Blast From the Packs: Reminiscence Bites, Vol. 2

I’ve learned some stuff over the last several months of re-entering the sports card collecting hobby, and one of the things I’ve learned is, at the level that I’m collecting, the most important thing really is connection and enthusiasm for the cards you have. Buying favorite players, collecting favorite teams, going back into my own history as a fan and getting old cards I never got as a youngster; these are the things that are giving me the most joy in the hobby. This Reminiscence Bites feature is a way for me to reconnect with some of the older cards from my permanent collection and remember why I have them, what they mean to me.

In this volume, stories of players who Made It, who succeeded, who broke barriers … but never fully reached the heights I thought they would as a kid, and how growing up has helped me see how many different ways there are to be “successful.”

1995-96 Upper Deck SP Championship Series Joe Smith RC

Joe Smith was a beast in college. He was the National Player of the Year as a power forward for Maryland, and he just seemed like a natural-born leader on the basketball court. He was all over the place, long and athletic, quick, with an instinct that led him to be in the most impactful place on the floor for any given play. 13-year-old me was pretty impressed by him.

The Golden State Warriors chose Smith first overall in the 1995 NBA Draft, ahead of such names as Rasheed Wallace, Antonio McDyess, Damon Stoudemire, and a high schooler named Kevin Garnett. Smith was named first-team All Rookie that first season, but never fully lived up to the potential he showed at Maryland. The things he’s most known for now, it seems, are having played for a record 12 different teams in his 16-year career, and being at the center of an illegal contract scandal that led to the NBA sanctioning his second team, the Minnesota Timberwolves, fining them, suspending their owner, and stripping first-round draft picks from them for several years.

After that, though, even though he never recaptured his Maryland glory, Smith clearly was useful enough to enough NBA teams to stick around for, as I said, 16 freakin’ years. That’s a long time. He was a role player, but teams need role players! Teenage me just didn’t have quite the appreciation for the bench guys and the minute-eaters that grown-up me does. I think Smith might have had a better career nowadays, in the positionless revolution, where a skinny 6-foot-9 center isn’t as much of a detriment as it was back then. But he was still not by any means bad, even though most would rightly call him a “bust” as a No. 1 draft pick, particularly when you consider who else the Warriors could have drafted. At any rate, this is one of the prettiest 50-cent cards I own.

1994 Upper Deck Raghib Ismail Electric holo foil variant

A weird thing happens when you grow up really close to a major sports university: Even if you’re not a fan of that university’s teams (which I was not, and have never really been), you sometimes find yourself rooting for certain players on those teams just because it’s like, “hey, they’re from where I’m from!”

In my case, I live pretty close to the University of Notre Dame, which always fields competitive but generally not dominating football teams. When I was VERY young, like kindergarten and first-grade, a kid from my hometown, Rick Mirer, became the starting QB for a very successful Notre Dame football team, and THEN got drafted No. 2 overall to the Seattle Seahawks! Wow! A guy from my little town in Indiana making it big! His mom even taught at the elementary school I went to!

Despite a lackluster pro career, Mirer rightly retains legend status around these parts. And even though he’s not even FROM here, one of Mirer’s contemporaries, Raghib Ismail, is still talked about in reverent tones among Notre Dame fans. “Rocket” Ismail, who somehow became super famous as primarily a kick returner, went first to the Canadian Football League, where he broke all the records for salaries (somehow earning more in the CFL as a “marquee player” than he would have had he gone directly to the NFL) and helped deliver the Toronto Argonauts a Grey Cup in his rookie season. The next season, the team stunk, he got mopey, and then he signed with the then-Los-Angeles-based Raiders of the NFL.

Not unlike Joe Smith, Rocket bounced around to a lot of teams in his pro career, and never really lived up to the potential he showed as a Heisman Trophy runner-up at Notre Dame. I always had this feeling that he was never more than a few weeks away from finally becoming a star, but he never really did outside of northern Indiana and southern Ontario. There was something about the idea of him as a Raider, in particular, that made me hopeful. The Raiders had another former Notre Dame wideout, Tim Brown, on the team at the same time and HE was REALLY good. So why couldn’t Rocket, who ran the 100-meter dash for the Notre Dame track team, also be really good?

I learned pretty early on in my sports fandom and collecting years that being really talented and athletic isn’t a guaranteed recipe for success in the pros, or anywhere, really. And for a while, Rocket Ismail was one of the players I always thought of as an example of that. But it’s worth pointing out that even though he never became the All-Pro wide receiver of my dreams, he still had a heck of a long career in professional football, and by practically any measure, he WAS a success. And this card, with its sharp, hyper-focused action photography and clean Upper Deck design, is still an eye-catcher all these years later.

1992 Classic Four Sport Draft Picks Manon Rheaume

It was pretty mind-blowing, as a 10-year-old, just learning about hockey in the first place, to learn that a female goalie had been signed to an NHL team. I envisioned this lady, Manon Rheaume, donning the blue and black of the Tampa Bay Lightning, going between the posts and kick-saving her way to history. In 1992, there were essentially no professional sports opportunities for women, especially not in the United States, so the idea that a woman could play in a men’s league was amazing.

Of course, I had a few details wrong at the time. She’d had a tryout and got a minor-league contract with the Lightning, but she never made the team. She did play in the minor leagues for a while, which is a hell of an accomplishment in itself. As the back of the card points out, there had been a couple of other female barrier-breakers who’d had tryouts for men’s teams in other sports before her, but nothing could take this particular piece of historical achievement away from Rheaume, even if she never took the ice for an NHL game.

Nowadays, there’s a women’s professional hockey league here in the United States, along with a women’s soccer league and a women’s basketball league, and several other professional leagues for women in other sports. Rheaume is an Olympic silver medalist, a two-time world champion, a coach, and an inspiration for female athletes everywhere. When little Andrew was gazing in wonder at this grainy photo of a young woman in goalie pads, his vision for her future was quite different from what it ended up being. I was disappointed that she never made the big leagues. Now, though, I understand the quote from Sherry Ross, the first female hockey broadcaster, on the back of her card: “If she is there, she is successful. Because we learned we need someone to be the first … No one wanted to be an astronaut before we saw people in space.”

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