David Remnick: Charles Bethea is a staff writer who covers politics and other subjects in Georgia and well beyond. He recently wrote about the candidates running against Marjorie Taylor Greene for her congressional seat, but this story of Charles's brings us a lot closer to home. Here's Charles Bethea.
Charles Bethea: Let me take you back in time.
Charles: It's 1991. I'm 10 years old, and I live in Atlanta. My obsessions include Air Jordans, the music of Naughty By Nature, and more than anything else, basketball cards.
Sam Bathrick: There was a lot of buying of cards with whatever money we had.
Charles: This is Sam. We went to elementary school together. Was Doc's place there? [crosstalk]
Sam: Doc's was a place down Cheshire bridge, right. I remember because you passed all the adult entertainment shops, which we weren't going to, but there was a lot of conversation getting there with your parents, on your way to collect cards on your nine.
Charles: Sam Bathrick mostly collected cards with Alex Cullen. They were best friends.
Sam: Now kids have Instagram, and cell phones, and TikTok videos, and we had basketball cards.
Charles: I think Alex got me into basketball cards. If you know Alex, which you do, you know that he just has this obsessive personality type.
Sam: I brought basketball cards to school. I would trade basketball cards at lunchtime. It was like me being a competitive spirit, I think some of it was like me wanting to be the best, or have a lot of them and have good cards, as I called them.
Charles: We were definitely very competitive about everything, and he was bigger than me and better than me in most things. Why am I telling you all this? Well, a few months ago Sam reached out to me. He's in a weird spot. The situation involves basketball cards, and Alex, and another kid they used to know.
Sam: Zach was a really sweet kid. I just remember him being quiet, but fun.
Charles: Sam and Alex had an edge to their friendship, always getting into scrapes. Zach Hill was a little more laid back. One day, when they were about 10, Zach asked Sam over to his house.
Sam: There was a back room in his house, this little sunroom overlooking this gulch. He had a box. It was a shoebox, some kind of box, and he had been given cards from his grandfather. I remember him opening the box, and somewhere in there, I remember seeing the card. The card. Topps made this card in 1980 that was a triptych. Three players on one card, and the three players were Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Dr. Jay.
Charles: If that doesn't do anything for you, then I know you're not a big card collector. Let me explain. Cards with great players on them are valuable, and rookie cards, cards from the first season of a player's career are also valuable. The three players on the card Sam saw at Zach's house, they're not just great, they're legends, and two of them, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were rookies when the card was made.
Announcer 1: Flap like a bird. Holy cow.
Announcer 2: The most valuable player is Magic Johnson.
Charles: Imagine somebody shows you a box of antiques they picked up at a yard sale, and they open the box, and inside is the holy grail. That's how Sam felt when he saw the card. It's the kind of card that could be really valuable someday. That's foreshadowing, folks.
Sam: I think at some point, I must have told Alex about the card, and about Zach.
Alex Cullen: Definitely sounds possible that you would've told me about it. I have some kind of vague memory like you mentioning it, or telling me about it. Then the idea that I would've said, "Cool, let's figure out how to get that," and framed it as like you and I being a team. That sounds--
Sam: That sounds right.
Charles: They hatched this plan, Sam would suggest to Zach that they pool their card collections. Once they'd done that, and the cards were all mixed up, Sam would suggest they dissolve the partnership, and when the cards were dealt back out, Sam would make sure that he got the card.
Sam: My memory is like I knew what was happening.
Charles: What was happening?
Sam: [chuckles] We were taking Zach's card.
Charles: It was the perfect crime. Zach didn't even seem to realize the card was gone, and shortly afterward, moved to a different school. The heat was off. A clean heist, but then you've got two robbers, Sam and Alex, and just one card.'
Alex: It was just so seamless that it didn't even have to be considered as a plan, it was more like an inevitability. Sam got the card, and pretty quickly, I started saying, "You should trade the card to me."
Sam: Do you remember what you traded me?
Alex: I don't.
Sam: It's because it was worthless.
Alex: [chuckles] Yes. I was a businessman.
Sam: Why did I agree to that? Why did I agree to do that?
Alex: You're asking me?
Sam: Yes, because you must have known that I would agree to it.
Alex: I can't know the inner workings of your mind.
Sam: I think that people tend to block out their darkest memories, the times where they touched the darkest parts of themselves, so that makes sense why you wouldn't remember what you did to me.
Alex: Oh, I thought it was a dark moment for you. I think some of the times when I pegged you with a basketball when we were playing 101 were somewhat darker and more significant.
Charles: Alex's parents saw that the card might be worth something someday, so they put it in a safe deposit box where it stayed for the next 20 years. Sam and Alex stayed best friends. After high school, they went to different colleges, but they stayed in touch, and both ended up working in the film business.
Sam: Now, mid-30s, early 30s, we realized we're both doing the same kind of work as freelancers. At one point, we stopped competing, and actually just realized we're business partners.
Charles: Through all this, Alex is thinking about the card.
Alex: I was pushy around basketball cards as a kid, and it was not an easy part of our childhood, and definitely brought out some of my worst tendencies, probably. I think I looked at that card, in particular, as almost just a symbol of this isn't fully mine.
Sam: At some point for my birthday, Alex just hands me the card.
Charles: Sam displayed the card proudly in his office. A symbol or something of his friendship with Alex until last summer.
Sam: I was on the Twitter, and I saw that this Michael Jordan card had sold for like $2 million.
Charles: This was at the height of the pandemic, and the collectibles market was surging.
Sam: I ended up on the Twitter page of the auction house, and right, I would say, on that same page, a few down, I see the card. I kept following, and it got up to like 550, so in the end, it sold for 550.
Charles: $550,000 for the card Sam has perched over the desk in his office.
Sam: Then you start thinking about it, it's not really-- By these new rules, it's not really mine or Alex.
Alex: These new rules imposed upon you by your conscience?
Sam: Yes. Those are fun. Then I started thinking about that.
Alex: I definitely don't think giving the card back to Zach. No, that doesn't track.
Charles: Last year, I sat down with Alex and Sam while they tried to hammer out whether they should cut Zach in for a share of the profits.
Alex: Zach might've lost it, he might've lost the card. You have the card still [inaudible 00:09:09]
Sam: He really was not a great steward of the card.
Charles: That buys you guys some more percentage points. Now, their card is a little faded. It's not in perfect shape, so they're pretty sure it won't bring in $550,000, but still.
Sam: Even $100,000, and we're saying, if we're splitting it, I mean $33,000.
Alex: When I saw how much it was worth, I definitely thought of the new Bronco I could buy, [chuckles] but we'd actually be giving away $13,000 each if we're doing a 50% split, right?
Sam: No, 16,000.
Alex: 16,000, oh, that's bigger. Feel like this is just making us look like total assholes.
Charles: I mean, what would be a crazy story is you do the whole podcast and decide not to cut him in front of all the listeners.
Alex: If I'm getting a vote, yes.
Sam: Let's do it.
Alex: It doesn't have to be complicated. It's like, yes, money's great, and it would be nice to have more of it, but there's almost something more righteous about engaging with him before we know, and then it's like he's in it with us.
Charles: So we're going 33 split?
Alex: Well, we did steward it, so--
Charles: Whoa, whoa, whoa.
Alex: I'm joking. No, I think 33.
Charles: Have you guys considered he might be like, ''Man, this is really sweet of you guys to reach out and offer this, but actually, no worries. Keep it all." Then you get the money and the moral high ground.
Sam: Well, fingers crossed.
Alex: Yes that sounds really unlikely, Charles.
Sam: Zachariah Hill. With a C-H, I think.
Charles: Facebook and Google didn't have much on Zach. So, we turned to an older and much more powerful form of social networking.
Sam: Italian. I definitely remember this door.
Sam: How are you doing? My name is Sam Bathrick.
Anora: Hi, Sam.
Sam: Hi. [crosstalk]
Anora: How are you? I haven't seen you in a long time.
Sam: It's been a while.
Anora: Okay. Here's the thing, I'm burning some toast.
Sam: You're burning some toast? Okay.
Anora: You do you want to come in or?
Sam: Sure. Yes, I can come in. I don't know if you're in the middle of something, so I know I'm just knocking. I tried to ask my mom if-- should I take my shoes off?
Anora: Yes. If you don't mind.
Sam: Okay. I don't mind it.
Charles: Just like that, Sam is back in the house where, 30 years ago, he first saw the card.
Sam: I have this really distinct memory right in this room of him having this shoebox and saying that he got this from his grandfather. They were all just loose cards, and we opened it up right here, and this was one of them.
Anora: How old were you?
Sam: I think we were eight or nine.
Anora: Oh, wow.
Charles: Sam explained the whole situation to Zach's mom, Anora.
Anora: Well, but you were really young, and it's developing ethics. I mean, ethics are sure as hell not natural. [chuckles] I mean kindness is natural, but with children, you have to battle it all out to figure it out.
Sam: Well, I don't want to take up too much more of your time. I would love to get Zach's number, and I'll reach out to him.
Anora: Okay. What am I doing? I'm sending you--
Sam: What you do is you go to his contact--
Zach: I knew that Kevin Johnson was awesome, and you wanted my Kevin Johnson.
Charles: That's Zach.
Zach: I remember you had a number of cards, and you were trying to convince me that Benoit Benjamin really put this trade over the top, and being like, ''No, Benoit Benjamin is awesome. You just don't know, dude. He is awesome."
Charles: Fact check. Benoit Benjamin was not awesome.
Zach: For some reason, that sticks out in my mind, because it was like a moment of skepticism where I was like, ''I'm not sure about this kid.''
Charles: Zach's an architect now, and an amateur NBA blogger. He met Sam at a coffee shop. They live like five minutes away from each other. His memory of his card collection is as vivid as any of ours.
Zach: I remember the cards. They almost felt grainy. Like they had something in them to keep them dry or something like that, and there was this intense, like not exactly a new car smell, but chemical smell, when you open the pack.
Sam: I remember it being the best smell ever.
Zach: Yes. It was probably objectively not a good smell, but it was exciting.
Charles: Of all the cards from all those years ago, there's one that's very fresh in Zach's mind.
Zach: There was this one addition of like bubble gum cards where they had these three together that you could like rip apart or whatever. I found a Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, rookie, and I remember bringing it to you, and us like freaking out and being like, ''Oh my God, I can't believe we have this thing.''
Sam: Do you remember who the third guy was?
Zach: I do not remember who the third guy was. Do you?
Sam: It was Dr. Jay,
Zach: Was it really? No shit. God, it was a really, really good basketball card.
Sam: All right. I do have something to show you.
Zach: Oh, is this the card? Oh, yes, that's unbelievable. Oh, look at this.
Sam: How did I end up with this card?
Zach: I think probably what happened was that some or all of our kind of pooled collection was at your house, and I got sent to a new school, and I stopped thinking about it. I think that--
Sam: In my head, it's always been some version of a bad transaction for you.
Zach: I don't remember being like, ''Oh, this is bad in any kind of way.'' I was like, ''Okay, we have all this other stuff, and it's probably awesome.'' I didn't know.
Charles: Sam told Zach all about the card, and him, and Alex, and the safe deposit box, which brought him to what he'd seen on Twitter.
Sam: I don't know what it's worth. The mint version of this, which this is not--
Zach: Right. Yes. Because it's fading. It's no joke. [chuckles]
Sam: I don't even know if it's worth doing with this card, but the mint 10 rating version of this card just auctioned for $550,000.
Zach: Shit. Oh, God.
Charles: After a few minutes, Zach calmed down,
Zach: The weird thing about collectors is there's this tension between the historical or sentimental value of this thing, and then the monetary value of it. It's like, you can do one or the other, but there's always both present. It's like, what do you care about?
Charles: Now you're putting your finger on it.
Zach: The fact that I have the same object in my hand is a weird and fascinating piece of time travel that I think is, I don't know, it interests me. A lot of people would be like, ''Dude, go to Rome, it's fine. There's plenty of old things."
Charles: Then after all that strategizing that Alex and Sam did, Sam just hands over the card.
Sam: Well, you should take it with you. Just be with it for a little while. Enjoy it. I think I'm relying that there's no reason to try to sell it, but let's just like--
Zach: Let's not. Let's absolutely not.
Sam: Let's keep the story going. We got to figure out what the club--
Zach: We should figure out what the club does.
Sam: We should just get our collections out and see what we got.
Charles: What happened there? You just changed your mind about selling the card?
Sam: Yes. I think coming out of meeting with Anora, I was already starting to feel like this isn't about how much money we can get for this card. It's about what it means to everybody who's in this story. Then, seeing Zach's face light up when he saw it was just like, this is what this card is here is for, is for us to return to these stories, and return to each other, It stopped even really being on the table for me.
Alex: Obviously, the real ending here is I should have just kept it. That's the irony, is my evil nature should have just won out. We all might have been better off for it if I just kept it in a lockbox the whole time.
Charles: One afternoon, I asked Zach if I could borrow the card, I wanted to take Sam to go find out what it was worth.
Grader: See the blue on Magic Johnson didn't really fade, but the pink border did, so that is going to hurt the grading.
Speaker: Top end, Magic Johnson--
Grader: I think your top end would be probably in the 1000 to 1500 range.
Charles: You might think Sam would be disappointed, but being in the card shop after all this time seemed to have the opposite effect.
Sam: I just bought 10 packs of 1990 clear. Unopened packs of '90 clear cards. I'm looking forward to just starting all over, starting it all back up.
David: Sam Bathrick of Atlanta, talking with the New Yorker's Charles Bethea.
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