The thing about being a casual sports card collector in the year of our lord two-thousand-twenty-one is that I’m not really “in the running” for a lot of the more premium cards on the market. I don’t have the bankroll for the /5 autographed Luka Doncic jersey card pushing five figures on eBay with a couple days left on the auction. I don’t even really have the budget for the Patrick Mahomes Rated Rookie going for a couple hundred (or if I did go that route, I would just not be able to buy any other cards for quite a while).
I don’t know, maybe I should pull the trigger on more transactions like that (the couple hundred dollar cards, not the five-figure card … that’s just completely out of the question for me). Fortune favors the bold, right? But I’m hesitant because I have these visions of whatever player I choose to “invest” in suddenly breaking their tibia and never playing another game. That’s the downside of viewing sports cards as an “investment,” I guess.
So as I’ve said before, I don’t really collect as an investment, for the most part. Yes, I do sometimes buy cards with an eye to value growth, but unless I actually personally like the player, I’m not likely to purchase the card at all. I enjoy sports, I enjoy athletic achievement, and I enjoy rooting for players who appeal to my own specific tastes and sports aesthetic.
In my favorite sport, basketball, my aesthetic was both inspired by and grew alongside a now-defunct blog called Free Darko in the mid-2000s. Really, the reason I was drawn to that blog was because my basketball tastes had already grown to mirror a lot of what that blog celebrated: an intelligent sort of swagger and self-awareness, multi-positionality (or anti-positionality), a defined playing personality that also carried over into life off-the-court, individual fashion sense, a feeling that the player still has an untapped potential … like a lot of art, there’s an aspect of “I know it when I see it” to it. Gilbert Arenas was Free Darko. Lamar Odom was pretty Free Darko for a while. Gerald Wallace was definitely Free Darko. Oddly enough, I don’t know that Darko Milicic himself was all that Free Darko, but his weird background, positional flexibility, and strange circumstance (being buried on the bench in Detroit despite being the No. 2 pick in a loaded NBA Draft) were key to the Free Darko ethic.
I thought today I would highlight a few cards I’ve purchased recently of players who aren’t top-tier superstars, but embody certain aspects of my personal basketball preferences, and are low-profile enough that I can/could potentially collect their higher level cards, like the Nick Anderson autographed card I got for $10 shipped a few weeks ago.
2020-21 Panini Prizm Draft Picks Deni Avdija rookie (pink cracked ice and green refractor versions)
This one is equal parts speculation and admiration. My favorite basketball player is Slovenian wunderkind Luka Doncic, who led Real Madrid to titles as a teenager before coming to the NBA to become an MVP candidate in his second season. Deni here is Israeli, and has made his name at Maccabi Tel Aviv, another global basketball giant. He’s not as precocious as Doncic was, and certainly not as obviously talented, but I still enjoy his game. Much like the Free Darko namesake, Darko Milicic, his appeal lies almost as much in the potential he has as any observed basketball greatness thus far. Deni is currently getting spotty minutes for the Washington Wizards in his rookie season, but when given some minutes, he’s shown an ability to spot up for 3 and slash inside. Plus the Wizards set up a Hebrew language Twitter feed for Israeli fans of his, so I’m thinking his popularity alone may lead his cards to somewhat higher value.
2017-18 Panini Prestige OG Anunoby rookie (cracked red ice)
The Toronto Raptors have had some serious Free Darko-ness to them the last couple of seasons. Guys like Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby bring a Swiss Army Knife utility to their games, plugging in at multiple positions and scoring in multiple ways, defending smalls and talls with long-limbed aplomb. Everybody who follows basketball knows Siakam has broken out as a superstar the last couple of seasons, elevating his game to new heights beside Kawhi Leonard in the Raptors’ title-winning 2018-19 season. Anunoby, though, has flown in a lower stratus, tending to ply his trade as a bench sparkplug instead of a key starter. This season, though, with Leonard long gone, Anunoby is the usual starter at small forward, and sometimes does a pretty good impression of Leonard, as he did in a game last March against the Nuggets, scoring 32 points in all stages of the game and nabbing seven steals.
2016-17 Panini Contenders Draft Picks DeAndre’ Bembry Draft Ticket autograph rookie
I first got hip to DeAndre’ Bembry, another defense-first wing player, on The Starters, a former NBA TV show starring the hosts of the longtime basketball podcast The Basketball Jones (now known as No Dunks on The Athletic). Bembry was a guest on the show a couple of times and just seemed like a super chill, cool dude with nice fashion sense. For his team at the time, the Atlanta Hawks, he was an energy guy who could be depended on for key stops on the opposing guards or small forwards and was always active on the glass as well. Now he’s been signed by the Toronto Raptors and it seems like he’s having a hard time adjusting, but I’m still rooting for “the Drip God” to round into form on the perfect team for his skillset.
2017-18 Donruss Court Kings Bam Adebayo rookie
There’s just something about NBA big men who used to be guards that draws my eye. They may have had a growth spurt in high school that made them too big and slow to run the floor like a point guard as grown men, but the best retain a guard’s vision for the game, a knack for passing and finding space, and the real greats even retain some of that crafty ballhandling that not many big men can pull off. Heat center Bam Adebayo ticks all those boxes, though I’m not entirely sure he could have excelled in an earlier era of the NBA. He’d have been “undersized” and probably would have lost a lot of minutes to taller, thicker stiffs because of the prevalence of back-to-the-basket post play. Or who knows, maybe he would have carved out a career somewhere between Charles Barkley and Sam Perkins, finding niches and exploiting them. As a former Orlando Magic fan, though, it says something that I’m this high on a Miami player.
2018-19 Panini Status Luka Doncic/Dirk Nowitzki/Harrison Barnes Factions
I’m a displaced Dallas Mavericks fan, and have been for a lot of years now, pretty much since the days of young Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash, and Michael Finley. The Mavericks losing to the “Believe” Warriors in the 2007 first round was a gut punch, and the Mavericks beating the “Heatles” in 2011 for the championship was glorious. Since 2011, the Mavs have been mostly frustrating, just good enough to keep hope alive, but never able to secure another superstar to help Dirk push farther into the playoffs. Going into the 2018 NBA Draft, I wanted the Mavericks to draft Slovenian teenage star Luka Doncic, and was momentarily crestfallen when the Hawks took Doncic a pick ahead of the Mavericks. When the Hawks traded Doncic to the Mavericks for Trae Young, I was elated, and I felt fairly sure the Mavs had secured their future. Even as excited as I was, though, I had no idea Doncic would be as incredible as he has been as an NBA superstar. This card, depicting Mavs legend Dirk in his final season and Mavs legend-to-be Luka in his first season (and lanky wing Harrison Barnes, who is now in Sacramento, so whatever), has a special place in my heart, despite it not being the most rare or pricey card in the Doncic rookie-year lineup.