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Only known unused ticket from Michael Jordan's NBA debut sells for record price

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Mike Cole insists that, until a few months ago, he gladly would have accepted $500 in exchange for his unused ticket to Michael Jordan’s 1984 NBA debut.

Thankfully for him, nobody ever made him that lowball offer.

A ticket that Cole stashed for years in his basement alongside some other keepsakes turned out to have more than sentimental value. It was one of two tickets that nearly doubled the record for the most expensive vintage sports ticket when their auctions closed early Sunday morning.

Cole’s ticket sold for $468,000, including a 20 percent buyer’s premium. A ticket stub from Jackie Robinson’s 1947 Major League debut fetched $480,000. The highest-graded ticket stub from Jordan’s NBA debut set the record in December when it sold for $264,000.

The flurry of lucrative sales reflects how the market for vintage sports tickets has surged during the past few years. Especially coveted are tickets from an iconic athlete’s first pro game. They’re the ticket market’s equivalent to rookie cards.

To sports memorabilia collectors, the value of Cole’s ticket stemmed from the fact that it may be one-of-a-kind. While a few ticket stubs from Jordan’s NBA debut have sold at auction, no one else has uncovered an unused ticket from that game.

The story of how a college admissions director obtained such a coveted piece of sports history begins a few weeks into Cole’s freshman year at Northwestern. A family friend who worked for the Washington Bullets surprised the Bethesda, Maryland, native with a pair of tickets to his hometown team’s season opener at the Chicago Bulls.

While Cole offered the second ticket to a few hallmates, none agreed to journey with him from Evanston to Chicago’s West Side. The Bulls weren’t much of a draw back then on the heels of three straight losing seasons. Nor was there much buzz preceding the debut of a rookie guard from North Carolina drafted after Hakeem Olajuwon and Sam Bowie.

And so, on Oct. 26, 1984, Cole traveled by himself by train to Chicago Stadium and picked up two tickets at the will-call window. One he used to get into the game and later discarded. The other sat in his shirt pocket that evening before finding a permanent home in a manila folder where he kept old tickets from memorable games he attended.

Mike Cole holds the unused ticket to Michael Jordan's debut game in the NBA. (Photo courtesy Mike Cole)
Mike Cole holds the unused ticket to Michael Jordan's debut game in the NBA. (Photo courtesy Mike Cole)

There it stayed for almost 34 years as Cole moved from apartment to apartment, got married and bought his first home. Eventually, the tickets folder landed in a box, alongside his high school and college yearbooks, some old photos, an autographed Cindy Crawford calendar and a purple pom pom from Northwestern’s only trip to the Rose Bowl.

Cole had no inkling his ticket was valuable until late one mid-December night when he read a story about the stub from Jordan’s first NBA game that sold for a record-setting price. Hands trembling, he realized he had a full, unused ticket from the same game.

Cole entered the basement of his Connecticut home, opened a clear plastic container labeled “Mike’s memories” and grabbed a manila folder from inside. There, among a heap of worthless Northwestern football, Cubs and Red Sox stubs, sat a decades-old Bulls one with the potential to be Cole’s golden ticket.

“I’m a huge sports fan, and I enjoy keeping tickets as memories of good times I’ve had,” Cole told Yahoo Sports earlier this month. “Before that night, if you’d have given me $500 for that ticket, I’d probably taken it. I wasn’t waiting for the right time to sell or to figure out if I had the only one. I just didn’t know this market for tickets existed.”

Over the next week, Cole emailed a few auction houses with his story and a photo of the ticket. More often than not, the Quinnipiac admissions director’s phone would ring within minutes.

Heritage Auctions put the ticket up for sale four weeks ago and accepted bids through early Sunday morning. Cole texted on Saturday night that it was “very exciting” refreshing the auction page and seeing the bids increase in $10,000 increments.

While the windfall didn’t approach $1 million the way some industry insiders predicted, it’s still money that only a few months ago Cole didn’t expect to have. He said that he and his wife plan to use it to pay off their mortgage, to help pay for their two kids’ college tuition and to travel overseas.