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Centers of the Galaxy: 90s Edition

Ah the 90s. What a pleasant decade. For basketball fans, you can’t speak of 1990s without bringing up the Chicago Bulls. Yes, the Houston Rockets did win back to back championships while Jordan was taking his hiatus, and by the end of the 90s the writing was on the wall for the Lakers to have a very strong start to the 2000s, but 90s basketball really centers around the Bulls.

And speaking of centers, there were some fantastic bigs that also played in the 90s, and other than a few mentions here and there, I don’t think I’ve given the big fellas enough love with this blog. So the theme for todays post is going to be all about those guys who live in the post, who own the paint, and who, at times, have been known to literally tear down a hoop a time and shatter the glass. There were many great bigs in the 90s, but I’ll focus on my fab five and highlight a card for each player that helps exemplify their greatness.

#5. Dikembe Mutombo

Fans who watched basketball in the 90s and 2000s who hear the name Dikembe Mutombo typically think one thing: blocked shots. He was so well know for his defensive prowess, and famous finger wagging, that GEICO pays a tribute to Mutombo in one of their 2013 commercials. He’s also second all time in terms of blocked shots, with 3,289 over a 19-season career.

Mutombo was a rookie back in 1991-92, a season that was on the tail end of the junk card era and as a result, his rookies are not worth highlighting because you can grab them for $1. Plus, I didn’t see any that I thought were particularly impressive in their design or that featured a cool photo of Mutombo. But I did come across another card printed just a few season’s later that catches Mutombo in an awesome action shot attempting to block a shot. The card I’m referring to is the 1995-96 SkyBox Premium Basketball Dikembe Mutombo card #30.

1995-96 SkyBox Premium Basketball Dikembe Mutombo (#30)

This is also a very low priced card and can acquired for around $1, so if you buy it off eBay you may end up paying more for shipping than for the card itself. But while this isn’t an expensive card by any stretch, it does capture Mutombo playing solid defense and you get a great sense for his massive wingspan, because his arm looks insanely long in the photograph. Seeing his massive reach, I can’t help but think of Dhalsim from Camcom’s Street Fighter II.

This is also a unique card for the 1995-96 SkyBox set because its a rare instance of the ball and trailing flame not being in the hands of the player featured in the card. A card priced this low doesn’t justify any price history research, but if you appreciate a good action shot from one of the best shot blockers in the game, this is a nice cheap card that can be easily added to the collection.

#4. Patrick Ewing

The center I have to give the number four spot to on my list is Patrick Ewing. Ewing played 15 of his 17 seasons as a New York Knick and was a career double-double center who could fill up the stat sheet. He had a ridiculous 1989-90 season with the Knicks where he didn’t miss a game and put up 29 points, 11 boards, and 4 blocks per game while shooting 55% from the field. I also credit Ewing to getting me hyped about basketball card collecting back in the early 90s, since my first parallel was a Ewing card.

Ewing was the #1 draft choice for the Knick’s in 1985, and although he was drafted the year after Jordan, Ewing’s rookie card (#32) was captured in that same iconic 1986 Fleer set as Jordan’s. Because Ewing’s rookie is from that same famous set, and because Ewing was a phenomenal center for the Knicks for 15 years, his rookie card does show a strong trend of value appreciation, especially his higher graded rookie cards.

1986 Fleer Patrick Ewing Rookie card (#32)

In July, 2020 the Ewing rookie with a PSA 10 grade was selling in the $2,300 – $3,000 range, while the PSA 9 was selling in the $300-$500 range. However, if we go back to the summer of 2018, we can see the PSA 10s were going for around $700-$800, while the 9s were typically going for around $110-$210. In either case, you’re looking at high graded Patrick Ewing rookie cards essentially tripling in value over the course of two years. It seems highly unlikely that this incredible spike in value will continue, but it’s nice to see collectors being rewarded for owning the rookie card of one of the greatest centers from the 90s.

#3. Hakeem Olajuwon

If I had to guess, I’d say most basketball fans that were heavily invested in 1990s basketball would have Hakeem Olajuwon at either #2 or #1, and I understand my having him at the #3 spot is controversial, but that’s where he lands on my list. If I were building this list by stats alone, then Hakeem would likely take the top spot, but to me the best centers from the 90s were more than the sum of their stats, it was their stats plus their personas.

There is no doubt in my mind that Olajuwon had great numbers and could play both ends of the floor as well as you could hope for from a center. Paul Pierce even says he was “on another level”, and I’m not one to argue with The Truth. Olajuwon also holds the claim to fame for beating out Jordan for the #1 pick in the 1984 draft. It always seemed like a bit of an odd pick, given the Houston Rockets had Ralph Sampson, but you still can’t disagree with taking a 7-foot center like Hakeem with the first pick.

Looking at Hakeem’s stats, he was good for a solid 22 points, 11 rebounds, and 3 blocks per game, plus he shot 51% from the field. He’s a 12-time all star, has two championship rings, was the NBA Finals MVP twice, and is, of course, in the Hall of Fame. Even as I look at his numbers now, I’m second guessing why I don’t have him at the #2 spot, but in this instance, it really comes down to personality plus some USA bias, which was especially pronounced when I was a kid.

One fact that gives Robinson a bit of an edge for me was Robinson was on the Dream Team and Olajuwon, for obvious reasons, wasn’t. That one simple detail had a real impact on me as a kid and has shaped my view of who I liked most not just at center, nut in the NBA in general, since I absolutely idolized the Dream Team. Be that as it may, let’s get to his featured card.

Given Olajuwon beat out Jordan with the #1 spot in the 1984 draft, it follows that his rookie card is also in the 1986 Fleer set, along with fellow big man Patrick Ewing. But the 1986 Fleer set also came with 11 stickers, one of which features Olajuwon (#9) and I prefer the shot of Hakeem on the sticker so lets take a look.

1986 Fleer Sticker Akeem Olajuwon Rookie Sticker (#9)

The first thing you’ll likely notice with this card is Olajuwon’s first name is spelled “Akeem”, not “Hakeem”. The two ways of spelling always confused me as a kid. I had a few Olajuwon cards and when I saw his name spelled “Akeem”, I thought I had a valuable misprint. It turns out the name “Hakeem” with the H, is the correct Arabic spelling and translates to “wise man”, and this was the name he was given by his mother.

Also, in case you were wondering, the name “Akeem” has no meaning. Both names are pronounced the same way, but when Olajuwon would go home to Nigeria, his mother would give him a hard time for changing his name appearing as “Akeem” his first few years in the NBA. Moms will be moms.

Other than the name change, another thing I like about the sticker card is the image of Olajuwon, which shows him playing shut down defense on the Laker legend, Magic Johnson (and back in the old Lakers Forum, before they moved to the Staples Center in ’99). There is lots of data for these stickers, and the high grade Olajuwon stickers are no exception. There are only 55 PSA 10s, but there are over 700 PSA 9s.

There was only one PSA 10 sale in June, 2020 and it went for $1,285. There have been a number of PSA 9 sales, and those from July, 2020 sold in the wide range of $250-$400. Going back to the summer of 2018, the 10s used to go for between $630-$760 while the 9s used to sell between $40-$70. Odd to see the 10s only double in the past two years while the 9s are up nearly four-times what they sold for in 2018. In any case, Hakeem rookie stickers have been popular with collectors during the Covid card craze and we are seeing nice bumps in value since summer, 2018.

#2. David Robinson

Moving on to the number two spot, and for me I have to give it to the Navy’s own David “The Admiral” Robinson. There was a lot for me to like about Robinson growing up, he seemed like a class act, he was a member of the Dream Team, he served his country, he turned around a floundering Spurs franchise, and he had great stats.

Robinson’s stats look almost identical to Olajuwon’s. Over the course of Robinson’s 14-season career, he averaged 21 points, 11 boards, and 3 blocks per game while shooting 52% from the field. Robinson also won two NBA championships, was a 10-time All Star, was the MVP of the league once, and is also in the Hall of Fame.

Before we get to a Robinson card, the last thing I want to mention about him is that I thought he was the ideal mentor for Tim Duncan when Duncan first entered the NBA. I was crushed when Duncan didn’t come to the Boston Celtics, but I think Duncan was a much better career player as a result of playing with Robinson. I regret not watching more Spurs basketball back in the late 90s, but thankfully we’ve got YouTube.

The Robinson card I’m featuring isn’t one of his rookies, nor is it a card that was printed during the course of his career, but its a great looking card nonetheless and is one I’m currently bidding on, which is his 2009 Topps Signature Autograph card (#TSA-DRO).

2009 Topps Signature Autograph David Robinson card (#TSA-DRO)

I like this card for a lot of reasons. For one, it is very minimalist in design. It’s really just Robinson, a few stripes in the background, and the autograph in a rounded box below. That’s it. It looks great though. This card is also short printed to 899 copies, so I’d classify it as neither rare nor common. The autograph looks like its on the card itself, but I’m almost certain its on a clear adhesive that was stuck to the card, but at least the adhesive piece doesn’t stand out like it does on some autograph cards.

I’m glad they went with blue ink for the signature because it pops right off the card. Robinson’s signature is also one of the more legible signatures I’ve seen, and I appreciate that. He also includes his #50 jersey number with his autograph, which I also know Mutombo does with his auto. I don’t see that much, and I’m indifferent to it for the most part.

I don’t have much price data to report for this card. Right now I hold down the winning bid for the card pictured above, but there are four days left of bidding and my winning bid is just $19. There is also a graded BGS 9.5 selling on eBay now with a Buy It Now price of $100, but the autograph is in black ink and I much prefer the blue. Seeing the 9.5 grade from BGS selling for $100 makes me think I shouldn’t pay anything over $40 for the card I’m currently bidding on. I’ll come back and make an update to this post regardless of my outcome to give people a sense of what this one sold for. Let’s move on to my top pick.

#1. Shaquille O’Neal

This was the obvious pick for me, and I’m sure most guys my age who grow up watching basketball in the 90s. How can you not go with Shaquille O’Neal as your top center during this decade? He was larger than life and he was everywhere. He could even make it rain hamburgers (that’s a Kazaam reference in case you’re confused). To this day, I remain a huge fan of Shaq. His basketball commentary is hilarious and he sometimes makes an appearance on my work Slack channel with the Shaq/cat wiggle gif. You know the one, it’s so good.

You da man Shaq!

Shaq also put up crazy stats. He was a 15-time All Star, led the league in scoring twice, won four championships, was a three-time league MVP and a three-time finals MVP, and he has 45 acting credits on his IMDB page. So yeah, Shaq was absolutely holding it down as the center of the universe in the 90s.

The Shaq card I want to cover is the card I covered in my first post, and it’s a card that I hold near and dear. While Ewing first got me to dip my tow into card collecting, Shaq got me to dive into the deep end.

The card I’m talking about is the Shaquille O’Neal rookie card from the 1992-93 Stadium Club Beam Team set. The Shaq Beam Team rookie was the last card (#21) in the set, but man am I glad they included him, and so are my fellow collectors. This card has also been ‘popping off’ (I can’t stop using this phrase) recently.

Just to be clear, there are two 1992-93 Stadium Club Beam Team cards, one is the Members Only card, the other is the plain Beam Team card. The Members Only Beam Team was sold as a complete set and is more common than the plain Beam Team cards which sold in packs. The Members Only card is marked by a barely visible watermark-like stamp in the top left corner of the card. My price posts will only focus on the plain OG Beam Team Shaq rookie.

My love for this card can’t be overstated and I’m glad my first post was partially dedicated to it. It has a terrific 90s style refractor-like border that runs up both sides of the card and frames the photo of Shaq perfectly. The shot of Shaq is terrific, especially for an early 90s card.

Collectors have also driven this card up considerably in value, especially the high grade cards. The last five PSA 10 sales to date have sold in the $3,600 – $5,100 range, with a median value of $4,300. If we trace the price history back two years, we see this PSA 10 card sold in a range of $485 – $649, with a median value of $521. Simply comparing those median values, we see this Shaq PSA 10 Beam Team (non Members Only) has a 2 year price appreciation of over 700%! I’m super pumped to see collectors treasure and appreciate this card as much as I do.

Bonus: Shawn Bradley

Hey all you crazy cats and kittens, I’ve got something extra for you. Yes, I’m throwing a seemingly random bonus center into this 90s Centers of the Universe post. But random Shawn Bradley is not.

While his stats don’t justify being in the top 5 (or even the top 10), I wanted to include the German-born 7-foot-6-inch center because he was in the movie Space Jam, and it’s only natural that he have at least a bonus appearance in this space-themed post.

I’ve also heard Space Jam 2 rumors floating about featuring Lebron. I guess that’s cool, but it would be cooler if Lebron did his own thing instead of trying to follow in every one of Jordan’s footsteps.

I digress. Anyway, Bradley was the #2 pick in the 1993 NBA draft, right behind Chris Webber and right before Penny Hardaway. Bradley was a decent center and stuck around the NBA for a respectable twelve seasons, although some of that time he was hampered with injuries, as to be expected with a man of his size. But over the course of his career, he was good for 8 points, 6 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks per game.

As a result of Bradley’s mediocre stats, he never really made a splash with collectors. However, I was able to find a really beautiful short print card featuring Bradley on eBay that is worth highlighting, and that is from the 2013-2014 Panini Flawless set.

I’m usually pretty indifferent to patch and memorabilia cards because I usually feel disappointed with the result, however the patch card above featuring Bradley (#82) and short printed to 25 copies, is a great example of a patch done right. The card above looks fantastic, due in large part to the 76ers star being nearly captured in full within the massive patch and the tri-color effect of the star looks awesome. Plus, you can see exactly where the star appears on Bradley’s jersey.

I also like the card above because it really shows just how skinny Bradley was during his NBA career. He was listed as a 235-pound center, but that is skinny for a man of his height. Shaq, by comparison, was five inches shorter but had 90 pounds on Bradley.

Well, there you have it! Five of the best centers from the 1990s plus a Bradley bonus.

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