Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Gretzky Sweater Card and the Hope of Cool

In 1988, black, silver, and white was a menacing color combination for a sports jersey.

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.

That August, the royally draped but historically jesterish1 Los Angeles Kings pirated the Raiders’ look. They also traded for a player good enough to be called “The Great One.”

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.

And in Monterey Park, a LA suburb best known for being the first American city with a majority Asian population2, a pudgy Taiwanese second-grader who repped Pro Wings finally got into something cool.

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.


lisa said...

The best picture ever.
Not the one with The Great One in it.

Sheng Peng said...

Thanks for the comment, Lisa. What are your memories of the trade?

lisa said...

well, I can't say I have any, I didn't follow hockey till 1992, and the funny part is, that was our best year ever, ever since then, every year is a disappointment.

Sheng Peng said...

Do you remember hearing about the trade at all? I'm wondering about its impact on the city at the time. That every year is a disappointment...such is the cross for Kings fans to bear.

Daniel Jen said...

I really liked your writing in this journal entry. Very entertaining and refreshing.

Mitch said...

I agree with Lisa, that picture screams WIN, it needs to go on facebook now!!