I was 11 years old when I flipped through my stack of basketball cards and decided that my favorite player would be Mitch Richmond. Fifteen years later, what started out as a couple trading cards has morphed into a wide range of Sacramento Kings memorabilia, including everything from in-game giveaways to in-person autographs. It wasn't always easy, and at times put a serious dent in my wallet, but my collection has not only helped preserve some childhood memories, but perhaps a small part of team history.
I still remember trading my friend all of my Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley cards in fifth grade for the "rare" Mitch Richmond die-cut (center) that was all but impossible to find in days prior to the internet. Around the same time, the local comic book shops began calling me "Richmond" and ecstatically holding aside Kings items they'd otherwise never sell in a tiny New Jersey suburb.
When I was in sixth grade, my mother excitedly called me from a nearby garage sale where a woman was selling her father's old sports collection. Among stacks of signed magazines, photos, and basketballs was a Sacramento Kings license plate, autographed by none other than Richmond and two other players whose names I still haven't deciphered. Although the seller couldn't verity its authenticity, she claimed that it was obtained at a Sacramento charity function (and besides, who'd fake a few Kings' autographs?). Best $35 — bargained down from $50 — I've ever spent.
"Got anything with the Kings?"
"Doubt it, but you're welcome to look."
I can't tell you how many times I heard those words as a kid. As frustrating as it oftentimes was, there came a certain thrill with digging through hundreds of Knicks and Lakers items, hoping to find a new piece to add to my collection. During a family vacation in Eastport, Maine, of all places, I somehow came across a poster of Michael "The Animal" Smith (seriously) and a miniature Kings key chain in a remote comic book shop.
How unknown was Mitch Richmond in the early '90's? When Kenner finally put out his Starting Lineup figure in 1993, he was depicted in a number 21 jersey that he'd never worn in his career (they'd eventually get it right three years later). One of my "sources" badly overcharged me for acquiring the first SLU at a trade show, but I made it up for it by finding the second figure in a Toys 'R Us clearance bin.
In 1995, Richmond (and by association, the Kings) briefly gained the NBA spotlight by unexpectedly winning the All-Star Game MVP Award. When NBA.com later auctioned off an autographed mini-basketball, I had to combine my birthday and Hanukkah money to outbid dozens of other fans. Let's just say it cost a little more than that license plate.
The prominence of the Chris Webber-led Sacramento teams in the late '90s and early 2000s not only made it easier to find items in local shops, but in other countries, as well. A family friend brought back a set of Kings matryoshkas from his visit to Russia in 2003. All five players actually fit inside the Oliver Miller doll.
A new world opened up for me when I discovered eBay, which gave me access to hundreds of items I would've never come across (for better or worse). Some of the first collectibles I won included: home and away Jason Williams 1999 team teddy bears, a Scot Pollard plush toy that was an Arco Arena giveaway, and a Bobby Jackson doll that was only available in Sacramento-area Subway restaurants. One purchase, however, remains regrettable.
Sure, the Chris Webber, Mike Bibby, and Jason Williams jerseys I bought at Foot Locker are hanging in the back of my closet, but once again, it's the Richmond ones that hold the most significance. For years, the only Kings article of clothing I owned was the black road jersey that I had to get custom ordered from a sporting goods store in the mall. I found the newer and vintage white versions at flea markets, the latter of which helped me finish the New York City Marathon, and just last year, I finally won an authentic half-black, half-purple alternate jersey the Kings wore during the 1996-97 season — either the coolest or ugliest jersey ever, depending on your perspective -- in an online auction.
Last but not least, there are the keepsakes from my in-person encounters with Kings players. On the left is a basketball card that I had signed by Chris Webber at the NBA store during the bittersweet 2001-2002 season.
It's a little hard to make out, but Ron Artest inscribed my name on the rap album he graciously handed me when I ran into him in midtown Manhattan.
And on the right is the infamous Post-it note that Kevin Martin autographed for me in a Dallas strip club, which still makes me smile every time i see it. Funny how of all the expensive and hard-to-find mementos that I've collected over the years, my favorite one didn't cost a dime.