Commentary

Finding treasure in a card

Thirty years later, Bird-Magic rookie provides a flood of memories

Updated: January 30, 2011, 11:27 PM ET
By Scott Turken | Special to ESPN.com

We all know the feeling of finding a modern version of buried treasure. It can be finding a $20 bill in a pair of jeans, a $100 bond that your grandparents bought at your birth, or one of those rare pieces of sports memorabilia in your basement that hasn't surfaced in years.

During a not-so-routine cleaning in my basement the other day, I had my own version of the glowing suitcase in "Pulp Fiction." The hard-plastic trunk was cracked, but in it, safe and sound, was the mother of all collectibles for a kid who grew up in the '80s: The 1980-81 Topps hoops card that features Magic Johnson and Larry Bird in their rookie seasons. To boot, it has the great Julius Erving between them.

Larry Bird, Julius Erving & Magic Johnson
ESPNBoston.comLarry Bird and Magic Johnson first found common ground on a 1980-81 Topps rookie card.

There's been a lot of pub recently about a rare Blake Griffin rookie card that has a listed value of more than $1,200. Playoff National Treasures made only 99 copies of the card, which includes an autograph and a piece of a jersey. While Griffin has exploded onto the NBA scene, the price has rocketed on eBay, with some bids have been as high as $5,000.

It's a reminder of the halcyon days of card collecting of several decades ago.

Most people believe the sports-card business died years ago. In the '80s, collecting cards was the first foray into the business world for many. The Beckett price guide was the equivalent of a stock ticker for me and my card-collecting friends.

I always thought my Topps 1975 mini George Brett rookie and my 1989 Score football set were going to pay for my kids' college educations. How about that Mark McGwire on the U.S. Olympic team card and the Bonds and Clemens rookie cards? There were so many in the collection and they were going to be worth thousands.

Well, not so much.

The Magic and Bird rookie is truly a treasure in myriad respects. It's valued at $500, but it can be argued that, as the card turns 30 years old, it is one of the great pieces of memorabilia in history.

The card, which is roughly 3.5 inches wide and 2.5 inches high, with perforated edges and three all-time greats on it, should be worth so much more. In fact, it's invaluable, and is symbolic of what so many of us used to love about the NBA.

A no-brainer combination

Bird and Magic are inexorably linked to basketball fans. The symbolism of their equitable share of Topps real estate -- they each got about an inch on either side of the card -- was manifested on the court. From their legendary 1979 NCAA championship matchup to their back-and-forth battles trading NBA championships in the '80s, you can't say one without the other.

[+] EnlargeLarry Bird & Magic Johnson
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesWith Larry Bird and Magic Johnson's fierce and frequent on-court battles, it's impossible to think of one without the other.

In many accounts about their legendary relationship, the themes are the same: Earvin felt disrespected that Larry got the praise. Bird felt jealous that Magic won. Neither man wanted to share their hard-earned accolades with the other, especially on a trading card.

But they belong together, any way you slice it. They are polar opposites on the card as they were in life. Bird occupies the left side, Magic the right (one of the few details that doesn't make sense, at least politically and geographically). Each man became a reflection of his nickname. "Larry Legend" evolved from his old moniker, the "Hick from French Lick," and became a brash leader, clutch player and one of the game's all-time trash talkers. "Magic" played fast and lived fast, while Earvin took a back seat to the many offerings his remarkable play and celebrity provided.

All the while, the men refused to connect with one another on a personal level. Converse managed to get the game's two best players together to film a commercial. Bird somehow won the battle to host the shoot on a court at his Indiana home. According to the HBO documentary, "Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals," Earvin charmed Larry's mother and his archrival, laying the foundation for a friendship that has grown more meaningful over the years.

The commercial aired during the 1986 season and both men led their teams back to the NBA Finals in the following spring. At that time, they each had three championship rings.

Magic's famous sky hook in Game 4 at Boston Garden is regarded as one of the most clutch and famous shots ever. In his postgame news conference, Bird was nearly speechless after his rival got him again. Larry Legend said, "Magic's just a great basketball player." And let out an elongated sigh. "He's the best I've ever seen." The Lakers eventually won the series in six games.

The person who planned the layout of that rookie card couldn't have dreamed of a better result.

Getting mine

You were either a Bird guy or a Magic guy. As a kid growing up in suburban Detroit, Larry was legendary for stealing the ball and his countless late-game daggers against my Pistons. Not only was Magic a Michigander, he was more likable because of his relationship with Isiah Thomas and his irresistible excitement on the court.

I was a Magic guy.

Johnson's basketball IQ (and later his business acumen) was off the charts, but it was his fast-living, always-smiling, flashy play that made L.A.'s biggest stars flock to the Forum in droves. As a leading man for "Showtime," he was from central casting. Hollywood is pretty compelling in your formative years. I had the utmost respect for Bird, especially his toughness, leadership and clutch play, but that didn't mean I had to like him.

I vividly remember the day I got my own Magic/Bird rookie card. On a family vacation in Florida, in the late '80s, we stumbled upon a card store in a strip mall. It was selling unopened packs from the early '80s for $2. With holiday money and savings from umpiring, my brother and I each spent $20 to try to get the one card that would complete our "portfolio."

Larry Bird & Magic Johnson
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesAlthough Julius Erving was between them on their memorable card, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson have gotten closer and closer through the years.

The first few packs, my bro got a Bird rebounding leader card, I got the Magic All-Star card, but not the one they shared. It felt like the early '80s back-and-forth between the greats whose card we were trying to procure. In the pack-opening equivalent of a hook shot in the paint, I eventually got the gem and put it in a hard-plastic case.

The treasure had been a staple in my childhood bedroom closet for almost 20 years. Upon the insistence of my parents, they brought out my entire collection in boxes two years ago.

I've had chances to sell the card and nearly did a few years ago when a colleague offered me $200 for it. Her boyfriend was a huge Celtics fan and she wanted to surprise him. I almost sold it, despite the offer being for much less than list price.

It's rare that I take it out, but I was compelled to after watching "Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals" last year. I had to make sure it was still there.

The film eloquently captured the human side of the pair's complex and surprisingly close bond. When Magic announced he had the HIV virus and abruptly retired in 1991, it was Bird who seemed to be more affected. Bird says that changed his love for the game, and he compared the day to the loss of his father.

That's a lot deeper than a small piece of perforated cardboard, but it's all part of the greatness of the artifact.

Two sound bites appear in the trailer for "Magic & Bird" that sum up the depth and enduring importance of their rivalry.

Magic: "You know you've got this tight bond and a friendship with this cat and you're always going to be linked to him."

Bird: "We've got this connection that's never going to be broken. Right to our graves, they'll be talking about that 100 years from now."

Guess what, Larry. I'll be taking the card that you and Magic occupy to mine.

Scott Turken is a producer with ESPN's Production Migration unit, which powers the video on ESPN's city sites. Send feedback to scott.turken@espn.com. Follow him on Twitter @Turk0219.

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