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On a quiet block in the Brooklyn neighborhood Prospect Heights, just a few minutes away from the Barclays Center, sits what would look to be any other tiny warehouse (if it wasn't for the artfully decorated rolling garage door). Inside, though, is the H23 Gallery, a pop-up museum dedicated to rare and unique Michael Jordan memorabilia. Instead of game-worn uniforms and signed balls, there are over 200 pairs of Nikes, thousands of trading cards, jerseys, magazines, photos, books, paintings, a replica '91 championship ring that belonged to a friend of Scottie Pippen's, Space Jam on VHS—anything that owner and curator Ian Benn can find that's related to the greatest basketball player of all time.
The 43-year-old Benn—also known as Holi23wood, a nickname he earned because his MJ collection gets him invites to all sorts of VIP parties—has been a Jordan devotee since he first saw the star on TV while growing up in Saint Philip, Barbados. After growing infatuated with Jordan's unparalleled skills, intensity, success, and "nastiness," he traveled to New York in 1992 in search of memorabilia.
"I never sold nothing. Twenty-five years, I just buy, buy, buy."
"My love was already for Magic and Bird but in Barbados, we don't watch the games you watch," he says. "The only games we watched were the Lakers and the Celtics, so I was infatuated with the rivalry. Then Jordan came into the league and he was flying. The first thing I got into was the cards. I bought 125 cards for $500 from a friend and I kept collecting until I had like five or six hundred. Then I went for the sneakers and then the jerseys, and the last thing I did was the signatures. They're the real thing that's different from me and a lot of other sneakerheads. If I just wanted to collect sneakers, I'm sure I would have more than a thousand [pairs]."
His favorite item in the collection is the pair of Jordan 3 Do the Right Thing Brisks in blue and yellow, which have helped him see his whole endeavor as more than worth it, even though it came at a huge cost. On top of the $400,000 or so he's spent on the items that adorn the gallery's brick walls, Benn has lost relationships and sacrificed his time and well-being to get certain pieces, not to mention enduring the pain of getting the number 23 and a couple Jumpman logos tattooed on his cheeks.
A photo posted by holiw23d (@holiw23d) on Feb 13, 2015 at 7:38am PST
"I've emptied my bank account, lost friends over this because they think I like the museum more than I like them. I've lost girlfriends over this," he says. On a lesser scale, he's committed some minor larceny: "I went to the Michael Jordan restaurant about two months ago. I stole the menu. And I'm going to have it on show [laughs]. That's how passionate I am about it."
In 2007, he went to the NBA All-Star Game in Las Vegas with a suitcase full of shoes and little else for some signature hunting. "I didn't sleep," he says. That same year, he spent a week camped outside the Foot Locker on New York City's 34th street in 18-degree weather to get the titanium 2007 Nike Air Jordan XXIII, which were limited to 529 pairs around the country: 23 pairs selling in 23 stores for $230. Benn, who donned three pairs of long johns and spent about $150 on coffee over the course of the seven days, ended up with the pair numbered 23, a situation he views as more fate than coincidence. The address of the gallery just happens to end in 23, he's made friends all over from winning Funkmaster Flex's Sneaker Battles twice, and met a friend and fellow Jordan fan, Ross Greenberg, while working as a butcher. Greenberg hired Benn to design a website for him and, as a gift, gave him a vintage, unopened box of Wheaties with Jordan on the cover. The cereal expired on April 19th, 1993.
A photo posted by holiw23d (@holiw23d) on Feb 13, 2015 at 9:15am PST
A friendship was born. Benn now works as a cook at Greenberg's bar, Woodwork, a gastropub around the corner from Barclays Center that specializes in soccer and picklebacks, a whiskey shot with a pickle juice chaser. While working there, he stumbled on the space for the museum last June and, for a few months, the bar even hosted Benn's own Jordan-themed oil paintings. They currently take up a section in the gallery because, as Benn says, "If you want to have a museum, you gotta have paintings."
"If you want to have a museum, you gotta have paintings."
Then there are the autographs. The only Jordan one here at the moment is on a certified photo of him playing against Shaq, when the big man was still on the Orlando Magic. He's got Carmelo Anthony, courtesy of a longtime Madison Square Garden employee who agreed to bend the no-autographs-for-staffers rule to help out Benn; there are three pairs with Spike Lee's John Hancock; others include Walt Frazier, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade, LL Cool J, Fat Joe, Lance Stephenson, Roberta Flack, Ghostface Killah, Nate Robinson, Allan Houston, J.R. Smith, Roy Jones, Jr., Just Blaze, and so on. He got a lot of these outside of the Garden, after the security staff realized that he wasn't crazy or looking to flip the sneakers on eBay. "I never sold nothing," he says. "Twenty-five years, I just buy, buy, buy."
Although the museum is temporary, Benn hopes to find a permanent home for the collection, which currently takes up most of the walls of his Flatbush home, as well as part of his cousin's basement. As for a bigger dream, he'd love to work for the Jordan brand and is planning to have Jordan's son Jeffrey, whom he first met at at the Garden, come by for a quick ribbon-cutting ceremony.
"I wanted to have 100 sneakers with 100 cards and sell the whole set for $250,000, but then it turned into this craziness. Even if I wanted to stop, so many things keep happening. I want to display it where everything is in a case."
For now, he'll keep collecting, looking for a new place to house it all, and watch it all appreciate in value. And if anything, he can leave it all to 2-year-old Ian Jr., who's already got about 40 pairs of Jordans of his own.
If you want to check out Benn's collection, get to 623 Bergen Street (between Vanderbilt and Carlton avenues) in Brooklyn. The exhibit is open from 8AM to 8PM every day through Feb. 15 with a $23 admission fee, while at night, there are VIP All-Star Game parties. For more information, visit www.holiw23d.com.