Steve Friedman remembers walking into a local card shop in 1999 and putting his eyes on the coolest thing.
He was mesmerized by the 1999-2000 Upper Deck Retro Basketball product that came in a lunch pail. On the front, there were different variations of Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Julius Erving and other basketball legends.
“I think I bought as many as the guy had,” Friedman said. “I think I bought seven of them.”
Each lunch pail contained a box of 24 packs with eight cards in each pack. Little did Friedman know there was a rare Inkredible Ink series randomly inserted into packs. It featured autographed cards of 24 former and current basketball players such as Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell and Erving.
Friedman decided to open packs at the store from two of the seven lunch pails he purchased. He started tearing through the packs when he was shocked by what was staring him in the face.
“I go, ‘Oh my God. A Wilt Chamberlain autograph,’” Friedman recalls. “My eyes lit up. I know I opened it in the shop. The guy was going crazy, ‘Oh, woah. This is so cool.’ He didn’t know the value and neither did I. But we immediately put it in a soft sleeve and then I ultimately put it in a one-touch.”
The Chamberlain card was in pristine shape, autographed in beautiful blue ink and hand-numbered 11/13. Upper Deck numbered each Level 2 — those were the autographed versions — Inkredible Ink card by the player’s jersey number, hence the No. 13 for Chamberlain.
“At that time, I don’t think anybody knew what a Level 2 Inkredible was,” Friedman said. “We were just enamored with the card. To me, it’s just so beautiful.”
Living near Portland, the 58-year-old Friedman is a big Blazers fan. However, Chamberlain has always been bigger than life for him.
“He was my hero as a kid,” Friedman said. “He was the ‘Big Dipper.’ He was the greatest player in the NBA. I used to collect all his cards.”
Friedman said he would never sell his autographed Chamberlain card and put it in his fireproof safe at his house.
“I look at it all the time,” Friedman said. “It gives me great joy. I’m not one of those guys that wants to buy and sell cards for a living. I’m one of those guys that wants to collect cards that I think are just beautiful or that bring back a great memory for me or maybe a friend that I knew — I knew Brent Barry at Oregon State and Terrell Brandon.”
Friedman got out of collecting for some time when a friend of his contacted him a year and a half ago, saying he had found his old cards. Friedman knew where his childhood cards were at. He started filing through them and it attracted his interest again in collecting. Reentering the hobby was a little culture shock for Friedman with boxes of cards now fetching thousands of dollars.
In early 2021, Friedman was making frequent stops at Hoody’s Collectibles in Beaverton, Ore., and he kept telling the owner, Tait Hoodenpyl, about his Chamberlain autographed card.
“For a while I told him, ‘Bring it in. I want to see it,’” Hoodenpyl said. “Finally, one day he just brought it in and when I saw it, I thought it was incredible.”
Hoodenpyl marveled at the card and insisted Friedman should send it into Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA) to get it graded. Since it was late April and PSA had shut down most of its services, the only option for Friedman was Super Express at $300.
Ungraded, Hoodenpyl had a rough estimate the card could be worth $30,000-50,000. Graded, well that would really up the price, especially if it came back a 10.
Friedman was reluctant to let go of the card and ship it in the mail. However, with the help of Hoodenpyl, Friedman sent in his first card ever to get graded.
Another Rare Find: Antique dealer lands '52 Mantle found in Mennonite barn
Hoodenpyl tracked the card while at PSA and it took a little extra time because of the company being backlogged by millions of submissions.
“I’m on pins and needles, of course,” Friedman said. “I’m like, ‘What’s this thing going to come back at?’ Then my mind starts going crazy: ‘What if this thing comes back a Gem-Mint 10?’ This will be the greatest thing ever. I’m going to be sky high. Tait tempered expectations and said it could be between a 9 and a 10.”
On April 29, Hoodenpyl texted Friedman the good word: it was a 10.
Hoodenpyl asked Friedman if he could post a photo of the Chamberlain card on Hoody’s Collectibles’ Instagram page. Friedman said, of course.
When collectors saw the masterpiece, the response was overwhelming.
“There were a bunch of people that reached out to us and a lot of big collectors that I know from deals in the past that follow our auctions that wanted to make offers on it. ‘Is it for sale?’” Hoodenpyl said. “I called Steve and I said, ‘Steve, listen. This is getting insane. I’ve got like 15 messages within 30 minutes.’”
Offers came in for $90,000, then $100,000. Friedman wasn’t looking at selling.
However, an offer for $175,000 surfaced. Woah. That could be a game-changer.
“At that point, I said to myself truly and honestly, I go, ‘I think I have to sell this card,’” Friedman said. “It’s brought me joy for 22 years. I want it to bring joy to somebody else for another 22 years. If somebody loves it as much as I do and wants to buy it, I’m willing to share it that way. It’s an emotional decision, because I really love that card and I love Wilt Chamberlain.”
REALIZING THE RARITY
Friedman’s Chamberlain card is one of just four of that card graded by PSA. Friedman’s card and another garnered 10s and there are two 8s.
Beckett Grading Service (BGS) has also graded four of those cards: one Pristine 10, two 9.5s and one 8.5.
So, eight of the 13 Chamberlain autographed cards from that series have been graded by the top two grading companies in the hobby. That leaves five cards unaccounted for, either not pulled yet or not graded.
“It’s not a mainstream card, so you don’t really think about it, but when you hear that someone has it, you’re kind of taken aback because it’s so rare,” Hoodenpyl said.
With the PSA 10 being a population two, that makes the card extremely rare.
“I think anything that’s been pulled, if not all of them, are already in collections that all these high-roller guys that want the Wilt autos — they probably have the Century Legends. But this is like the one card that they do not have, because it’s not available at all,” Hoodenpyl said. “With it being a pop two, it’s just better. With a card this rare, the value’s there no matter what. But having a PSA 10, adding a PSA slab, especially in today’s collecting world, just makes it all that much better.
“It’s just perfect. It’s dead centered, the surface is very clean. Luckily, Steve kept it in a safe and it really never saw the light of day since he pulled it. The autograph looks like it was signed yesterday. It’s just silly bold.”
In 1999, Upper Deck also released its Epic Signature series in the Century Legends product in which Chamberlain appeared. There is a version of the card numbered /100 and others that are unnumbered. Hoodenpyl noted an Epic Signature Chamberlain numbered /100 and graded BGS 9 sold for $30,000 on April 19. Chamberlain’s Inkredible Ink card is much rarer numbered /13.
The Inkredible Ink and Epic Signature products would have been some of the last autographs ever from Chamberlain, who died Oct. 12, 1999.
“We had a hard time trying to include Wilt with cut signature card releases,” said Chris Carlin, who is the head of customer experience at Upper Deck and has been with the company since 1998. “Generally, his signatures were very large so notecards and even checks weren’t always going to work.”
After deciding he was going to put it up for auction, Friedman decided to consign it through Hoody’s Collectibles. It will be a 10-day auction running from May 27-June 6 on www.hoodys.us. There is no reserve set, but Friedman and Hoodenpyl expect the card to fetch a nice price tag.
Friedman is excited to see how much the card garners as it goes to a new home nearly a quarter decade after his shocking pull.
“I think the Wilt Chamberlain lover, the serious investor, the guy who wants to have one of the most iconic Wilt Chamberlain cards of all time will want to purchase this, will want to be in on this,” Friedman said. “You can throw out all the LeBron James’ and the Michael Jordans all you want, but Wilt’s never signing another autograph card again.”