By Doug Koztoski
Starting in the fall of 1972 the Los Angeles Lakers had a mission: repeat as NBA champions. About six months prior the franchise beat the New York Knicks to win their first NBA crown since they moved from Minneapolis to LA several years before, and after many near misses at championship rings in the 1960s. Plus, in the 1971-72 season the Lakers set the record of 33-straight regular season victories, still the NBA mark.
In the spring of ’72 7-Eleven started a promotion coupling their flavorful Slurpee drinks with plastic “tradin’ cups” depicting current big league baseball players, 60 in all. A comparable offer also took place later in the year when the NFL season rolled around. And as the NBA regular schedule tipped off that season the convenience store chain went back to the well once more, this time with a 40-cup hoop offering.
All of the 7-Eleven sports cups of this brief period shared the same look: about six inches tall and moderately tapered; featuring a lighter grade white plastic with a detailed illustrated color likeness of the player on the front, backs with a 7-Eleven logo and some player info; able to hold around 14 to 16 ounces of the flavorful convenience store beverage—depending on how ambitious and carefully one self-served up the rather “airy” drink.
The Lakers, Knicks, Celtics and a couple other teams rank high with strong representation in the set. Even so, the issue’s star, meantime, was a bit of a “shooting star” who, aptly played shooting guard: The Atlanta Hawks’ ball-handing wizard “Pistol” Pete Maravich.
“He is clearly #1 in the set, there is nobody even close,” said sports memorabilia dealer Chandy Greenholt. “His Slurpee cup, in good shape, normally goes for $20-$25.”
Finer samples occasionally sell for double that range.
Although about half of the set’s players ended up in the Pro Basketball Hall of Fame, Greenholt said only a small handful besides Maravich have much of a following in the Slurpee cup category: Boston’s John Havlicek, the Milwaukee Bucks’ Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Lakers’ big man Wilt Chamberlain. All three commonly sell for around $15-$18 in Excellent condition.
“Some of the commons are much tougher (to find) than the stars,” said Mike Mosier of Columbia City Collectibles.
And Mosier knows his stuff since he, like Greenholt, has dealt with oddball sports items for decades. Among a few of the more difficult-to-locate 1972-73 7-Eleven basketball commons: Hal Greer, Jim McMillian and Elmore Smith, who leads off the issue’s store-issued one-sheet checklist, freebies back in the day.
Although both dealers said the common cups often trade hands for around $5 each in decent condition, in a recent eBay auction the Houston Rockets’ cup of Jack Marin sold for a whopping $79 (all values rounded to the nearest dollar). That might be partially due to the fact that the guard/forward played his college ball at Duke, and that school encompasses a large following, and, of course, sometimes when an item is in an auction it can have an eye-catching spike in price since two or more interested buyers embark on a bid battle.
Player and team collectors certainly pick up some of the 1972 cups on occasion, but Greenholt said in his experience, “most people interested in the Slurpee cups are interested in building a set.”
Either way, he noted, these early ’70s convenience store cups have a limited market and sometimes that means collectors buy a few handfuls of the cups at once and other times the exact opposite.
“There is a chance at the Chantilly (VA) show that no one will take a look at them the whole weekend,” the dealer said. That is saying something since Greenholt normally has dozens, if not hundreds, of vintage Slurpee cups within his massive show inventory.
In their day, most of the MLB and NFL cups were as relatively common at 7-Eleven as in-home TV antennas known as “rabbit ears.” The ’72 basketball cups, meanwhile, were seemingly almost as elusive for many collectors as the LA-based Lakers extended dredging for a championship ring.
Both Mosier and Greenholt said the baseball Slurpee cups from the period far outnumber the basketball drink containers, in the 10- to 20-to-1 ratio. Each put the football cups as a little less prevalent than the baseball, yet placed the 7-Eleven hockey cups, from a different season, but with the same basic design, as the rarest of all.
Check off the stars as you get ’em
While the basketball cups are challenging to find, surviving samples of the set’s paper checklist that 7-Eleven had available to in-store patrons almost made the famous eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes, especially during his final few years, look like a social butterfly.
For the first time ever, from this writer’s standpoint anyway, one of those tear-off hoop cup checklists recently popped up for sale. The sheet, which always included cautioning collectors to keep the cups out of the dishwasher (the cleaning liquid chemicals can turn the players images green, among other bad results), graded out around Good, with a number of creases, but with solid eye-appeal, sold for $50.
“Watch out for reproductions,” Mosier said of the vintage 7-Eleven cups checklists. “You can’t tell much from a photograph (like with an online listing).” Sometimes the colors can be a bit off,” he said, “but you can also tell, on occasion, that you are buying a repro version since the paper is heavier than the original issue. Another helpful tip, at times, is that some of the authentic checklists still have traces of the rubbery glue at the top that kept them together on the tablet of the freebies.
Another crack at the crown
In early May 1973 the NBA Finals matched up the Lakers and Knicks for the third time in four seasons, with New York ultimately denying Los Angeles a second straight title.
Depending on what, if any, side one landed on for the ’72-’73 NBA Finals, fans and players alike could have possibly used 7-Eleven’s current 1973 Slurpee baseball cups to fill with their favorite beverage in defeat or celebration. Later that year another Slurpee football cup set made the rounds, as well. Sadly, however, a Slurpee basketball set did not materialize that fall. In its own way, that makes the 1972-73 NBA season and the same period Slurpee hoop cup set extra special.
Either way, the 1972 and 1973 Slurpee sports cup issues are winners in their own right, regardless of sport.
“The only (vintage) cup sets anyone asks about are those from 7-Eleven and the early 70s,” Mosier said. “They are the most popular, most collected (sports) cups sets by far, because people remember trying to put them together.”
Doug Koztoski is a frequent contributor to Sports Collectors Digest. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org