Blast From the Packs: 1991-92, the first year of Upper Deck NBA

When I bought the box of 1992 Leaf baseball, it was kind of an impulse purchase. Like when you have a little too much wine and make a late-night Amazon order: It’s fine, it’s good, but did you really need that hard-boiled egg maker?

I didn’t really collect that particular season of Leaf when I was younger, and when I dug into the box of packs as an adult, I was reminded why. It’s sort of a dull set! I didn’t need it at all! But: It was a start for this new/old adult/childhood obsession.

And now that I’ve scraped the rust off my eBay skills, I’m knowing a bit more when to hold and when to fold, so to speak. And I’m looking for sets I actually LIKED as a kid to revisit. Back then, I didn’t have the money for a whole box, so why not indulge that yearning from all those years ago now that I do?

So the next box I bought was a set I have always loved: The 1991-92 Upper Deck basketball set. The first Upper Deck basketball set.

Friends, let’s talk a bit about this set, and Upper Deck in general. Even as a beginning collector at 9 years old, I recognized Upper Deck as a company pushing the envelope in sports card collecting with high-quality cardstock, holograms on every card, inserts and chase sets, and by FAR the best photography and photo editing of any other card manufacturer in the late 80s and early 90s. Upper Deck had burst on the scene in 1989 with its first baseball set, featuring a primordial Ken Griffey Jr. as its star, its #1 in the set lineup. But it wasn’t until 1991 that it released its first set of NBA cards.

And god, what a gorgeous set.

Picture perfect

I had this Dee Brown card as a kid. I LOVED it. I didn’t love the Celtics, necessarily, and though Dee was a pretty spry guard, it’s not like I’d have called him a favorite or anything. But this dunk contest was iconic for two things: Those Reebok Pumps he wore and this picture of him sitting on the rim.

It feels like it would be a no-brainer, if you were running a sports card company, to pick only the coolest, most iconic, most badass photos for your sets. But to look at the cards being manufactured before Upper Deck came along, it just wasn’t usually the case. Upper Deck saw that cool Dee Brown photo that was in magazines and on posters all over America in 1991 and said, “this belongs in the set.” And the team at Upper Deck clearly kept that energy throughout this set.

Like, this Dominique Wilkins card: What was Nique best known for? Flying in for amazing dunks. Why overthink it? And why not put another badass Nique dunk photo ON THE BACK?

A reverse for the reverse side. Brilliant stuff.

I’ve never attended a game in-person at the Staples Center or the Forum before it, but the Upper Deck photo editors captured the vibrancy of the Lakers’ home gold uniforms in a way I had literally never seen before this set: Not on TV, where they usually showed up kind of mustardy yellow (perhaps catching odd light off the wooden floor?), not in the pages of Sports Illustrated, and not on any other sports cards I’d seen. So many of the photos are just so bright and crisp, they still stand out 29 years later.

A timeless design

Let’s talk design: it all works together so well. That strip of hardwood floor down the side and bottom (with just a peek of the halfcourt line and center circle), the team name in team color down the side (I would have probably nixed the shadow effect for a thin stroke on each letter, but nothing’s perfect), the strong-yet-understated small caps name-on-front presentation (with the first letters of each name descending below the line instead of ascending above), and the maker’s mark in the upper-right combine to create a uniform look without dulling down each card’s individuality. If the hardwood design had gone all the way around like a border, it would have been too much, but it’s perfect on two sides. Leaving the white border all the way around is a choice probably dictated mostly by press tech at the time (photos all the way out to edges were pretty rare for sports cards in 1991), but it works as well to make the whole presentation look just a little more clean and crisp. Comparing it to the heavy, dull feeling of the gray borders on the 1992 Leaf baseball set, the white is clearly preferable.

Even on the backs, look at how the vertical photos and strip of stats create such a pleasing pattern in a binder:

The perfect artistic execution goes beyond photos and card design itself: Upper Deck even made the lowly checklist card an object of beauty. Check out these team checklists from the box I opened, each team represented by a beautiful painting of one of the team’s top players by Ohio-based artist Alan Studt (still doing his thing, and you can see more of his sports art here at his website).

And here’s another Alan Studt piece to commemorate Magic Johnson breaking the all-time assists record:

I love stuff like that. It’s not some super rare chase card or anything, it’s just card #29 in the set, something to mark an important thing that one of the game’s legends did the season before. Card sets are historic documents, in a way, so including cards to honor stuff like this instead of just 700 cards for all the players in the league that year just makes so much sense.

Holograms for days

Speaking of rarer cards, though, Upper Deck really was the inventor of the chase card, and they really knew the way to a young boy’s heart in the early 90s: shiny-ass holograms!

Shiny-ass, hard-to-photograph holograms!

I still got a little jump in my heart each time one of these cards showed up in a pack. Finding one felt like finding a precious gemstone in a pile of pretty but otherwise ordinary rocks. I read that one of the guys who co-founded Upper Deck had worked in some sort of printing industry where they were starting to use hologram technology to create documents that couldn’t be forged or counterfeited, and he thought putting holograms on sports cards would be a neat touch. Plus, the holograms provided people with some certainty that Upper Deck cards were authentic.

And they’re just ridiculously cool, even now. In this set, there were full hologram cards made for each of the league’s award winners and statistical leaders in the 1990-91 season: scoring, assists, rebounds, blocks, steals, MVP, sixth man, defensive player of the year, and rookie of the year. Michael Jordan had two holograms by virtue of winning the scoring title and the season’s MVP.

Jordan rules

Speaking of Jordan: This set is chock-full of Jordan cards. The Bulls won their first title in the previous season over the storied Los Angeles Lakers, and Jordan was truly coming into his own as not only one of the greatest players of his generation, but an all-time talent and global icon. He already had “Be Like Mike,” Gatorade ads, the Air Jordan shoes and apparel, and the dominant on-court play, but now he was a champion. As I mentioned previously about this set being aware of its role as a historical document, Upper Deck’s decision to feature Jordan on no fewer than eight different cards was clearly intended as a reflection of the importance of Jordan’s rise in the league (not to mention a handy way to capitalize on Jordan-mania and sell a crap ton of cards).

1991 in hair and fashion

Just because it wouldn’t be a Blast From the Packs entry if I didn’t comment on some of the dated fashion decisions, let’s take a quick detour to some of the cards that stood out most to me for being so deliciously 1991.

A couple of great mullets (RIP Dwayne Schintzius), a fun Bill Laimbeer-related T-shirt (I am contemplating recreating that one for myself), some ’90s NBA Draft suits with some ’90s NBA Draft outfits, a great high-top fade (with a soupçon of blond! RIP Cliff Robinson), and the inimitable Kurt Rambis: Great stuff, all around.

The numbers

After my experience with the Leaf baseball box, where I wound up with a pile of commons that ended up in the trash and no real knowledge of how close I came to completing the set or just exactly how many Julio Franco cards I pulled, I decided I wanted to be more intentional with future box openings. So I started a spreadsheet to keep track of the cards in each of the 36 packs of this box. As I slowly opened them, one or two or four each day for a couple of weeks so as to savor the experience, I’d enter the cards in my spreadsheet with notes on the condition of the cards (did it have a dinged corner or was it printed offcenter?) and even some personal observations (I forgot Rod Strickland played for the San Antonio Spurs and DEFINITELY didn’t know Ralph Sampson was A. still in the league in 1991 and B. playing for the Sacramento Kings).

Here are some of the statistics on the box and the cards that came out of it:

  • Intra-pack doubles: I felt like I got the same card twice in a single pack several times with the 1992 Leaf set, so I wanted to document how many times it happened with this one. It happened three times out of 36. Not bad.
  • Holograms: I don’t know what the official insert rate for the award winner holograms cards was, but I wound up with four of them out of the 36 packs, meaning I got one every nine packs on average. But here’s the weird part: I got TWO holograms in Pack 6, and two extra cards in the pack itself (usually 12 cards per pack, 14 in that one). So really I only got holograms in three packs, or one in 12 packs. I also feel kinda gypped here because I got hologram doubles: Two of the David Robinson rebounds card. At least I got one of the Jordans!
  • Overall quality: I usually associate Upper Deck with very high quality, but I must note that in this box, many of the cards had rough-cut edges or little tags on the corners. Most of the cards from the first dozen or so packs I opened also had a slight, barely discernible crease down the center, lengthwise. I’m not sure what would have caused that, but if you’re talking about serious card collecting (and I’m not, thankfully) that’s the sort of thing that automatically keeps cards from being considered mint. I’m not even sure if they’d be near mint with that light crease. There were also a fair number of cards that were printed offcenter, including one of the two Michael Jordan standard set cards I pulled. What a rollercoaster of emotion, to pull a Jordan and see the border is all jacked up. Overall, though, I’d say the quality is at least average based on my experience, just a little worse than I was expecting from Upper Deck.
  • How close did I get to completion? Not as close as I thought: I am missing 94 out of 400 of the main series set (24 percent), plus most of the hologram award winners. This makes me think I almost certainly didn’t get within shouting distance of finishing the 1992 Leaf Series 1 with my one box, despite the immense number of doubles I was pulling. I got a lot of doubles in this box too, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t feel as if there were quite as many. And the photography and variety of kinds of cards (All-Rookie Team! All-Stars! Checklists with paintings on them!) kept the novelty factor high even as I started to see repeats. It’s almost enough to make me want to get another box to see if I can at least get a few more holograms, but in reality, I don’t need to complete the first half of a 29-year-old basketball card set for any rational reason.
  • As a quick aside, the only main series card I didn’t pull that I REALLY wish I had was Shawn Kemp, #173. I grew up very close to where Kemp did, and he was one of the ultimate Cool Dude players of any sport in that era. I got the Kemp Sonics team checklist painting card, though, and I guess that’ll have to do.

Yes, this is all pretty nerdy stuff, but I have one last piece of nerditry to share: My ATR Excitement rating (TM)

After I finished my spreadsheet with all the cards and the data, I thought, “I should think of a way to compare how cool and exciting the different sets I talk about are, something a little more tangible than just my emotional attachments and memories.” My first-draft idea, and the one that stuck, was to rate each pack I opened on a 1-5 scale where 1 is just a dud of a pack, no excitement at all, and 5 is like holy crap, I can’t believe I got those cards from that pack, where are my card protector sleeves? And yes, I recognize this is still very subjective, but at least it’s QUANTITATIVELY subjective! So I went to the spreadsheet, looking back at each pack and assigning a first-instinct, don’t-second-guess-it rating to each. Then I averaged them all out, and this is the final Excitement rating for the box:

2.58!

At first I was like, huh, that feels a little low considering how much I really enjoyed opening this box of cards. But then I thought a little more: How many of those packs of Leaf baseball were 1s? Quite a few, really. How many packs of cards — from any set, ever — have been personal 5s? Not that terribly many, and there were three in this box alone. So while 2.58 is below the midpoint of my scale for packs, considering the general rarity and scarce distribution of cool-ass cards in any set, I’m going out on a limb and guessing 2.58 is a pretty decent score for a whole box of 36 packs.

I aim to find out pretty quickly, because I’ve already another project started, and it’s another early 90s Upper Deck set that I absolutely adored as a kid:

2 thoughts on “Blast From the Packs: 1991-92, the first year of Upper Deck NBA

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