Monday, September 22, 2014

A lesson in French (cards) History

And then there was light…

Those here are the very first basketball cards issued for the French market. They were given out during the Mc Donald’s Open  in Paris, in 1991. Magic and the Lakers were in town  (along with a few other European clubs) for the annual event. It was held 9 times, between 87 and 99, and each time it’s the American team that won.  1991 was the year I started following basketball very closely. By that I mean that I was absolutely obsessed with the game. I won’t get into details, but let’s just say I was a teenager. And you know how teenagers can be…Only the Finals were on TV, so forget about any other kind of footage, and the only images would be photos from specialized magazines. Having spent a year in New York, I was naturally a Knicks fan. Still am. It can be challenging at times, but I’m used to it.

Anyway, enough about that, let’s talk about cards.

I wasn’t at that Lakers game. But a good friend of mine was. He even had an extra ticket. He told me the following day that he didn’t want to bother me, as he got them at the very last minute and was affraid that calling my place at 8pm to go to Paris (I live 70 miles away) would be a hassle. I think I forgot to blink for at least a couple of minutes after he told me this. And then I probably yelled. I was 14. I could’ve seen Magic play. I could’ve seen NBA players. I could’ve died after that.
Because he felt so guilty, he gave me the goodies they gave away. Including those Upper Deck cards. The design was familiar to me, as I’d already opened a full box of 91-92 Upper Deck, but as you can notice, there are no stats at the back and a blurb written in french.

A couple of years would pass before cardboard would hit the streets of France again. 1993 was the height of popularity for the NBA in France. Jordan was spectacular and not wearing cleats and the Dream Team had left heads spinning a year before that. That’s when Mc Donald’s issued a card set. Again with the 91-92 design and actually the same photos, except there are the 92-93 stats on the back and the logo is without the familiar year on it.

Even though we got it 2 years after the US, that Shawn Kemp picture still looked amazing (US version on the left)

But the major breakthrough came when Upper Deck released an entire set for 92-93 cards (except they were issued in 93 here).  You could buy them where magazines and tobacco are sold (yeah, that’s the French way). I don’t remember how much a pack cost, but I just know that quantities were limited and that the guy at the counter wouldn’t let me buy a whole box, as he had never heard of that and only believed a few packs could be bought at once. Clueless…The cards were the exact replica of the US set, except that they didn’t make any inserts. Instead, they added it to the base cards checklist. So naturally, the numbering is also different. They also have a more glossy finish to them than their US counterparts.

I went to the US that summer, and card dealers just went crazy over European UD. The same sets existed in other languages (spanish and Italian, I seem to recall, maybe German), but no pricing was available for any of those. The US market just knew that they were difficult to find because only available in Europe, and not everybody had a paypal friend to ask him to send some packs over. I had the good idea to bring a little stack with me, including that card :

If you collected basketball cards in 1992, then you remember that this card was only available through redemption, as Shaq was a little late to sign his contract (so was Jim Jackson, but strangely enough, it didn’t have the same impact). Everybody went after the Zo Mourning RC, but the true star was of course Shaq. Too bad I only had one of those, as I traded it for a $50 numbered set of Patrick Ewing Star cards. It was good to be French at that time.

Upper Deck would reiterate the experiment with their 93-94 set, and then it would be Collector’s Choice for the next couple of years. It’s easy to tell a French set from a US set, even though the cards are the same, as the copyright differs, along with the text, that’s bilingual.

Fleer jumped on the bandwagon with their 94-95 set, but wouldn’t make it that easy on collectors, as it’s much more difficult to tell which is which. Sometimes the colour of the splashing thing on the front differs. But what gives it away is the numbering at the back and the copyright. 94 for the US, 95 for France. But it’s still a pain when you’re trying to sort out your cards 16 years after and everything is mixed up…

And meanwhile, Panini were still doing their stickers thing and being their ugly selves

I don’t really remember what happened after that. I lost interest and I’m pretty sure Upper Deck did too. I seem to remember that Fleer followed their effort with the 95-96 set, but I’m not even sure (there are some Fleer European cards on Comc for that year, so there’s a hint). It was still fun to be able to actually go to a store and buy some packs of cards. Even though there was only one choice (or two with Fleer). The experiment was a success and a lot of people collected those. But it was too little too late, and card shops didn’t start popping  just like that . Ah well.

At least I could own fantastic cards such as that one. That even back then, by the 90’s standards was already….how could I put it…dubious. Yeah, let’s say dubious.


  1. I second everything you wrote about french cards except about that Fanimation, I used to like them a lot!

  2. I haven't seen that Shaq card in years. Great to see it again.