Most men would kill to meet Michael Jordan. Arguable the greatest basketball player of all time, Jordan has pervaded American pop culture: We wear his sneakers; don his underwear; and generally speaking, just want to be like him. All that hoopla—the championship rings, slam dunk contest victories, MVP awards, endorsement deals—has added up to tremendous net worth: A recent addition to Forbes’ billionaire list, all Jordan really needs to do is sign his name on a scrap of paper—anything—and it turns to gold.
But for autograph hunter Scott Smith, Jordan and his 24-carat John Hancock are sort of a touchy subject these days. Rewind things back to 1982—the first two or three times they hooked up—and everything was cool. “Then he became the Michael Jordan we all know: a real big-shot, bigger than [the president] or Pope,” says Smith. “He’s almost untouchable [now]; he’s very, very stingy with signing autographs.”
Well, at least in Smith’s case, he is. That’s because for the past 33 years, the 50-year-old retired investment banker, who is married with two children, has been piecing together the world’s largest collection of signed Sports Illustrated magazine covers. Smith owns approximately 94 percent of all of the issues signed by the cover star or stars, with a staggering 99 percent of them obtained in person, according to his website.
Smith singles out a few athletes as favorite signers throughout the years. Boxer Mike Tyson invited him back to his hotel room for a cigar and signed 50 items. No “In the Air Tonight” or tigers present, as far as we know.
And although Smith has 35 covers signed by His Airness, he still needs 16 to complete the run of 51 Jordan covers. “I even offered him $10,000 in cash on a golf course in the Bahamas …. and he said, ‘No thank you. You’ve got enough,’” Smith laments.
If it were any other collector, you probably wouldn’t be able to empathize. But you have to kind of feel bad for Smith: SI has been a weekly magazine since 1954, which means there are well over 3,000 issues and counting. His collection is like a never-ending deadline, a post-retirement full-time job. “I’m hoping one day Sports Illustrated… goes out of print and puts an end to my misery,” says Smith. He’s only half joking.
Smith got his first SI subscription in ’73 and got started on the collection nine years later, but actually not with that ’82 Air Jordan cover. A lifelong hockey fan, Smith found out where the away-team Edmonton Oilers were staying when they rolled into Jersey to play the Devils and had his mom drop him off in the hotel lobby. His mission: getting star center Wayne Gretzky’s autograph. After following some of Gretzky’s teammates into the hotel bar and playing Ms. Pac-Man, the Great One finally emerged.
The Great One and The Dream Team: Five-million- and one-billion-dollar smiles.
“I pulled out a couple of Sports Illustrateds, and he gladly signed them,” remembers Smith. “He’s always been one of the classiest superstars ever. Back then, it was no big deal to him,” (Unfortunately, he made the “rookie mistake” of getting that first cover signed in ballpoint pen instead of better-lasting Sharpie. “Last time I ever made that mistake,” says Smith.)
Since that first Gretzky meeting, Smith has diligently tracked down SI’s cover stars using a latticework of contacts, paparazzi-like investigative skills, and many times, paying cash to get the job done (either to proxies like kids or pretty girls; or to the players themselves).
Ironically, in the early years, one of his best sources was Michael Jordan’s celebrity golf invitational in the Bahamas. Smith says back then, maybe five or six collectors had the disposable income and know-how to get a passport and swallow the airfare and hotel fees in order to get in front of stars like basketballer Dr. J, tennis badboy John McEnroe, and baseball ace Roger Clemens. Jordan has since moved the invitational to Las Vegas, and Smith says security is so ridiculous, he doesn’t even bother going anymore. “It’s just a waste of time,” he says.
Left: One of the lone covers Smith didn’t get in person, deceased Pittsburgh Pirates legend and Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente. Right: Smith holding up what he calls the “Sistine Chapel” of covers, a 2004 SI signed by 65 different athletes.
If Jordan represents one of the most difficult cover stars to score for his collection, some of the easiest would have to be the cover models on SI’s annual softcore slow-jam, the Swimsuit Issue. SI has held a launch party for the brand in New York City the past seven or eight years, and Smith says it’s a breeze getting the models to autograph covers for him outside the venue.
“Most of the girls have apartments in New York City, they all go to Fashion Week, they all go to Knicks and Rangers games, they all go some type of charity event throughout the year, so you just need to keep an eye on their Twitter accounts and find out where they’re going to be,” says Smith.
One cover girl in particular, though, has left a bad taste in his mouth over the years: Kate Upton. “She’s an absolute nightmare; just an ugly human being,” says Smith. “I saw her alone, and she said, ‘Fuck me,’ as if it was the worst thing in the world to be asked for her autograph. Those were the words she used, as if I was stabbing her in the heart,” he continues. Editor’s note: We’ve interviewed Upton not once but twice and she was perfectly polite both times.
Smith’s personal proofs of purchase: (top to bottom, right column) The collector with boxing legend Muhammad Ali, Russian swimsuit model Irina Shayk and speedster Usain Bolt, who have all graced covers. And the covers themselves? A 1971 dual-signed Ali and Joe Frazier and all the cover girls from 2006’s Swimsuit Issue.
If you were wondering, Smith wouldn’t accept any less than $1.5 million to $2 million for his collection, and despite those smallish holes in it, he tells us it’s been a total blast to put together. It’s sort of like being Indiana Jones, going on an adventure or a treasure hunt. His collection recently took him to Alabama and Mississippi for the first time to search for one former college football star who will be entering this year’s NFL draft, as well as several college athletes from Ole Miss and Mississippi State, who were featured on a cover treatment together (he got ahold of them all).
He also singles out a few athletes favorite signers throughout the years. Boxer Mike Tyson invited him back to his hotel room for a cigar and signed 50 items. No “In the Air Tonight” or tigers present, as far as we know. Smith also crashed a suit-and-tie affair at the Waldorf Astoria, and just before security escorted him out, his target, comedian Bob Hope, grabbed him by the arm and signed one of Smith’s favorite covers, featuring Hope in a Cleveland Indians uniform.
But one cover star stands out above all the rest. “Muhammad Ali is probably the greatest person I’ve had the chance of meeting,” says Smith, who’s met the legendary boxer 30 times. “He told me it made him happy and one step closer to G-d every day he signed for people and watched them smile. He’s just a man who just gets it.”
Yes, at the very least, he understands Smith’s pain.