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PINHEADS UNITE // Collectors find a hobby they can really stick with

Bud Kling caught the fever in Los Angeles back in '84.

"That is when a lot of us got bit," he confessed. "It's a disease. It will run through a city just like the plague."

It didn't take long for Atlanta to get hooked. Just stroll through Centennial Park on a Sunday afternoon and you'll see them _ men, women, children _ junkies, each hustling for their next fix.

"Let me see what you've got," said the accountant from New York.

The woman from Baltimore opened her backpack and pulled out a small plastic bag.

"Ooooooo," the man beamed. "I like it."

He reached into his pocket and handed her another small bag.

"Looks good to me," she said, and continued on her way.

Another deal sealed. Two more happy pinheads.

"For me, pin collecting started off as just a hobby, but it turned into a part-time business," said Kling, a tennis coach from Pacific Palisades, Calif. "I probably brought 10,000 with me here to Atlanta. I probably could have bought another plane ticket and put them in the seat beside me for the amount of money it cost to ship them."

You might call Kling the King Pinhead. Every morning, he totes a 40-pound bag to Centennial Park and sets up a table outside the Coca-Cola Pin Trading Center.

"People see my vest covered with pins and it draws them in like a beacon," Kling said. "I must talk to 1,000 people a day."

Kling collects only Olympic pins, a passion he has pursued in both Seoul and Barcelona.

"It doesn't take long to really get into it," he said. "I had a woman come back to me this morning looking for a very specific pin, a rare variation with the 1996 reversed. A few days ago she didn't know a pin from a peanut."

There are three licensed pin manufacturers for the Games.

"They are making more pins this year than the last three Olympics combined," Kling said. "A lot of the old-timers feel like this has ruined pin collecting. But it has also created a huge market. You could call this the Pin Games."

The hottest items are the "Day Pins." Each morning a line forms outside the Coca-Cola Pin Trading Center, where a limited number of the official pin for that day are sold. If you collect the whole set, you can put them together and they'll make the shape of a giant Coke bottle.

"The corporate sponsor pins are hot," Kling said. "But you can't buy them. You usually have to know somebody."

Die-hard pinheads will arrange secret rendezvous with their contacts in hotel lobbies to make the trade, then put the goods into circulation.

"I've got the entire NBC set from Barcelona," Kling said. "Very hard to find. It only went to VIPs."

Some of Kling's more treasured finds are the "Unified Team" pins from Barcelona, an East German pin from the Mexico City Olympics and an original medallion from the 1936 Berlin Games.

In contrast to Kling, the seasoned veteran, are thousands of others, like Cheryl Buggs of New York, who are just getting started.

"Pin trading keeps my kids occupied in between events," she said. "I guarantee that when they go home, they'll be talking more about the pins than the Games."

For those wanting to start a collection, there are plenty of shops and street vendors around Centennial Park. The average price per pin is $5.

"But we have others, like the Olympic thermometer pin, which actually tells the temperature, that cost up to $15," said Trish Wiley of the World Pin Center. "Probably our most expensive pin is the IOC (International Olympic Committee) pin, which costs $100."

Pin sets, with a common theme, cost more. "They range from $150 to $1,000 or more," Wiley said.

Most collectors look for limited edition pins. The smaller the country or company, the better. But others, like Cookie Serotta of Augusta, don't really care.

"I'm just having fun," she said. "I don't plan on keeping any. I just like to give them away. It's a great icebreaker. You meet people from all over the world."

Like Delene Graham and Pat Michalaro of South Africa, who were in town to watch a family member play field hockey.

"We started off just collecting hockey pins," Graham said. "Now we are into everything."

Pin collecting does have a dark side.

"At a point you get so deep into it you can't stop," said Jeff Moore of Atlanta. "But it is not an uncontrollable addiction like crack cocaine. I wouldn't sell my house or anything to buy Olympic pins."

Meanwhile, back at the Coca-Cola Pin Trading Center, Kling hammers out another trade with a 6-year-old.

"Now that you've caught the fever, pick your poison," he tells the boy, showing him a plethora of pins to choose from.

The boy picks one, sticks it on his shirt and runs off. Kling smiles. He knows he'll be back.