.

Hakeem the Dream. I found his signature in a magazine and practised it relentlessly. I filled pages and pages with versions of it. It was easy enough. But when it came to signing the card, I lost my nerve and scrawled erratically. I should have abandoned the con then. Or at least binned the card and started again with another. Inexplicably, I did neither.

A card of such alleged value couldn’t be presented casually, so I had exchanged a good number of my own with a friend for one of the special display cases. After I’d bedded the Olajuwon in its shallow recess, I carefully screwed the case back together. Then I studied the effect. The case dignified the card, and seemed to soften the crudity of my forgery.

The final part of the con was inventing a provenance for the card. This was the hard bit. I couldn’t fake a certificate of authenticity. That was well beyond me. But where did I get the card from? And how did its previous owner come to possess it? In art forgery, the painting can come easy – it’s faking its history of ownership that’s hard. After great thought, I developed a brilliantly intricate story: my cousin had sold it to me.

In schoolyard mythology, cousins featured prominently. They were shadowy figures, always facilitating or witnessing our moments of greatness, notoriety or, in my case, ownership of valuable memorabilia. If someone had shot 10 three-pointers in a game, committed a daring spree of shoplifting, or tagged a moving train, you could be sure that a cousin was the only witness.

The counterfeit and its alibi complete, all that was left was summoning the will to fulfil my crime and defraud the school’s largest bully. I’m not sure where I found this confidence. It’s pleasing to think that a sense of injustice governed me, but I think it was simple greed. Brad was a spoilt child, and I coveted his possessions.

I didn’t know it then, but the unlikelihood of a small and obscure kid risking Brad’s wrath so brazenly had helped convince my victim and his mates of my good faith. It didn’t occur to them that I could be this brave or stupid. And when I saw Brad proudly unfurl a poster of the latest dunk contest winner, I knew what I wanted: the poster, Kemp rookie and Brad’s socks, which bore the NBA logo. I made my offer. “Where’s the Olajuwon?” he asked hungrily. I promised to bring it tomorrow.

We met at recess the next day. When I removed the card from my bag, I could sense that Brad thought himself the slyly triumphant party of the trade – and, had the signature been authentic, he would have been. His greed made me feel better about my own.

I was so consumed by hatred and envy that the perversion of my risk didn’t occur to me. For some paper, cardboard and a pair of used socks, I was risking a serious beating and expulsion from a fraternity to which I was only peripherally attached anyway. I didn’t have the charm or social standing to form a rebel faction. If found out, my beloved basketball court would be off limits. I’d be out in the cold, a pariah who couldn’t join the local pick-up games, or practise his free throws, as I did most days, regardless of the weather.

Brad handed me the loot. I was exhilarated, but not for long. “I’m going to a card dealer this weekend,” he said. “He can take a look at this.” I feigned indifference: “That’s cool.”

I hadn’t anticipated this. Nor did I have any expectation that the evaluator Brad visited would be fooled by my forgery. It was Thursday. I had until Monday to leave the state and assume a new identity.

That evening, I placed the Kemp rookie card on my bedside table and stuck the poster to my door. Then I put on Brad’s socks. I sat on my bed, trying to enjoy my brief profit. What was I supposed to feel? Pride? Contentment?

The next morning, my mother ordered the poster’s removal. It was an extra blow. I had traded my life for a magazine’s pull-out that I couldn’t even display for my final weekend.

“Where did you get those socks?”

“A friend gave them to me.”

“Do his parents know?”

“Dunno.”

“Then take them off, and give them back.”

The kids’ adventure films I loved, such as The Goonies and E.T., offered two distinct worlds. The world of children pulsated with risk, colour and camaraderie, while adults inhabited a fuzzy, separate sphere of grey and inscrutable responsibilities. The citizens of each were mutually incomprehensible. The adults sleepwalked towards death, and, being insensible to magic, were ignorant of their children’s adventures. Only a few adults – the ones who retained something of their own childhood – could bridge these worlds and help guide the young adventurers.

I understood the mutual incomprehension. My parents and I lived in parallel worlds. When Dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer, I was obsessing over the Bermuda Triangle and spontaneous human combustion. But I was allowed to, because one of those inscrutable responsibilities of adulthood, it turned out, was stoically preparing for death without frightening your children.

My father would defy the diagnosis, but now my parents were ignorant of my own, categorically different, nightmare of early high school: bullies, knife crime and the shameful developments of puberty. Similarly, they were ignorant now of my failed con and subsequently reduced life-expectancy.

That weekend, I prayed for the first time since Dad’s cancer. I prayed for time to loop. I prayed that the earth beneath my school might quake and surrender. I prayed for a nuclear attack, so that beneath the mushroom cloud my sins might be forgotten and we would all be unified by our elevated love and fear.

On Sunday evening, I did everything I could to prevent going to bed. I thought that waking hours were longer than sleeping ones and that maybe, if I never slept, morning would never come. First, I feigned illness, which Dad correctly said should hasten, not delay, my going to bed. Then I snuck outside to switch off our power mains to better support my insistence that I’d heard someone prowling outside.

When Dad was told that he’d die soon, did he think the same? That waking hours were longer? That sleep cheated him of already limited time? That sleep was just a prelude to the Big Nothing, and so something to be fought? Did he cede his rationality a little? Did he ever think that if he were awake, then he couldn’t die?

But sleep was inevitable, and so was the morning. I didn’t bring the loot back to school that Monday, because Brad would find it telling that I’d anticipated returning it. Some cunning had survived my anxiety. Still, I expected to be choked into promising its return, while I splutteringly professed my innocence.

But when I saw Brad, I was confounded. He didn’t charge on sight, enraged by the spear I’d recklessly plunged into his ego. Instead, his eyes were lowered. There was no swagger. And he was alone. I had expected a posse – one excited by the prospect of blood. That he hadn’t brought one suggested he didn’t want an audience for whatever was coming.

He walked slowly towards me. Then he removed the dodgy Olajuwon from his pocket. “The guy reckons this isn’t real,” he said, very quietly.

“Really?” I asked.

“I think I want my stuff back.”

“Are you sure it isn’t real?”

“Can you bring it tomorrow?”

“Okay.”

Of the hundred scenarios I’d projected, this wasn’t one of them. Brad was humbled. His tyrant’s aura had evaporated. I wondered if parental scorn had caused this, or if the card appraiser had laughed at him, or if Brad had been chastened all by himself. Astonished, I realised this would end peacefully.

And later, much later, I wondered: Which one of us had been more wrong about the other?

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 17, 2022 as "On the cards".

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