Remembering the Shaquille O'Neal Rookie Card Phenomenon

Shaquille O'Neal announced his retirement today after 19 years in the NBA, making me feel really old in the process. Shaq was really the first athlete I can remember following from his college career all the way through the pros, and to see him calling it quits is... well, honestly, it's kind of overdue, but it's still a day I never really thought would come.

There are going to be countless odes to Shaq's basketball career, his larger than life personality, even his music and movies, written today, but I want to take it in a different direction. Shaq turned pro in 1992, when I was in 7th grade, which happened to coincide with the height of my sports card collecting fever. So I, like pretty much every basketball fan like me, was all about snapping up every Shaq rookie card I could get my hands on.

One problem: right after he turned pro, Shaq announced an exclusive trading card contract with Classic, which meant that until 1993, no other company would be allowed to produce a Shaquille O'Neal card.

Now, I got the Shaq Classic card from both the basketball set and the four-sport set (and I think I even have both full sets somewhere in my basement), but the card that quickly became the one that everyone wanted to track down was this one from Upper Deck:

As a way of getting around the Shaq restriction, Upper Deck created this redemption card, which stated on the back that it could be traded in for the card of the #1 NBA Draft Pick after January 1st, 1993. Obviously the card came out AFTER the draft, so everyone knew it was a Shaq trade-in, and it was Upper Deck's creative way of getting Shaq into their set. The card you got in return was the triple-exposure one pictured above. Of course, back then, most card collectors wouldn't consider a set of '92-93 Upper Deck to be "complete" unless you had the Shaq card, the trade-in card AND the redeemed trade-in card with the hole punched in it. And yes, at one point I had all three.

Three more quirky Shaq rookie card stories I remember from 1992-93:

- For a brief while, there was a controversy over whether the 1992-93 Terry Catledge Upper Deck card was actually Shaq. People tricked themselves into believing that because of the exclusivity deal, Upper Deck might have slipped it in as an intentional "error". Adding to the speculation was the fact that by 1992-93, Catledge had hair, and the picture on the card was of a bald player. A bald player who didn't really look like Shaq either, but whatever. I think there was an issue of Beckett that finally put the rumor to rest in the letters section, explaining that the picture of Catledge had probably come from the '90-91 season.

- Fleer Ultra made it to market with rookie cards featuring action shots of the players before a lot of the other sets, but also before the Shaq restriction was lifted. However, Shaq was included in the set, via Clarence Weatherspoon's rookie card. The card's value shot up beyond what it otherwise would have been, at least until the real Shaq rookie cards started to come out.

- My last Shaq rookie card story comes from the NBA Hoops set, which released Shaq's rookie card as part of their second series to come out in the '92-93 season (which also included their first rookie cards with action shots for a lot of other players from the 1992 draft). NBA Hoops packs had a weird quirk where they were sequential. That means that when you opened a pack, the same players would follow each other every time, and that order would almost always carry over between packs in the same stack. Well, Shaq's rookie card ALWAYS came right after Marty Conlon's in 1993, and I remember always being infuriated when I opened a pack and Marty Conlon was the last card (somehow I was smart enough to have figured out the pattern of "Conlon then Shaq", but I could never remember who would be FIRST in those packs, which probably would have lessened the blow).

Lastly, this has nothing to do with cards, but I'd be remiss if I did a whole Shaq reminiscing post without dropping in this video, which will always be his all-time greatest highlight to me.


  1. Wow... This is great... I was around the same age and share many of the same memories

  2. Fantastic walk down memory lane - I recently stopped by the attic of my childhood home and picked up my old collection, to find both Shaq rookie and the trade card I had to send in to redeem it. My Shaq rookie is different though, in that the gold foil lettering on the top reads "TRADE CARD" rather than "#1 DRAFT PICK".

    I also found the Weatherspoon Fleer Ultra rookie card, which seems pretty clear to be meant for Shaq all along, since why would they honor the poor bastard with a rookie card featuring him getting stuffed like a Thanksgiving turkey by Shaq?

    Anyhow great post, thanks for that.


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