How I ruined my 1986 Michael Jordan rookie card: A cautionary tale

Storing vintage cards in screw-down holders can screw collectors out of their value

Cover Image for How I ruined my 1986 Michael Jordan rookie card: A cautionary tale
The author's Jordan rookie card was flattened from years inside an "ice block.' (Credit: Kevin Jackson)

Like thousands of collectors do every day, I eagerly opened the e-mail from PSA with heightened anticipation of learning the grade of the card I sent off last month.

This wasn’t just any card. It was one of the jewels of my collection: the Michael Jordan 1986 Fleer rookie card.

Or at least I thought it was.

A novice collector, I have bought a lot of graded cards on eBay over the last few years, but I had not yet taken the step of sending off any of my vintage cards for grading. Many of these were cards I’d held since I was a kid in the 1980s. They’ve been traded, moved cross-country, placed in and out of binders, and held in various types of holders through the years.

When I decided to take the PSA plunge, I picked out a dozen cards for my first submission and read all the fine print on the numerous steps for submission, including the cllct guide to getting your cards graded.

A local card shop in the Seattle area was doing a PSA drop-off day, so I readied all my cards, bundled them up and put them in used Amazon box, and off I went.

The Jordan card was clearly the most valuable, even though I knew it wasn’t in great shape. The color had faded, the corners weren’t sharp, and there was a slight indentation at the top from where its top-loader had been affixed to a Starline Jordan poster in my high-school bedroom (it was a different time, kids; we were convinced basketball cards were worthless).

The Michael Jordan 1986 Fleer rookie card is far from perfect. (Credit: Kevin Jackson)
The Michael Jordan 1986 Fleer rookie card is far from perfect. (Credit: Kevin Jackson)

Still, I compared it to PSA 1s and 2s on eBay, and figured it was at least in comparable shape, which would make it worth at least four digits.

Still, this wasn’t about try to get a quick infusion of cash, it was more out of curiosity. The card had sat on a shelf for decades, even through the COVID boom, and I had always wondered how it would grade.

Because of its expected value, the MJ was the one card I picked for express service with the 10 business day turnaround.

I spent the next two weeks eagerly awaiting that grade, a bit like a college student who just turned in that course-defining thesis. I expected a PSA 1, but hoped for a 2 and dreamed that just maybe it would somehow come back a 3.

At minimum, I knew it was “authentic.”

Or so I thought.

When I opened that PSA email Wednesday, I learned there was a much worse option. An option that collectors everywhere dread.

There in big bold letters under the words graded read “N5: Altered stock.”

Altered? How could this card be altered. It has been in my possession for its entire 28-year life span, and I’d never cut, polished, or knowingly done anything to enhance the card’s value.

I frantically started Googling “N5: Altered stock” to find out how this scarlet letter ended up on beloved MJ rookie.

I stumbled into a message board, where my fellow N5s have been lamenting their fate for years. One comment in the middle of the page jumped out at me because it mentioned the words “ice block.”

Ice block? Yes, I had held my MJ rookie in a large screw-down holder on a shelf in my office for at least the last 20 years, and, yes, it looked a lot like … gulp … an ice block.

Several of the best cards in my collection were in screw-downs on that shelf, but the MJ … well, that was the jewel, so it got the biggest and best and most tightly fastened holder of them all. The most valuable card got the most serious protection.

If only I’d treated it like a common Dave Corzine and keep it in a shoebox in the closet or those outdated binders that I still have not cleaned out. It’d still be worth a grand at least.

I wrote to PSA to ask if the screw-down really did render my Jordan worthless.

I got a nicely worded email back, but they clearly weren’t going to consider my appeal of their judgment.

“I know how important it is to know the ‘why’ behind a result, and I am sorry to say that we do not provide detailed reports regarding our results,” the PSA representative said in the email. “Now ‘Screw Down’ holders can alter the the card/card stock.”

I found the tiniest bit of solace in a message board post that said SGC and Beckett are more lenient on cards flattened by “screw-down” holders, and it might make sense to give it a year and resubmit the card there.

Deeper down the rabbit hole I went. Perhaps storing the card for a few months in a cigar humidor would negate some of the impact of the screw-down, one poster suggested. (Wait, isn’t that altering the card, too?)

Sheepishly, I shared my fate with some of my expert and seasoned colleagues at cllct. Their message was simple: Screw-downs are very bad, and you need to get all of your cards out of them immediately.

Knowledgeable collectors out there surely know this, but I keep thinking there also has to be a large group of collectors, like me, who got into the hobby in the 1980s and 1990s, stored their cards in outdated protective methods and left them alone for years.

So, consider this a PSA for the casual collectors who think that shelf in the den is displaying valuable cards in those overly protective screw-downs.

Don’t be like me, get them out now.

And I’ll let you know where to get a good price on a humidor.

Kevin Jackson is the Chief Content Officer for cllct. He spent 25 years at ESPN Digital Media, where he was the founding editor of Page 2, and nearly four years as the Executive Director for Digital Content at FOX Sports.