California Mechanic Builds 1996-97 Topps Chrome Basketball Masterpiece

Over a decade ago, Brent Slavik began a journey that will lead him to completing one of the most difficult, important and valuable modern basketball sets on the planet.

The Southern California collector’s 1996-97 Topps Chrome Basketball Refractor set is considered the best in the hobby, an improbable opus of minty greatness that’s worth a small fortune.

 

Slavik isn’t a business tycoon or a doctor with a huge pile of disposable income, though. 

 

He’s a mechanic.

 

Through sheer determination and foresight, his 220-card set that has stood alone atop the PSA Set Registry since 2017.

Slavik’s inspiration to start this monumental undertaking comes as no surprise, as one of the most important and impactful rookie cards of the modern era finds its home in the rookie heavy set.

“The reason why is the Kobe Bryant Topps Chrome Refractor PSA 10,” Slavik told SC Daily. “That was the first card I got in the set as a 10. I traded a Beckett 9.5 Topps Chrome Kobe Refractor for the PSA 10 and I threw some other cards in there with a value around $500, all Kobe rookies. The guy had three PSA 10s. He was a season ticket holder for the Los Angeles Lakers. This was back in 2009. I have about $2,000 into the card. I looked at it, held it and my hands were shaking. It was like holding a 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle. This is the card I always wanted as a child (but) I didn’t have the money. I told the guy that it was going to be a $10,000 card someday. The guy said at the time that there were too many 10s. There were about 60 at the time.”

A few years later, there are still only 63 but Slavik has seen the value soar well beyond his prediction.  “Over time it has gone through the roof.”

The set is home to some of the best rookies of the generation with some of those Refractors bringing staggering dollar figures today. “The Kerry Kittles and the Stephon Marbury PSA 10 RCs were the toughest,” Slavik recalled.  “I started picking up the PSA 10 rookies. I picked up the Ray Allen. There are only two PSA 10s. It’s the hardest rookie card in the set to get. I bought it for $1,800. I saw the second one listed on PWCC for $250,000.”

As is the case with building any graded set, some of the key star and rookie cards will put the biggest dent in your wallet but some of the more common or obscure players can be some of the most elusive–and expensive. 1996-97 Topps Chrome Basketball is no different as it offers its own group of “commons” that are anything but. 

“I have the Allen Iverson PSA 10 Chrome Refractor,” Slavik said. “I have the Kerry Kittles PSA 10. I have the Marcus Camby PSA 10 one of one. I have the Stephon Marbury PSA 10. I have the Christian Laettner PSA 10 that is a pop one. The cards at the beginning and the end of the set are difficult. Christian Laettner is considered a common in the set but it is one of the hardest. When the cards were cut it is always off center. They also have a diamond tilt. The first six or seven cards in the set have that diamond tilt or they are always off center. The Patrick Ewing is difficult. The Chicago Bulls (72 wins) card is very difficult in a PSA 10. There are only two of those. I have one of them. People thought I was crazy when I paid $1,000 for it. I have had these cards for over ten years. They are in a safety deposit box.”

Timing, foresight and good fortune played a role in Slavik’s set build as he got in the game early and was able to snag some packs and boxes at what are now considered bargain basement prices.  “1996 was the key year.” he said. “It was the first year the product came out. I bought my first box and it was $90 per box. I got two Refractors.” 

The popularity of the product saw boxes quickly climb closer to $1,000.  In that moment, he realized how difficult it could eventually be to piece together a complete Refractor run. He had to come up with a plan. “I realized that if you only get two Refractors per box there are only about 750 made of each. I knew eventually the rich guys would want to build a set. I started the set out by buying 9s. I sent some back to PSA and they got bumped up to 10s. I would buy the nicest four or five 9s of Joe Kleine and send them all in and I would get one 10 back. I cracked and sent in an 8 Dennis Rodman and it came back a 10. At the time, ten years ago, it was a two to three week turnaround if you paid $20 a card you could have it back right away. I was picking up ungraded cards and piecing the set together.

“There are so many cards in the set that are pop 1 Gem Mint 10s because of the surface scratching, the refractor lines and centering that there won’t be many 10s of these particular cards. The prices will continue to go up. I think, long term, this will be a multi-million dollar set that I have. It’s probably around a million dollar set right now. They aren’t even giving out tens on this set anymore.”

Anyone that’s ever pieced a card set together one by one knows how special it is to get that final card and it was no different for Slavik. He picked up a certain Chicago Bull and European star to seal the deal while one of the league’s greatest big men was a toughie, too.

 

“The Toni Kukoc was the hardest card to get in a 9 for me. That was the final card. One of the hardest cards is the Shaq. It’s the last card in the set. To get a 9 you will pay three or four grand.” 

 

 

Bryant’s death on January 26, 2020 in a helicopter crash sent collectors and fans in search of tangible memories of his career. The Bryant rookie Refractor soared to unprecedented heights.  Slavik’s deal to acquire one of the few dozen PSA 10s earlier proved fortuitous. “When Kobe passed away it was shocking.” Slavic shared. “The set that I had probably went up tenfold after that fact. It put that set in the spotlight. When I saw the first Kobe Bryant sell for $450,000 I couldn’t believe it. I told my wife that I thought it would be a $10,000-$20,000 card.”  While prices for PSA 10 Bryant rookies have dropped over the last 12 months, it’s still a six-figure card.

 

There are a number of hobby titans, financial folks and other high end collectors that all stand well behind Slavik in the Topps Chrome set build but that’s not to say they don’t want to gain ground.

 

“(Collectors CEO) Nat Turner is number two on the registry behind me.” he shares. “I’ve talked to Nat about my set and he wanted to buy some of the cards individually but I said no. I want to sell it as a set. I feel that I can control the market as a set. I work for the Department of Defense. I make about $60,000 a year as a (civilian) mechanic. I have been building the set since 2009. I have 171 PSA 10s out of a possible 220 card set. Nat is number two on the registry but there is a big drop off from number one to number two. I have eight pop 1s in the set. These cards are very expensive. It is a beautiful set. It is probably the most misunderstood set. It blows away the 1986-87 Fleer Basketball set as far as difficulty in building a PSA 10 set. People want to say the 1986-87 Fleer set is the greatest ever. It’s the greatest set ever but isn’t one of the most difficult sets. The one I am building now might be the most difficult ever. I wanted to get the word out that you don’t have to make a ton of money to build a masterpiece. It’s pure determination as a collector.” 

 

With a set going for huge money and Slavik’s investment is, relatively speaking, fairly small, one can’t help but wonder if there will come a day when he decides to sell.

 

“At the end of the day, I want to hold the set as long as I can. I am 44 right now. If somebody comes out with a very good offer for my set and my family likes the offer I would consider it. That would have to be well north of a million dollars. Someday, I would like to do a show featuring my whole set. Everybody could just walk into the show and see the whole set in one place.”

The thrill is often in the chase and Slavik says he just wants to show fellow collectors that anything is possible with knowledge and the right amount of effort.

“I’ve been collecting since 1997. Through sheer determination and skill you can make $50-60K a year and you can build a masterpiece like this. Just holding those rare cards, the longer you hold them, they are only going to go up in value. I am the only one who has close to a ten overall rating on this set. What I wanted to emphasize to collectors is that there are some big money guys, they are like the Elon Musk of the collecting world, and they are wondering who is this Brent Slavik guy?

“I’m right here at the top.”

About Tony Reid

From the time he was a little kid, Tony has been a huge sports fan. If he could play sports, watch sports and talk about sports it was a great day. From as early as he was drawn to sports, Tony was drawn to collecting sports cards. Not much has changed over the years. He collects RCs of star players in baseball, basketball and football. He also has a soft spot for first autographs of MMA stars. If you want to talk to Tony about the greatness of Michael Jordan, Bo Jackson or Ken Griffey, Jr. you can reach him at [email protected] and @OffCenterTR on social media.

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