By Andrew Polaniecki
Editor's Note: This is the first of two installments of Andrew Polaniecki's account of his jersey collecting experiences. Watch for the second segment in an upcoming edition of SCD.
We all collect different things. Some people collect high end items such as horses, cars or
even planes. Some people collect smaller valued items such as stamps, coins, and even rocks. Heck, I bet you could find someone who really puts their toe jam into a jar. I remember growing up my grandfather had a 30-year-long collection of stamps. No matter how hard he tried, he could never pique my interest away from basketball cards regardless of how many “limited edition,” one out of a million stamp sets he would give to me.
What do I collect? Well that’s not really the proper question to ask me. A more prudent question to ask me is, Who am I? Well I am a jersey collector. A rare, but not uncommon breed that comes with being part of a small but sometimes highly competitive sub-community that for the most part exists solely online.
This piece may not hit home for everyone. Who am I aiming to reach? Well if you once dreamed about owning one of those Champion brand replica jerseys, and begged your parents for years until you actually got one, this article is for you. If you saved up every dollar until you hit 40 to buy one of those Champion replicas yourself, then this article is for you. If you were a teenager who regularly watched MTV’s Total Request Live or BET’s 106 & Park during the early 2000’s just to see which rapper was wearing which Mitchell & Ness throwback, then this one is for you.
Introduction to Jerseys
To start things off, let me start by saying that I am a 30-year-old man who is the biggest kid at heart. I do not have the slightest obsession with wearing another man’s shirt bearing his name. He certainly wouldn’t wear mine. Do I have the biggest collection in the world? No. Do I have the most valuable collection in the world? Hardly! What draws me to collect are the memories or the stories associated to each jersey I own one way or the other. This may be a favorite player or team from childhood, or a player that I have now become friends with through various business endeavors.
My obsession with the hobby started when I was eight and it is an obsession that I never grew out of. It all started back in ’93 when I would go over to my best friend’s house, almost weekly, and we would watch all of the NBA on NBC games together. He used to come downstairs in a different jersey every week depending on the team that was playing.
He had so many! I clearly remember he had Ewing, Barkley, Jordan, Magic and Kevin Johnson. At halftime he would lend me one to put on while we played basketball in his driveway and we each pretended to be the player we were wearing. I never had my own though. I wanted one more than anything else. His mom told me she would get them from a flea market. I begged my mom to take me to the flea market even though I didn’t know what a flea market was, nor did I have any interest in fleas. My passion for the hobby doesn’t stem from anything related to my life now, but rather a growing and continuing interest ever since those days in my friend's driveway, before I ever got my first one.
Beginning of a Jersey Collection
I’ll never forget that moment. I probably begged my parents for an entire year until I unwrapped a black Orlando Magic Shaquille O’Neal Champion replica jersey for my ninth birthday. My parents surprised me with it by packing it in my suit case for my birthday weekend that I spent at my grandparents'. I left on a Friday, and they told me I couldn’t open it until my birthday on Sunday. It was killing me all weekend. I knew exactly what was in that package, but I could never figure out whose jersey it was.
The wax wrapping paper was somewhat see through, and I could tell it wasn’t a Knicks or Bulls jersey (my two top choices) which had me chomping at the bit even more. When I finally got to open it and saw that it was a Shaq jersey, I screamed! I was officially in the game! Not only did I have my first jersey, but it was a jersey my friend didn’t have in his collection and it gave me extra bragging rights. I was hooked.
Shortly after obtaining my first one, due to holidays, I was given a couple more and my collection was starting to take shape. Six months after I received the Shaq, I was given a blue Patrick Ewing Knicks jersey. Six months after that was my 10th birthday, and this was shortly after Michael Jordan returned to the NBA in ’95. My grandparents gave me his brand new red #45 jersey. It only kept growing from there. Divorce is awful for a child, but one of the only perks is double the presents and I started raking it in. I quickly added an Anthony Mason, Dennis Rodman, Larry Johnson, Charles Barkley, and Penny Hardaway all within a couple of years. With each hung up on my walls, my bedroom looked like a sporting goods store. I was quickly closing in on my dream and goal of owning 10 jerseys in my collection. Why 10? Well that’s double digits of course.
While my collection was becoming one to boast about, a single trip to the mall one Sunday afternoon brought me right back down to reality. I was walking around the Roosevelt Field Mall and I came across a type of jersey that I had never seen before. This jersey was beyond different than anything in my collection. This jersey reflected something of a much higher quality than any jersey I had ever seen. I stumbled across my first authentic jersey.
Upping the Effort with Game-Worn Jerseys
What was this I was seeing? Heavy duty mesh! ... pinstripes! ... SEWN ON NUMBERS! I thought that my jerseys were like soiled wash cloths compared to this. I now had a new birthday wish, but at $100 a pop I knew that it would always remain at that – a wish. A wish that was finally met for my 13th birthday as a gift from my cousins. I’ll never forget when I reached into the gift bag and felt for the first time the heavy duty mesh, and dual layered tackle twill sewn on numbers. It also featured a special tag at the bottom of the
jersey different than any of my previously owned jerseys. "Made by Starter" this special tag stated – words no other replica or authentic jersey ever stated before ’97. It was a tag that any jersey collector only dreamed about having attached to one of their replica jerseys.
What is the fascination with collecting game worn jerseys? Well, to real collectors it’s all about the second tag. I’m not talking about the neck tag, or the washing instructions label. I’m talking about the tag you could never get. When I say the word “get” I also mean buy.
The second tag I am referring to was non-existent on your replica jerseys. It was non-existent on even your authentic jerseys. Up until a certain point, due to demand, it was non-existent on any retail store jersey. The only way you knew it even existed was seeing this anomaly on television or basketball publications. It piqued your interest so much you would stare at the television when a player’s jersey became un-tucked just to try and figure out what that second mystery tag was on the real jerseys the players wore. More so than that, you were constantly asking yourself how come you never had one of those tags on any one of your jerseys? What do you have to do and where do you have to go to see what that tag is up close?
Tuned Into All-Telling Tags
As a 10-year-old, I spent at least a year religiously looking at every basketball card or picture I had that showed this tag to try and figure out what this tag was all about. Dennis Rodman would always throw his jersey into the crowd after each home game, and I would try to just grab a glimpse of the jersey to figure out what this mystery was.
It wasn’t until I went on a tour of Madison Square Garden and had the opportunity to go in to the Knicks locker room that I finally got my answer. Upon entering the locker room my mouth hit the floor. My extensive year long research (which to an 11-year-old would be equal to an eternity) was about to conclude.
Before my eyes was Patrick Ewing’s locker, and inside of it hanging was Patrick Ewing’s jersey. I lunged ahead of the tour group towards the locker and the jersey, turned it over and looked down and what I saw is turned me into a jersey collector for life.
“DESIGNED AND TAILED EXCLUSIVELY FOR THE ’95-96 NEW YORK KNICKS.”
My first thoughts were both filled with happiness and disappointment. I finally figured out the mystery, I thought how cool it was that every team had their own custom tag. Then the disappointment hit when I realized I would never be able to own something so exclusive. It could never be bought. It was exclusive, never to be made available to the public.
This was all before eBay ever existed. This was all before memorabilia auction houses were as popular as they are today.
Changing Landscape of Collecting
eBay changed everything for everyone. Today, between eBay, Amazon and websites like Fresh Direct you can live your entire life without ever leaving the house. You can find anything you ever dreamed of and that includes game worn memorabilia. Through just a couple of specific keywords like “PRO CUT JERSEY,” and “GAME WORN JERSEY” and you are taken to a collectors fantasy dream. Hundreds – if not thousands – of game worn jerseys for you to sort through and pick which player you would like to add to your collection. Don’t like what is there today? Wait until tomorrow and there will be 30 new jerseys posted over night. If you’re still not happy, there are at least three game used memorabilia auction houses that run monthly auctions. The once unattainable is now the over saturated.
This hobby, just like many other hobbies, is filled is with people who try to make a quick buck even if it means deceiving individuals. There are more counterfeit jerseys in this hobby than there are legitimate authentic jerseys. Factories in China produce knockoffs at an alarming rate and at a price that is a fraction of a retail jersey. The most scary and typical issue that this small-but-huge community of jersey collectors face are the eBay sellers who guarantee their items for sale to be game worn, when they were never even touched by the athlete. These individuals spend their days buying blank jerseys in bulk, and customizing them to a B or C level player and then re-list that once-blank jersey as a game worn jersey. Sometimes they will even take the unique exclusive tag from one jersey, and reapply it to another hoping that it will sell for more money attached to another name.
They also know the average buyer will assume, “Hey who would ever fake a bench warmer?” Stripping names or numbers from traded players old jerseys and replacing it with different names wearing the same number is not uncommon either. I see individuals post their newly acquired jerseys like this all the time on social media or in forums. They are all excited about their latest acquisition just to learn later from experts that they were duped, because the font on the back of the jersey is wrong, or they come to the realization that a 7-foot center could never actually wear a 44+2 length top.
Conscious and Careful About Counterfeits
The scariest part about all of the counterfeit items out there is when they hit the secondary market, and then brought to auction houses who are thirsty to take quick consignments for high buyer premiums. I have seen and sometimes have written to call out just about every single major auction house about items they have falsely listed.
Here is the play: John Doe buys one of these custom blank jerseys from Josh Doe. John Doe then takes it to one of these auction houses and tells them that it’s game used. They go ahead and list it in their current online auction as game used with the description reading, this jersey was presented to us as game used and in our opinion it is game used.
Wait a second! Read that last part back to yourself: “in our opinion.”
It was presented to them as one thing without any certifications or photo matching provenance. In their opinion they state it is game used because John Doe, who has no actual knowledge of the history of the jersey, told them so?! I should tell them Michael Jordan chewed my Doublemint gum in Game 6 and have them run that as game used as well.
This article originally appeared in Sports Collectors Digest
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True story: I once called out one of the largest sports memorabilia auction houses on a jersey I knew was 100% a fake. Their response to me was buyer beware. I never placed a bid with them again, and I made sure to tell everyone I knew that bought in the past through them to do the same.
[Editors’ Note: As Mr. Polaniecki demonstrates, it not only pays to be diligent in researching jerseys or any memorabilia, it is imperative. One of his recommendations includes paying close attention to descriptions. Being on the lookout for words and phrases that may cast doubt on the authenticity of an item. Words such as “opinion” or “as represented." These should set off warning bells, and give pause before opening a wallet.]