In a world of jerseys still bursting with Technicolor, only football’s renegades, the Los Angeles Raiders, shrouded themselves in such darkness. The only thing missing from this fashion statement of intimidation was a pair of brass knuckles.
Even in a city teeming with stars, people noticed. Hollywood celebs who didn’t know hockey from hookers helped the Kings become the first professional Los Angeles sports franchise to sell out every home game in a season. N.W.A., the Compton-based gangsta rap group that had literally just invented the term “gangsta rap,” started repping Kings snapbacks.
Two months later, the Great Gretzky debuted before an expectant, sell-out crowd at the Great Western Forum. That same arena had been a little more than half full on opening night last season. This was the first time in the team’s 22-year old history that the Kings had sold out their home opener.
As if on cue, Gretzky conjured a goal on his very first shot as a King. The Kings went on to win that game 8-2.
In conjunction with the season’s opening month, Topps released their annual hockey card set. Because printing and packing the cards had to be done earlier in the summer to meet this release date, summer transactions had always been represented with a barely decipherable line of text or prehistoric Photoshop3.
This was the way that Topps had made sports cards for 36 years. But this was the Trade of the Century. So Topps used a press conference picture of Gretzky holding up LA’s new sweater.
Captured in that picture was a seven-year-old’s introduction to cool. And his introduction to a spiral of losing that still has not stopped.
Losing as defined by losing the Stanley Cup Finals in 1993, which preceded losing my heart (happy) for the first time in 1994, then losing my heart (sad) for the first time in 1995, followed by losing the Great One for three not-even-average ones in 1996; essentially, the lifetime of losing that all Kings fans have endured.
But encased in that plastic slab is the moment of hope for a moribund sports franchise and a fat boy. The hope of cool, of legitimizing a loser, of kissing the Stanley Cup or Kathy Yang or just possibly, both.
My copy of the Gretzky Sweater card has been graded as being in Gem Mint, basically perfect condition, by PSA Grading Company4. I bought it for $271 on e-Bay three years ago; ungraded or “raw” copies of this card routinely sell for $5-10.
To preserve hope so perfectly is of no cost5.
1 From 1967-88, the Kings were 26-53 in the playoffs with zero championships. In a four-round playoff system, the Kings had never even advanced to the third round, making it into the second round only four times.↩
2 Also know as “Little Taipei,” “Chinese Beverly Hills,” or “Mandarin Park.”↩
3 They call it airbrushing.↩
4 Gem Mint condition in sports cards basically means that the card being evaluated has sharp corners, clean surfaces, and centered borders. PSA and BGS are the hobby’s pre-eminent authorities on grading the condition of cards. As of today, PSA has graded 25 Gretzky Sweater Gem Mints as opposed to 229 Mints (which is one level worse condition); BGS has graded 2 Gretzky Sweater Gem Mints as opposed to 37 Mints. There are much worse conditions; BGS estimates that less than one percent of their overall Gretzky Sweater grades have qualified for Gem Mint.
5 It’s also like encasing my first heroin needle.↩