A History of Basketball Cards

dr-j-rookie-cardWhile we already covered the history of baseball cards, we deemed it about time to delve into the world of basketball cards.

The history of basketball cards is quite interesting; notably the first official set wasn’t issued until 1948 by Bowman, even though the first professional league (the National Basketball League) was formed in 1898.

Thus, the path for basketball cards has gone down a bit of a different path versus baseball cards.  Basketball didn’t really become a household sport until the late 1940’s even thought it was quite popular at American colleges.

Please reach out at chris@allvintagecards.com if you have any feedback or questions.

Pre-War Basketball Card Issues

Dr James Naismith invented the game of basketball in 1891, and the first professional basketball league (The National Basketball League) was launched in 1898 although it was quickly abandoned in 1904.   The American Basketball League was launched in 1925 and lasted until 1955, and was the first real shot at creating an official professional basketball league yet went through a lot of stops and starts.  

A lot of the most competitive basketball of the time was being played at American colleges.  The era saw the launch of the NCAA and even the NCAA Men’s basketball tournament in 1939.   While no basketball specific sets were issued until Bowman’s release in 1948, there were a few notable issues.  

The first of note was the 1909-1911 T51 Murad Set, a college based multi-sport issue.  Of the 150 card set, there are four college basketball cards (Xavier, Northwestern, Williams, and Luther).   Some actually consider the Murad cards to be the first basketball cards in the history of the hobby.

t51-murad-xavier

The next notable basketball issue of the pre-war era came in 1933 via the Goudey Sports Kings multi-sport set.   There are four basketball cards in the set – Nat Holman, Ed Wachter, Joseph Lopchick and Eddie Burke.  All but Burke are in the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Most basketball fans have never heard the names Holman, Wachter and Lopchick but all made significant contributions to the game.  For example, Wachter is credited with inventing the bounce pass.   

The Goudey Sport Kings basketball cards are surprisingly cheap, and might be the most underrated cards in the entire hobby.  Of course, no one knows who Nat Holman is, yet he is a hall of famer, and had a stellar career.   His Sport Kings card can be found for less than $300 in good condition.  

nat-holman-sport-kings

Did YOU KNOW?

Nat Holman


Holman was known as 'Mr Basketball' and considered to be the best basketball player of the 1920's.  Holman was considered to be an amazing floor general, a great passer and accurate shooter.  As the leader of the 'Original Celtics', Holman helped guide his team to more than 1000 wins.  Holman was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1964.

Basketball Cards - The Early Years

The first official full basketball release happened in 1948, with the introduction of the 1948 Bowman Basketball Set.   This would be Bowman's first and only basketball issue. The set was mostly unknown to collectors (or kids) of the day and only became popular years later.   

The highlight of the 1948 Bowman Basketball set is George Mikan and marks his official rookie card.   Mikan is considered to be the NBA's first superstar, and notably the league's first official dominant big man.  Standing at 6'10" and 245 pounds, Mikan dominated down low, winning seven championships and three scoring titles.

Mikan's '48 Bowman is easily the most valuable in the set, with a good condition copy valued at around $1500. 

george-mikan-rookie

George Mikan's 1948 Bowman rookie card

Topps Joins The Fray

In 1957, Topps issued their first basketball issue.  Yes there were nine years between official basketball issues!  This was also the first year Topps produced card issues for all four major sports.

The 1957 Topps set features 80 cards and most are widely available—not rare by an means—on average PSA has graded about 200-300 of each player.

The highlight of the set is the Bill Russell card which is considered his rookie card.  Note that PSA has graded over 600 of the Russell rookie card and in good condition can be found for around $1000

bill-russell-rookie-card

Bill Russell’s 1957 Topps Rookie Card

The set also features the rookie cards of Celtics legends Bob Cousy and Tommy Heinsohn.  The cards are tough to find in good condition as the printing of the set was quite sloppy, thus it’s fairly common to find cards with grainy images and print defects. 

It’s Fleer’s Turn

Fleer would officially become the third company to take a shot at a national basketball issue in 1961.  This would the first and only basketball issue for Fleer until they made their return with the landmark 1986 Fleer set.

I really love the design of the 1961 Fleer set and it’s loaded with rookie cards for some of the best basketball players of all time, including Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West and Oscar Robertson. The sixty-six card set also includes 22 ‘In-Action’ cards which tend to sell for lesser value versus the traditional cards in the set.  

fleer-chamberlain-rookie

Wilt Chamberlain’s 1961 Fleer Rookie Card

Wilt Chamberlain’s 1961 Fleer rookie card is considered a conerstone vintage basketball card and is one of the most valuable basketball cards of all time.   The card is not rare by any means–PSA has graded over 1100, yet still at around $700 for a good condition copy, I’d say it’s a pretty good value.

The Topps Monopoly: 1968-1981

Topps launched a ‘Test Issue’ in 1968 and not many collectors are familiar with the set.  To this day, no one really knows the true origin of the issue, with most assuming it was never meant for distribution.  As PSA notes, it’s likely that the cards were leaked by an internal employee as the company had no plans of marketing or producing the test run.

The cards are quite rare; PSA has graded only 180 cards from the 22 card set–the Wilt Chamberlain (shown below) and Bill Russell cards are highly sought after. 

68-test-bill-russell

1968 Topps ‘Test Issue’ Bill Russell

Topps launched their first official return to basketball cards in 1969, which would mark the first in a run of sets through 1981-1982, with no true national competition.   The good thing for basketball card collectors is that the print runs were plentiful, making it fairly affordable to build sets.  

Here are the most important cards from the Topps basketball run through 1981:

1969-70 Topps Lew Alcindor (RC) – Value (PSA 2) – $200

Lew Alcindor (aka Kareem Abdul-Jabaar) was the most feared big man of his time and one of the all time greats.  His towering sky-hook had defenders fearing his presence, ultimately leading to a nearly unprecedented run, amassing six NBA championships, six MVP awards and 19 all-star selections.  

His ’69 Topps rookie isn’t rare, PSA has graded nearly 3000, thus it’s pretty neat that you can grab one in decent condition for a few hundred bucks.  

lew-alcindor-rc

 

1970-71 Topps – Pete Maravich (RC) – Value (PSA 2) – $125

“Pistol Pete” is credited with helping to open up the game in the 1970’s; his creative ball-handling and entertaining passes cemented his legend in the game of basketball.   The 1970 Topps cards saw a continued over sized format and Maravich is featured in a pose as a recent draftee from LSU.

As with most of the Topps issues from the era, the Maravich card is widely plentiful, meaning that a good condition copy of the Pistol’s rookie can be found for near $100.

pete-maravich-rc

1972-73 Topps – Julius Erving (RC) – Value (PSA 5) – $200

One of the most iconic players in basketball history, Julius ‘Dr J’ Erving was the most graceful and most impressive basketball players of his time.  Some have compared him to the ‘first Michael Jordan’ yet Erving was his own unique player and his record speaks for itself.

“Dr J” helped further popularize the game, helping pave the way for later legends.  Over his career, Erving won four MVP awards and was selected to 16 All-Star games. 

His 1972 Topps rookie card is easy to find, yet of course the grade determines the ultimate value.  If you want a low cost copy, a good condition card can be found for close to $100 whereas and Excellent version is about $200.  Still a decent value given the impact Erving had on the game. 

dr-j-rookie-card

1974-75 Topps – Bill Walton (RC) – Value (PSA 5) – $100

While many probably know Walton for his career as a basketball broadcaster, Walton was a tremendous big man.  An all around force in both college and the NBA, Walton won two titles with the Blazers and later the Celtics.  Injuries got the better of him at the end of his career, but he was always a fun player to watch.

His ’74 Topps card features Walton in a sort of dazed pose (did you know he’s a huge fan of the Grateful Dead?) but it’s an iconic card and one of the most well known rookie cards from the 1970’s.  While Mint copies are few and far between, his rookie has 800 copies graded by PSA and Excellent copies can be easily found for less than $100.

bill-walton-rookie-card

1980-81 Topps – Larry Bird/Magic Johnson RC – Value (PSA 5) – $200

It doesn’t get better than this.  Topps decided to create an oddball three panel set in 1980, yet they magically pared the two best rookies and the most respected star of the day all on one card together.  Bird and Magic helped bring the NBA to the masses, popularizing the sport while building two of the greatest careers in the history of the game.  

The Bird/Magic rookie card is truly one of the best basketball cards in the history of the hobby…due to the uniqueness and the fact that you have two of the best players in history on one card, for their rookie year.

This card is not hard to find—PSA has graded nearly 10,000 copies…yes 10,000!  However this is probably the #2 most sought after card in basketball collecting circles (after the Fleer Jordan rookie) thus I don’t see the value ever falling off for this card.  You can find an excellent copy (PSA 5) for around $200.

bird-magic

Fleer is Back-Let The Dynasty Begin

In 1986 Fleer would create the landmark set that coincided with basketball in the midst of what would be a rebirth of the NBA.  Basketball had started to see an increase in interest from fans, driven by the success of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson; yet it wasn’t until Michael Jordan entered the league that everything changed.

There were some predecessor issues from Star cards, including several Jordan issues, however PSA refuses to grade the Star cards due to the number of counterfeits.   Notably, BGS and SGC will grade the Star cards, but be careful if buying any of these as the cards are very difficult to authenticate.

84-85 Star Jordan Rookie

Thus, while some collectors will go after the Star cards, it’s the ’86 Fleer set which is considered to the gem of old school basketball cards.  I can remember buying these as a kid and loving the cards.   At 50 cents a pack, I wish I was loading up my dad’s car and putting these in a storage locker somewhere.

86-fleer-wax

While I loved the cards as a ten year old, I didn’t quite realize how insanely popular these cards would become.  Those 50 cent retail packs now sell for over $500.  And for good reason of course.  The set is chock full of rookie and stars, while featuring the legit rookie card for Michael Jordan.

Aside from Jordan, there is no shortage of star power in the 1986 Fleer set.  Here are the key rookie cards in the set:

Charles Barkley
Clyde Drexler
Hakeem Olajuwon
Patrick Ewing
Karl Malone
Chris Mullin
Isaiah Thomas
Dominque Wilkins
James Worthy

jordan-bird-magic

But of course it was Jordan that elevated the competition in the NBA and dominated for years to come.  His 1986 Fleer card is HEAVILY FORGED and REPRINTED.  I will repeat that again–the JORDAN ROOKIE IS THE MOST COUNTERFEIT CARD OF ALL TIME!

I’ve covered this before yet I’m still amazed at the number of collectors that email me with visions of scoring a great deal on a Jordan rookie. I get a LOT of emails asking to authenticate Jordan rookie cards, and I can tell you that 98.5% of the inquiries are fakes.

Just the other day, I had to tell some poor guy that the $2500 on a ‘supposed’ Jordan rookie card was a total fake. There are some very good counterfeit Jordan rookie cards out there and often times even I’m stumped. But don’t get taken, invest the extra $$ and buy a graded Jordan.

jordan-rookie-psa-fair

Buy a graded Jordan rookie and thank me later..the counterfeit copies are out of control

Fleer would go on to make basketball cards as the sole basketball card issuer for the next three years, until Hoops entered the fray in 1989 and then Skybox in 1990.  And, well, this also coincided with mass-over-production of sports cards…and thus, that’s where this story ends.  Hope you enjoyed..

If you catch any errors or want to make any additions, feel free to email me at chris@allvintagecards.com

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