It might have been easier to block Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's skyhook than it is to track down some of his Master set cards. And that's saying something.
The 7-foot-2 center's trademark shot was almost unstoppable. But the challenge of hunting down the legendary Laker's rarest cards is welcomed by those collecting his Master Set on the PSA Set Registry.
"It's been a labor of love," said Jamie Teumer, who has been working on his No. 1 Current Finest Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Master Set for eight years. "Sometimes it's not just the card that I enjoy, but it's the adventure of finding the card. Even so, it has been harder to put the Master Set together than I thought it would be, and I'll tell you why: No. 1, there are a lot of Kareem cards out there. No. 2, there are a lot of oddball Kareem cards out there. And No. 3, the age of the cards sometimes makes it difficult to find them [in high-grade]."
Long before he was featured on a trading card, Abdul-Jabbar was a lanky kid growing up in New York City. Born on April 16, 1947, his birth name was Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor (Lew Alcindor), and his height made him a standout on the hardcourt at an early age. He first adopted his skyhook shot in the fifth grade.
Alcindor was a star on coaching legend Jack Donahue's Power Memorial hoops squad in high school. The team went 79-2 with Alcindor in the fold and won three city Catholic championships before he was recruited by UCLA, where his dominance continued under Hall of Fame coach John Wooden. He led the college to three consecutive NCAA titles from 1967 to 1969 and was named the MVP of the tournament each year.
Even as a college student, however, Alcindor was much more than a jock. Although somewhat introverted, he was also studious, intellectual and passionate about the Civil Rights Movement. When he was asked to join the U.S. Olympic Basketball team in 1968, he declined in protest of the country's poor treatment of African Americans. It was also that summer that Alcindor - who had been raised Catholic - converted to the Muslim faith.
Out of college, he was one of the most talked-about prospects in basketball history. The NBA's Milwaukee Bucks and the ABA's New York Nets selected him first overall in their respective drafts. Figuring they held a hometown advantage, the Nets initially came in with a lower offer than the Bucks, and Alcindor accepted a five-year, $1.4-million deal to play in Milwaukee.
His impact on the lowly Bucks was immediate. He tallied 28.8 points-per-game (good for second in the NBA) and guided the Bucks to a 29-win improvement from the previous season. For his efforts, he was named the league's top rookie.
Prior to the 1970-71 campaign, the Bucks acquired all-star point guard Oscar Robertson. And with the "Big O" and Alcindor working together, the Bucks proceeded to win an NBA championship. Alcindor was rewarded with the regular season MVP Award, as well as the finals MVP. One day after the championship, Alcindor formally changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
In his ensuing four seasons with the Bucks, Abdul-Jabbar won two more MVP Awards and led the club to four division titles, but they failed to repeat as champs. In October 1974, he requested a trade to New York or Los Angeles because he said the city of Milwaukee did not fulfill his cultural needs.
On June 16, 1975, the Bucks dealt him to the Los Angeles Lakers along with Walt Wesley for Elmore Smith, Brian Winters, David Meyers and Junior Bridgeman. But though he won MVP Awards in 1975-76 and 1976-77, he failed to lead the Lakers to post-season success.
It wasn't until the Lakers drafted Magic Johnson in 1979 that the team's dynasty would begin. With their "Showtime" offense, the Lakers captured five championships in the 1980s. In 1980, Abdul-Jabbar won his sixth and final MVP Award and he was named the finals MVP in 1985.
But it was on April 5, 1984, that Abdul-Jabbar broke Wilt Chamberlain's record for most career points. When he retired after the 1988-89 campaign, the Lakers' star had played 20 seasons and 1,560 games, which is the second-most to Robert Parish on the all-time list.
His resume also includes 19 All-Star game appearances and 11 selections to the NBA's All-Defensive Team. He continues to hold the record for most career points (38,387) and he was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1995.
"I think Kareem is definitely one of the top 10 basketball players of all time," said George Edwards, who owns the No. 2 Current Finest Kareem Master Set on the PSA Set Registry. "Kareem has some records that are going to be hard to break. It's going to be interesting to see if Lebron [James] can actually break his points record."
Teumer has similar praise.
"If I'm starting my all-time team, he's my center on that team," he said. "There are some great centers out there, but if you look at Kareem's [playing history], especially in the first half of his career when he was pretty nimble and could block shots, play good defense, rebound and score, I would say he was the best. As far as all-time players go, he has to be in the top five."
As alluded to earlier, away from the court, Abdul-Jabbar was a complex individual. He starred in movies and TV shows, was a voracious reader and later a best-selling author, but he also developed a reputation of being aloof and unapproachable. He never cultivated a good relationship with either the press or his fans.
The principal authenticator for PSA/DNA, who used to diligently chase autographs, shares that he had a chance to meet Abdul-Jabbar in person once during his last season with the Lakers. Of this experience, the authenticator relates that he actually did stop to sign for him, but "in general, he rarely smiled and didn't seem to enjoy signing autographs."
Teumer has met Abdul-Jabbar multiple times, and he says the hoops great has mellowed in recent years.
"The last time I met him was at a show and it was, by far, the most congenial I had seen him," said Teumer.
After Abdul-Jabbar stopped playing, he aspired to be a head coach in the NBA, but he has only been offered assistant coach positions. When Teumer last met Abdul-Jabbar, he told the towering Hall of Famer that he would like to see him as the head coach of the Lakers. Upon this remark, Abdul-Jabbar invited him to stick around and chat at the end of the signing.
"We talked about coaching and he expressed his frustrations. In the end, he let me take a picture with him," said Teumer. "It was a side of him that I had never seen before."
Perhaps Abdul-Jabbar's personality is one of the reasons that his collector following isn't as large as it should be. There are just 35 Kareem Basic sets and 27 Master sets registered on the PSA Set Registry.
"One of the reasons I got into collecting his cards is because after looking at them, I thought they were highly undervalued," said Edwards.
But the veteran hobbyist also points out that some Abdul-Jabbar cards do command big bucks. Here's a rundown of some of his key Basic and Master Set cards:
Basic Set Cards
1969 Topps #25. The Tall Boy design (2-1/2" by 4-11/16") of his rookie made it difficult to preserve in high grade. The card, which features the young superstar in a logo-less, green warm-up shirt poised to shoot, is also hampered by poor centering and print dots on the white borders on the front.
"In the past three years, the Jabbar rookie has really taken off in value," said Edwards. "I'd love to know who has the only PSA [GEM-MT] 10."
Of the 1,710 submitted, there have also been 18 PSA MINT 9s. One PSA 9 sold for $13,320 in a Greg Bussineau Sports Rarities auction in April 2015.
1970 Topps #75. Similar to the rookie, this card presents Alcindor in his green Bucks warm-up shirt in a Tall Boy design. With one PSA 10 and 30 PSA 9s, this card is less difficult to uncover in top condition than the rookie, and it's also considerably less expensive. A PSA 9 commanded $549.99 on eBay in January 2015.
1974 Topps #1. This standard-sized card (2-1/2" by 3-1/2") is the first card in the 1974 Topps Basketball set. The wear and tear it suffered being on top of collector piles makes it more difficult to find in pristine grade. Often there's also print snow in the black background of the photo.
"The 1974 Jabbar card is the most difficult [Basic Set] card, by far, to find in a high grade," noted Edwards, who adds that this card also sometimes has centering issues.
There has yet to be a PSA 10 and there are just three PSA 9s.
1979 Topps #10. This card offers an exciting action photo of Abdul-Jabbar towering over a Washington Bullets defender and about to release his shot. Teumer says this card is difficult to find properly centered. The sole PSA 10 garnered $2,100 on eBay in December 2013.
1986 Fleer #1. With this pasteboard, Abdul-Jabbar is featured on the first card in the most popular basketball set ever released. Though it took some extra dings being at the front of sets, this card is still fairly plentiful in top grade.
"There are just so many people collecting that set that every card seems to go for high prices," said Edwards.
There are 54 PSA 10s and 449 PSA 9s. One PSA 10 sold for $1,291 on eBay in June 2015.
Master Set Cards
1968 Mira Tuttosport I Campionissimi (#490). Part of an Italian multi-sport release that was issued in very limited quantities, this card presents a profile photo of the future great in his high school uniform surrounded by a green frame and yellow borders. His name and card number are indicated along the bottom. Centering issues plague this card; plus, it was meant to be glued into an album.
"It's hard to find examples that haven't been adhered into an album," said Teumer.
Of the 21 submitted, the two PSA NM-MT 8s are the highest graded copies. One PSA EX-MT 6 fetched $549 on eBay in April 2012.
A second, even rarer version - deemed the "Italian Lottery Multi-Sport" variation - of this single also exists. The middle of the back of this card has the word "Regalo" in large brown letters. Just six have been evaluated and the highest graded example has been a PSA NM 7.
1969 NBAP Member Hand-Cut. This is a bonus card in the Master Set that Teumer tracked down. He says this card is about the size of the 1976 Topps cards (3-1/8" by 5-1/4"), and the photo doesn't identify Abdul-Jabbar with any particular team. Teumer says these cards came off boxes of basketballs that were being sold.
"So you had to cut the cards off of the boxes if you wanted to keep them," explained Teumer. "Some people saved the boxes and some people cut the cards off the boxes. That's got to be the rarest card on the Master Set. I've only heard of two of them in my entire lifetime, and I have one that's authenticated but not graded."
1972 Comspec. This white-bordered, 2-1/4" by 3-1/2" single features the same photo as Abdul-Jabbar's 1972 Topps card. Abdul-Jabbar is pictured against a red background, while his name, team name and position are exhibited towards the bottom of the front. The unnumbered backs offer vitals, biographical information and statistics.
"It has stunning color," said Teumer of the 1972 Comspec single. "I like the design of the front."
The savvy collector says these cards are tough to find with good centering. The cards were also printed on thin stock.
Little is known about Comspec, which was reportedly a California-based company. But we do know that this series was produced in small quantities and it was the company's only release. Just 10 Abdul-Jabbar cards have been submitted, and there's one PSA 9 and two PSA 8s. A PSA 6 commanded $800 on eBay in April 2013.
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Collecting Kareem Autographs
Collectors pursuing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar autographs face an interesting challenge.
Most will tell you that to have a definitive collection, they want both a "Lew Alcindor" autograph and a "Kareem Abdul-Jabbar" signature. Generally not an obliging signer to begin with, the star center stopped signing items with his birth name (Lew Alcindor), except in rare instances, when he changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1971.
"The 'Lew Alcindor' autographs are worth substantially more," pointed out the principal authenticator at PSA/DNA. "They are not very common, unlike the Jabbar signature."
You're most likely to find the Alcindor signature on index cards, programs and trading cards, but it's next to impossible to find a single-signed ball. At press time, a seller was asking $595 for an 'Alcindor' signed index card on eBay.
Since adopting his Muslim name in 1971, the legendary Laker most commonly signs his name "Abdul-Jabbar" and on rare occasions just "Kareem." He rarely signs his full name.
"I would say the vast majority of the time he does sign 'Abdul-Jabbar,' but there are some rare instances where he will sign 'Kareem,'" said the lead PSA/DNA authenticator.
Abdul-Jabbar has been a periodic guest at shows and promotional events. He also recently teamed with Starguard Collectibles, and you can now send your item to the company and have Abdul-Jabbar sign it for $125. PSA/DNA notes that there was a period when Abdul-Jabbar would not sign jerseys, but Kareem's website states that he will now sign authentic Adidas authorized NBA jerseys.
Another way to obtain his autograph is to make a donation to his Skyhook Foundation, which strives to bring educational opportunities to underserved communities. For a $50 donation, you'll receive a signed book. For $100, you'll receive a signed book and a signed Lakers photo.
The lead PSA/DNA authenticator says that he doesn't see many fake Abdul-Jabbar signatures, but he does see some on occasion.
"With the 'Lew Alcindor' style, he would really take his time. The signature was legible and beautiful, and there are certain characteristics that I always look for with that style," noted the autograph expert. "With the 'Kareem' signature, it is, again, very legible and very thick. He presses hard throughout his signature and makes sure it stands out in comparison to other players' signatures."
Despite his reputation as a tough signer in person, his Abdul-Jabbar autographs are not rare. His resume also includes 19 All-Star game appearances and 11 selections to the NBA's All-Defensive Team. He continues to hold the record for most career points (38,387) and he was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1995.
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Please feel free to contact Kevin Glew at [email protected] if you have any additional information or comments. Thanks to Jamie Teumer for providing some of the cards for this article. Please note that the Population Report figures quoted and Set Registry rankings reported are those as of October 2015.