Rare is the instance where I can recall myself as a little kid and not instantly cringe with regret. So bear with me while I hang onto one of those moments. All it took was a glance out a window while driving around in Tennessee, of all places.
Pigeon Forge, specifically, is where I spotted a sign reading “OLD BASEBALL CARDS” in the window of an antique shop this week, and I filed it away as an activity for later. I was hoping to find a cache of 1970s or early ’80s baseball cards, something where I could walk away with some cool, weird stuff without having to break a $10 bill.
Instead, sitting near old Life magazines and tin Coke ads, were dozens and dozens of Larry Bird basketball cards. And I cannot undersell the incredible percentage of Bird cards — all from between 1990 and 1993 — in this box. If there were 400 sports cards in top-loaders up for grabs at a dollar apiece, about 100 featured a mullet-free Bird at the end of his career. Fleer, Topps, Upper Deck, Skybox and NBA Hoops were all present and accounted for. There were a lot of duplicates and a few I remembered picking up in fifth grade, but none of them hit me until I noticed this one, a 1992-93 Fleer card. I don’t know if it’s even worth the dollar. Obviously, I grabbed it.
That ’92-93 season was pivotal for me. I always remember the Celtics as the first team in any sport I really followed, even before the Red Sox, but that year was the first I tuned in from the beginning of the season through the playoffs — the dawn of the post-Bird era through an early exit to Charlotte in the first round, the last games Reggie Lewis would play.
As that fandom grew leading up to that season, basketball cards joined my baseball cards when I realized that sports other than baseball also received their own printings. And in my growing collection, I had cards from a few different companies. I didn’t really know what was what, I just bought what I liked — and that year, I liked those Fleer cards with the basketball bumps on the border the best. I found Lewis and Kevin McHale, but that was it. Bird’s wasn’t one I was waiting for, or even hoped would come out of the pack. I never even realized he had a card in that set until I saw it this week. He was relegated to history.
That year was utilitarian for me on other ways, as to realizing I wasn’t adept at following a crowd. Most of my classmates loved Larry Johnson, Alonzo Mourning and that goddamn Hornets winter jacket. I still wore a classic Celtics starter jacket, already knew the basic history of the team — the 16 titles, anyway — and started drawing the leprechaun on every notebook and folder. There was a way to be popular as a 10-year-old, but talking up McHale and long-past championship banners was not the way. Certainly, bringing up the now-retired Bird was as lame as it got among trash-talking fifth graders.
But, whatever. They didn’t like me and I wasn’t good at faking my way to “cool.” At one point I traded a Shaquille O’Neal rookie for a group of Bird and Magic Johnson cards — also recently retired, but I gravitated towards history then as now. I kept my cards in a Trapper Keeper and carried them in my backpack to study at recess, and Xavier McDaniel and Dee Brown weren’t impressing anyone in that crowd.
Still, those few Bird cards, along with McHale and Reggie, were the prizes of my collection. I probably only collected basketball cards for another year or so before bailing on the entire enterprise, but before relegating the rest to a box, I singled out the Celtics and moved them into their own binder, where they still live today. I don’t troll the internet for basketball cards and I don’t think there’d been a change to the contents of that binder in years until today.
But, in goes Larry. If I’d found this card 25 years ago, I’d have paraded it around then, too. I know no one would’ve cared then and I’m not sure anyone does now, either. But that was never the point. Those dumb little things made me happy, teasing be damned, and finding another one made me happy again.
I thought antique stores were cool when I was 10, too, but I at least knew enough to keep that to myself. I’m not a masochist.