With the NBA postseason heading toward the NBA Finals with (who else?) the Golden State Warriors representing the Western Conference and awaiting the winner of the Toronto Raptors/Milwaukee Bucks Eastern Final, now is the perfect time to look back at some of the all-time greats who played Hall of Fame-caliber hoops and signed phenomenal autographs.
In 1996, on its 50th anniversary, the NBA decided to recognize the league’s best of the best with a beautifully designed, multi-signed lithograph that included a remarkable lineup of the “National Basketball Association’s 50 Greatest Players 1946-1996.” Forty-nine of those selected were alive at the time and able to sign copies of the lithograph. Only “Pistol Pete” Maravich was gone. Almost poetically, he died in 1988 while playing in a pickup basketball game in Pasadena, Calif. He was only 40 years old. Of the remaining 49 legends, I’ve selected five who not only parlayed storied basketball careers, but whose skillfully crafted signatures deserve a hobby salute. Here they are, in descending height order.
KAREEM ABDUL-JABBAR (7′ 2″)
The man formerly known as Lew Alcindor changed his name in 1971 to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The switch occurred because of his conversion to Islam and happened just weeks after he led the Milwaukee Bucks to their first and only NBA title. He was 24 years old and is now 72. As a result, he has signed his name as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar many more times, which makes finding Lew Alcindor signatures more of a challenge. Nevertheless, his beautifully penned “Abdul-Jabbar” signature – he very rarely combines his first and last name – is what qualifies him for this entry. Using large, sweeping letters, his autograph on any surface always makes for a great presentation piece. The fact that he’s still the NBA’s all-time leading scorer (38,387 points) only adds to his signature’s collectibility. According to the Sports Market Report price guide, Kareem’s autograph averages $75 on a 8×10 photo, $175 on a basketball and $400 on a jersey.
WILT CHAMBERLAIN (7′ 1″)
“The Big Dipper” did everything big. He scored 31,419 points (seventh overall on the NBA’s all-time list) and tallied 50 or more points in a game 118 times. In fact, he averaged 50.4 points per game for the entire 1961-62 season, which remains an NBA record. Wilt Chamberlain passed away in 1999 at the age of 63. Typically, his autograph was a bold and striking “Wilt Chamberlain” whereupon he stacked his first name on top of his last, possibly to avoid running out of room on the item he was signing. During the 1960s and ‘70s, perhaps because he felt rushed, his signature was not that pretty as most of the letters in his name appeared almost illegible. By the 1980s, however, and especially into the ‘90s, when Chamberlain was a regular signing guest at memorabilia shows, his signature became polished and most collectors walked away with a beautiful autograph in hand. Nowadays, a Wilt-signed item will cost, on average, $175 on a 8×10 photo, $325 on a basketball and $500 on a jersey.
JULIUS ERVING (6′ 7″)
His high-flying, acrobatic performances out on the court earned him a resounding nickname: “Dr. J.” He won championships in both the ABA (Nets, 1974 and ’76) and NBA (Sixers, 1983) and left indelible marks on both leagues. His name is Julius Erving and his signature is as cool as he was in clutch moments during tight games. Bold and dynamic – much like the player himself – Erving’s autograph is first and foremost legible and clean. A frequent signer and star attraction at the National Sports Collectors Convention, Erving’s scrawl flows like his highlight-reel trips to the basket with a prominent “J” and “E” to start his first and last name. He oftentimes inserts the inscription “Dr. J” in the middle, a move he’s employed since his playing days ended. His autograph averages $75 on an 8×10 photo, $250 on a basketball and $300 on a jersey.
WALT FRAZIER (6′ 4″)
During the early 1970’s, two stylish athletes ruled New York City: Joe “Willie” Namath of the Jets and Walt “Clyde” Frazier of the Knicks. And when Namath flew the coop and headed west to quarterback the Rams in ’77, Frazier jetted to Cleveland to play point guard for the Cavaliers. A two-time NBA Champion with the Knicks (1970 and ’73), Frazier, a point guard, was as cool as the other side of the pillow when it came time to directing plays in crucial situations. His signature is just as composed as he is: clear and in control on any surface. His entire name, every single letter, is well written and with two high-ranking designations to his credit – NBA’s Top 50 list and a Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame induction in 1987 – Frazier is not bashful about adding those inscriptions to his John Hancock, for a nominal fee, that is. Speaking of cost, Frazier’s autograph is slightly more affordable than many of his HOF counterparts: $20 (8×10 photo), $125 (basketball) and $175 (jersey).
BOB COUSY (6′ 1″)
Called the “Houdini of the Hardwood,” Bob Cousy was considered a magician on the court. His speedy, fast-paced style was often complimented by his no-look, behind-the-back passes to Boston Celtics teammates cutting to the basket. As cutting-edge as his play was during the 1950’s and early ’60s, Cousy’s signature is just as flashy. “Cooz” turns 91 in August, so his public signing sessions certainly aren’t as frequent as they used to be. But his imprint on the basketball world and hobby remains unforgettable. His signature is bold and boasts a sweeping leadoff “B” and “C” in his first and last name. He led the league in assists for eight straight seasons (1953 to ’60), was named to 13 straight All-Star games and helped Boston claim six NBA titles in seven years. Despite all the accolades, however, prices for the Hall of Famer’s signature seem downright reasonable: $40 (8×10 photo), $175 (basketball) and $225 (jersey).