Grail Chasers: The Most Elite Basketball Collections Out There Right Now

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This story appears in SLAM 241. Shop now.

My name is Sammy, and I’m a collect-aholic. It’s an addiction—more like an obsession. My pursuit to possess every SLAM cover ever released is something that I act upon daily. It’s the eBay search that I’ve saved and the hashtag that I follow. It has me empathizing with the hoarders documented on TV shows. Like them, I want to hold on to something and store it away to capture a moment. It’s a nostalgic task to complete.

Collecting back issues of SLAM is cool (at least I think so; my wife, not so much…), but it’s not unique. Although they’re not as commonly collected as sneakers, trading cards or jerseys, old SLAM mags are widely available, with a community of us who carry a vulture-like quality when it comes to pouncing on a 30-something-year-old hoops fan who happens to be clearing out their parents’ garage. There are small pockets of basketball collectors, however, who obsess over items that are not so common…


Simon Jackson, Autographs

When Simon Jackson (@dallasmavsautos) began collecting Dirk Nowitzki trading cards in 2008, he was quickly impressed by Dirk’s speedy responses to fan mail, specifically autograph requests. His commitment to building a Dirk card collection soon got weighed down by a ton of Dallas Mavs cards. 

“I realized that I’d gained a surplus of Mavericks trading cards by searching for Dirk, which got me thinking…” he says.

Now a Mavs fan, and putting his cards to good use, Simon has made it his mission to get an autograph from every player who has ever stepped on the court in a Mavs uniform. He says there have been 358 players in total (at the time of this writing) and he has 325 of them.

This is some achievement—as an Aussie living in Australia, he acquires autographs by sending stamped envelopes to former players with cards for them to sign and return. He reaches out via Instagram, Twitter and emails. The fact that he has an autograph from Randall Jackson, a man who played 39 seconds for the Mavericks, confirms what I already knew: Simon Jackson isn’t playing around.

Chris Jungwirth, Armbands

When Chris (@nbagameworn_chris) was 14, he noticed players throwing armbands into the stands at the Target Center in Minneapolis. It was the early 2000s—prime KG era—and Chris would sneak from the cheap seats down to the court to grab a grail band from Garnett, or from the visiting Paul Pierce or Vince Carter. He even caught a Rookie LeBron James headband when the Cavs came to town in ’04. Before armband customization was banned for a few years in ’06, players would rock them with short messages, tributes and nicknames.

Chris made note of the ones he needed by studying the SLAMUPS posters on his bedroom wall. Waiting by the team bus, getting to know equipment managers, befriending ball boys and even getting to know players while hanging out by hotels—all of these tactics helped his collection grow.

In more recent years, Chris has splashed a little cash acquiring some of the big names of the past: the iconic “Pip” armband that Scottie rocked while winning hardware, the Reggie Miller finger sleeve that he wore while tearing the beating hearts out of our chests (Yes, I’m a Knicks fan…). He’s also got the unmistakable “Mailman 32” band that Karl Malone rocked while racking up countless buckets. Chris recently dropped $300 on a Jayson Tatum one and has seen a rare Penny Hardaway go for $1,000. I’m still trying to figure out how he managed to talk a Lakers locker room “source” into parting with some Kobe No. 24 finger sleeves for just $150! 

“There are only about five of us continually looking for armbands,” he says. “It gets competitive at times. I’ve been offered $3,000 for my LBJ rookie headband.”

Chris’ collection is currently at 130 armbands and rising. I didn’t even mention the signed PE sneaks he has…

Gerard Starkey, Sneakers

Arguably, basketball sneaker collections are only truly worth discussing if they’re game-worn, and not only that, but worn by the greatest player ever to step onto a basketball court. Gerard Starkey (@gerard_og_vi) had been buying Jordans since he was a 9-year-old skateboarder but when he was 15, he took a leap, figuratively of course, when he got his hands on a pair of Michael Jordan PEs (“Carmine” Jordan VIs). His previous collection suddenly eclipsed by the glow of an MJ exclusive, Gerard set his sights on the shoes that told stories. 

“If you just collect stuff, you end up boxing it and not really enjoying it,” he says. “If the items have a story, then they have context and meaning. If you don’t just have the VIs, but you have the VIs that MJ cut his toe on, then it means a lot more. I started off trying to collect a PE in every style he wore, and then it snowballed.”

He forged a network through his skateboarding and basketball communities. Before social media tied the whole world together, Gerard became tied in with a few of the OG basketball sneaker collectors, guys who’d built up deep catalogs before the market went crazy. He’d help them sell stuff and even claim a pair of game-worn Js in exchange—gathering items that he adamantly says he’ll never let go of. “I don’t sell stuff,” he says. “I don’t sell stuff ever.”

Not only has Gerard built up one of the best MJ sneaker collections in the world, but he’s also built a reputation as one of the most knowledgeable in the game. From offering advice and photo-matching to confirming that a pair has been laced by Mike himself, Gerard provides a service used by Christie’s Auction House as well as high-end collectors who need help sourcing legit items. If there’s a top-tier item sold that has touched Jordan’s feet, it’s usually been through Gerard’s reliable hands.

The game has changed drastically since Gerard started collecting, with the current market allowing millionaire collectors to build a viral-worthy arsenal of MJ PEs in six months. Gerard, though, is unfazed: “They bought their collections. I built mine.”

Ferran Salavert, Jerseys

Hoops hoarders often set out on one path, but become sidetracked by a different obsession. Spanish native Ferran Salavert (@fibawhatelse) initially began collecting FIBA jerseys, primarily from teams in Spain. His favorite, Club Joventut Badalona, produced the likes of Ricky Rubio and Rudy Fernández, and his love for the team prompted Ferran to hunt for game-worn jerseys of Joventut Badalona players who made it to the NBA.

“I like the NBA,” he explains, “but my roots are in European basketball.” 

This mission then expanded to Spanish NBA players, which eventually led him to expanding to jerseys of NBA players who hooped in Spain. Needless to say, this has created one of the most beautifully eclectic collections—“The European focus of my collection is what makes it unique”—of game-worn jerseys around. His collection currently stands at 250 jerseys, with his most valuable ones being the Gasol brothers and Ricky Rubio gamers.

Marcin Wójciuk, John Starks Gear

Even though he’s in Poland, Marcin Wójciuk (@john_starks_3) found himself collecting jerseys of each New York Knicks player who took the floor in the ’94 and ’99 NBA Finals. The collection grew, but so did his focus on John Starks. Marcin loved Starks. He could relate to the passion, the hustle and the sporadic nature of his game. This new focus on Starks led to a condensing of the initial collection. Quality over quantity was his new goal—game-worn jerseys and sneaks, the rarest trading cards, signed photos, but only the highest quality Starks items would suffice. 

“The first Starks jersey I bought was a fake,” Wójciuk says. “I waited three months for it to arrive in Poland from the States. I keep it as a reminder of where it all started.”

At the last count, he has 460 pieces. Marcin is still on the hunt for the adidas Intruders (rocked on the cover of SLAM 4) and has a friend who owns the pair that Starks wore in the ’94 Finals. If he’s reading this, I hope he sees sense and sends them to the place where all John Starks-related items can find their true home.


Leo Klein, All-Star Weekend Basketballs

The beauty of basketball collections is that most are never truly complete. New items are released, fresh players join the League and the hunt for another must-have grail item continues. One of the most complete collections I’ve ever seen, however, belongs to long-time NBA fan Leo Klein.

Like others, Leo has some of the more commonly collected items—jerseys and signed photos—only his are in mind-boggling quantities and presented beautifully in a man-cave-style basement to die for. The centerpiece of his incredible collection, though, is something much less common: a full run of NBA All-Star Weekend Three-Point Contest money balls dating back to when the competition began in 1986. There are 35 in total, all displayed in custom Lucite cubes. Leo has been to every All-Star game since 1994, picking up much of his collection in person. 

“I was often in the right place at the right time,” Klein says, “and so got handed things that someone in the regular crowd wouldn’t be privy to. Traveling to 25 All-Star games was part of the catalyst in why I decided to see if I could collect a full run of money balls.”

Others weren’t so easy. Despite knowing many of the top NBA personnel, grabbing any of the pre-1990 balls presented a difficult task, primarily because so few were produced. Klein contacted sponsors of the competition, tracked down collectors via auction houses and even placed an ad, specifically to find the balls from ’86 and ’87. 

Leo’s commitment to such a specific item, the way the collection was acquired and the fact that the last ball in his collection was the end of Spalding’s NBA era, make it all so unique. The collection has been valued at anywhere between $150,000 to $500,000, and to the right buyer, he might just consider selling. 


Photo credit Nathaniel S. Butler.  





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