Although I do not fit neatly in to one of the numerous hobby classifications (set builder, pack buster, team collector, prospector, vintage fan, etc.) I do lean toward some more than others. I am, I must admit, a player collector. Sure I don’t have the finances to be a “Super Collector – the type of psychosis that makes one build a collection so focused on one man, so exhaustive and so enormous to make everyone who knows them uneasy – but I’ve been known to fixate on a player from time to time. There’s more to my strategy than, say, basic prospecting. I don’t stack multiple copies of the player’s Bowman Chrome rookies. In fact the only times I ever seem to own more than one copy of a card is if it’s to replace one with a condition issue or because it was so under priced that I knew I could eventually use it to get something I really need.
And it has been this way my entire life. My father instilled these tendencies in me at a young age – probably because he himself had them. We are both obsessive collectors whose daily lives are punctuated by arbitrary goals which I would speculate are tied to our screwed up serotonin levels. My first notion of collecting cards was trying to find ALL of certain players. We bought packs and boxes and built sets and went to games and experienced all the hobby had to offer in the early 1990s but the main thing for both of us was always trying to track down those handful of players we collected. Bo Jackson was first for me. Dad was a Nolan Ryan guy. I moved on to George Brett and Darryl Strawberry. I dabbled in Fred McGriff, Greg Maddux, Penny Hardaway. Dad left the hobby. We reconvened in 1997 when NASCAR was exploding in popularity. We had to have everything with Jeff Gordon’s name on it. We’d spend the next 2-3 years putting together a staggering die cast and merchandise collection of #24. Sure, the value plummeted on much if not all of the guys we collected but at some point, I think, it stopped mattering. Even now, every time I visit my dad or he visits me we catch one another up on our collections. He bought a rare vintage potato chip bag? I can relate. I found a rare jazz record at a local flea market? He understands. Just as many of us come to FCB because our friends and family do not understand how we could spend hundreds of dollars on a piece of cardboard, so do my dad and I communicate about our hobbies.
As times have changed and spending money has fluctuated so have my player collecting habits. Instead of going all in on my favorite NBA player of all time, Allen Iverson, I instead made it my mission to buy every officially licensed NBA card issued his rookie season of 1996-97. The first few of these I bought while he was this season was happening. I’m now one away from completion. I also found a way to collect a guy I went to college with, Knowshon Moreno, when I had little or no money at all. I simply restricted myself to only buying his cards under the Topps umbrella.
A part of what made this work for me and what makes player collecting work for many of us is the structure. Our goal is usually finite and for some of us this is very important. A set collector can claim the same, for certain, but completing sets is one of the main points of sets. There’s nothing unique about completing a base set and, vintage and SP-heavy sets aside, it’s usually not even a challenge. Not all player collectors are necessarily trying to collect them all or sticking to a defined range such as “only rookies” or “only Topps products” like my Iverson and Moreno collections, but for me this is the way to go.
I have several of these oddly structured projects going at the moment. Inevitably I dig up 95% of what’s needed to complete the project and then spend months or years tracking down that elusive 5% at a reasonable price. In an effort to spice things up a bit I’ve been mulling a new project which is the point of all of this ranting. Namely: how do we go about starting a player collection from scratch?
This may be me speculating, but I think of many player collections as starting somewhat innocently or incidentally. You like a player, buy some of his cards here and there and then one day you realize “wow, I have a lot of this guy’s stuff, maybe I should see if I can track them all down.” Or, in the case of my Moreno collection, you decide before any of the cards are even released “this is my guy: I will buy them as they come.”
But the new project I have in mind is a little bit different. It would be completely from scratch and would involve a retired player who had a very short professional career. The player is someone I’ve somehow never picked up over the years (not a single card) but merely got to thinking about how great he was. For me, a huge Duke Basketball fan and seasoned basketball collector, this player is Jay Williams.
The thought of building this collection is one I find very exciting. What I know in advance is that he had an NBA career under 2 years in duration – halted by an odd motorcycle accident – and now serves as a more-than-competent college basketball analyst and has been one of the best ambassadors of my beloved Duke Basketball program. I think of all of the times I’ve had the discussion about what the NBA would be like had Williams not suffered that injury – how I believe he would’ve been Chris Paul or Deron Williams before those two got all of the credit for revitalizing the point guard position.
Sufficiently amped up I am looking to begin the process of building a player collection from scratch. As of this writing I actually have yet to buy a single Jay Williams card. The following are the steps I have taken or am going to take in order to put this collection together. I share these with dual purpose: to help others who might look to tackle projects of this sort and to generate a discussion to establish the best way or ways to build such a collection. I would not consider myself a true authority on the matter and therefore hope I can learn more by generating this discussion.
1. Research Research Research: My first thought was that I had to see if this project was possible within my budget constraints. How many Jay Williams cards are there? How many of them are too short printed to find? The first place to look, for me, was plain old Beckett.com. Searching Williams’ name (and narrowing it down to be sure I had the right Jay Williams) lead me to the fact that his cards paralleled his career: there were only 2 years worth and he hadn’t appeared on a single card since. There are 259 cards bearing his likeness. That sounds just right for what I’d like to chase. Of those 259, 52 are numbered to 25 or less. Yikes. In the back of my mind I know that sometimes the impressive Beckett database is usually missing some cards here and there, so I know in my travels I may find out about the existence of a few others, but not enough to scare me away from such a project. Another interesting element in my research: Because of the hype Williams had in entering the NBA he appears on several cards with much more established superstars. He was the next great Chicago Bull so we see him next to Michael Jordan. He was the next great NBA guard so we see him next to Kobe Bryant. My initial fear is that these cards could prove to be expensive as those players obviously command a much higher price tag. Eventually I would find that those players’ faces made otherwise-rare cards show up for sale more often.
2. Get Organized: Now that I have a clearer sense of what I’m in for with this project I have to get organized. I start pulling the data provided by Beckett in to my own personal mega-spreadsheet in Google Drive. Because I do this in Google Drive I have access to my data where ever I go via my Droid. I create columns for the year, the card, its serial number if applicable, for special features (auto, jersey, etc), then one column for pricing on each place one might find such singles (more on this later). One extra column for random notes and I’m good to go. This is, in itself, a huge project, but one I really enjoy. There’s an odd satisfaction in being supremely organized.
3. Bundle Up: Because I have so many cards to track down of one player and am not at all at risk of buying any duplicates, my first instinct is to search for Jay Williams lots on eBay. Unfortunately, Mr. Williams’ lack of following has lead to apathy from eBay sellers when it comes to putting such lots together. There are few, if any, and what little I find is over-priced even with the savings I’d get on shipping. Oh well. In most cases, I still think this is the best place to start.
4. Check Out My COMC: On a low-end collection done on a budget such as this it is crucial to keep shipping costs to a minimum. The best way to do this as of the summer of 2012 is at CheckOutMyCards.com. They may not yet have the enormous range of cards offered on eBay and Beckett Marketplace, but they are the ultimate source for a project such as this as, unlike those others, all cards are shipping from one location and are thus much less expensive to ship. There are over 90 different Williams cards on COMC and nearly all of them, I would come to find, are as cheap or cheaper than any other site. Big win. I wonder if picking up such a huge chunk of the project in one buy takes away some of the fun and challenge of such a project, but knowing that most of the autographs, jerseys and SP cards are not included, I brush this off.
5. The Open Market(place): Up next I head over to Beckett Marketplace. I know that if I find the right couple of sellers I can probably pick up a bunch of the cards and combine on shipping there, too. Of the 120 or so different Williams cards listed I can only pinpoint a handful that are not available on COMC or elsewhere and not priced too high for me. Still, with COMC eating up so much of the low-end part of my initial wish list anything I can pick up on this site at a reasonable price is to be considered a solid (potential) haul.
6. Back To The Bay: Having now checked off a large majority of the base cards and low-end inserts from BMP and COMC, I head back to eBay to track down some bigger fish. It doesn’t take me long to find a dual auto with Kobe Bryant listed as well as dual jerseys with Michael Jordan, Yao Ming and other no-namers. After the time I’ve invested in the other sites, the higher prices do not dampen the excitement of seeing such cards numbered to 25 or less readily available. As many of these are priced high and sitting in eBay stores I know I can pick them up when I’m good and ready (and that Powerball ticket comes through). I continue my searching and find another 15-20 mid-level singles which either were not available on the other sites or are cheaper on eBay. Nice. Naturally add a few searches to my Saved Searches list and check back at least once daily to see if I can luck in to someone dusting off that 2002-03 basketball box and listing a rare Williams insert. This will be a majority of the work I do in tracking down whichever cards I do not find in my initial buys.
7. Shop Around: As I have not yet actually purchased any of these cards and have been using the above to determine the market as much as anything else, I head out to my Local Card Shops to see what they might have. If you saw my previous article about what makes a great city for collectors, you know I live in a fairly bustling sports card city with 5-6 shops. Not all of these are convenient to where I live and few have much organization with their singles, but I know that if I dig deep enough I’ll find a few and whatever I find will be reasonably priced and, of course, without that dreaded shipping charge. On top of that, one of the largest sellers on Beckett Marketplace is setup about 45 minutes from me with their full inventory in their shop. They may not be cheaper there than some of the other places, but, again, no shipping, no time spent digging and the usual pleasant LCS experience.
8. Enjoy Some Freedom: At this point I’ve exhausted most of your more traditional markets, have a strong sense of what’s out there and, with the exception of some of the live eBay auctions, know that most of what’s out there today will be out there next month and beyond. So I head home to see my friends on the FCB forums. The transactions forum in basketball isn’t one of the more lively parts of the site but I know my request “Any Jay Williams Card Whatsoever” is vague enough that a few people are bound to help. On a lucky day I could find someone with a big lot a la #3 on this list. Because it is more of a community and less a business, I know that if a member happens to have an especially rare Williams card that they’re not keeping in a bank vault they’ll part with it for a reasonable price or trade. FCB and other sports card forums can be great for any step in this mission – from advice about sellers to having lots or rare singles to knowing the best places to look and even sharing similar experiences in collecting. And that’s a big part about why I write this, as mentioned, to help others who might look to tackle projects of this sort and to generate a discussion to establish the best way or ways to build such a collection.
9. Think Outside The Box: I know that even if I follow steps 1-8 and expand my budget for this project I still won’t have all of the Williams cards I seek. If I did it would not be a challenge worth writing about. So my last step is to think outside the box a bit. Try other web sites, visit card shows (especially the NSCC), ask peoples’ advice and even write a nifty post about your mission for the FCB homepage…
As of today I haven’t purchased a single Jay Williams card but once I take the leap to expand my personal collection I know how I’ll do it. I know, too, that it can be done in a cost-effective, mostly-structured manner that does not compromise the fun or excitement of such a project. And once I do it maybe I’ll call up my dad and share that sense of recognition that only we collectors truly understand.