Charles Barkley sat inside his late mother’s Alabama home, his voice getting more incredulous as he counted the old basketball posters that serve as de facto wallpaper. “Eight—nine—10—11—12—13. There’s 13 posters of me in this room,” he boomed over the telephone last Friday, listing off the goods: the classic Nike “Air Force” ad with Moses Malone, one from his Suns days, another featuring the world’s most infamous golf swing. “To say I’ve got a few things would be an understatement.”
The Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer and TNT commentator also keeps a trove of priceless mementos at his home in Scottsdale, Arizona. An American flag signed by his fellow 1992 Dream Teamers, including Michael Jordan. Autographed jerseys and shoes from his teammates at the 1992 and 1996 Olympics. His 1993 NBA MVP trophy. An enlarged photograph of himself, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Russell taken at a recent NCAA Final Four. And perhaps his most prized item: an autographed Russell jersey that commemorates the Boston legend’s five MVPs and 11 NBA championships. “If there was a fire, I’d probably grab the Russell jersey first,” Barkley said. “Bill don’t sign sh—.”
Barkley, the collector, embodies all the qualities that drive the sports memorabilia market: nostalgia, personal connection, scarcity. And now he is set to become Barkley, the collectible, once again.
Panini America, the sports card and collectible company, announced Tuesday the signing of Barkley as an “exclusive athlete” in a deal that will place the 11-time All-Star onto trading cards for the first time in 15 years. As part of the agreement, Barkley has autographed basketballs, jerseys, prints, and special edition “Spotlight Signatures” cards that will appear in the 2017-18 Noir Basketball card set. He joins Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving on Panini’s roster of exclusive athletes.
“Barkley’s long absence from the trading card category has had fans clamoring and wondering if he would ever be featured on trading cards again,” Panini CEO Mark Warsop said in a statement. ”This is a great day for NBA fans and all collectors as we will now be able to celebrate Charles’ illustrious career on trading cards and memorabilia.”
More than 30 years after Barkley’s Fleer rookie card debuted, Panini is releasing autographed cards from every stage of his basketball journey. He appears gripping the ball at Auburn, directing traffic with the Sixers, raising both arms in victory as a member of the Suns, and pulling down a rebound in the Rockets’ blue pinstripe jerseys. A young Philly-era Barkley pushes the ball up the court on the front of the high-end 2017-18 Noir box, which releases Tuesday and carries a suggested retail price of $500.
“I’ve been approached probably 20 times in the past 20 years,” said Barkley, who retired in 2000 after playing 16 seasons. “I’ve always resisted, but everybody is doing it now so I might as well join in. I’m trying to give the fan a little treat. It ain’t like in the old days when you just got some crappy basketball card and that was it. When I was signing these cards, I was saying, ‘Damn, these ain’t my daddy’s trading cards.”
Barkley confronted both milestones and regrets during his autograph sessions. When he came across the Suns-era cards, he remembered his preseason promise to lead the franchise to the 1993 Finals against the Bulls. As he reminisced about that MVP campaign and his showdown with Jordan, though, he lamented his late-game decisions during a season-ending Game 6 loss.
“Two times in a row they called a play for me and Chicago doubled me with Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant,” Barkley sighed. “The Bulls made me pass two times in a row. We got good shots, but I didn’t shoot them. I regret not getting one of those last two shots. I regret that. Still disappointed we didn’t get that done.”
A 25-year-old defeat hung for a moment, then Barkley returned to the present with a self-effacing and sentimental quip that was fitting for the occasion of his new card deal.
“I’m 55. I’ve been retired longer than I played,” he said. “I don’t want to sound like no old dude, but all I’ve got is memories, brother.”