There was a time when the hobby's most valuable basketball cards didn't have little pieces of jerseys or autographs from the game's top players. Most weren't even rookie cards. In the 1990s, inserts were king. Especially those that were inserted one per case (or even tougher).
Here's a look back at some of the more unique insert sets that continue to capture the attention (and dollars) of basketball card collectors today. We've applied some simple criteria to this list: no autographs, no memorabilia cards, no parallels. Here are ten of the best basketball insert sets the hobby had to offer in the 1990s.
Strange die-cuts were a common theme in 1990s inserts. 1996-97 E-X2000 A Cut Above made the cards resemble the blade of a buzz saw. Inserted 1:288 packs, the cards are rare. Like nearly every set he's in, Michael Jordan stands out, with professionally graded gem mint copies selling for $1,500 and up. With a checklist of just ten cards, nearly all of them feature lasting superstars. Glenn Robinson is the major exception. Most singles sell online for $50 and up.
Die-cut to look like a flaming basketball, 1996-97 Flair Showcase Hot Shots cards are instantly recognizable. Inserted 1:90 packs, even more common players still net around $20 each. High-grade 1996-97 Flair Showcase Michael Jordan cards regularly sell for more than $700. With a relatively large 20-card checklist, landing individual stars can be especially tough.
Holy foil and die-cuts! There's no mistaking the look of 1996-97 SkyBox Premium Golden Touch. Falling 1:240 1996-97 SkyBox Premium Series 2 packs, the set is somewhat affordable when compared to similarly rare inserts from the era. Most players on the 10-card checklist can be found for around $20. Expect to pay ten times that, though, for Michael Jordan.
Wild die-cuts, silver foil, long odds and a killer checklist have helped make 1996-97 SkyBox Z-Force Big Man on Court on of the most distinct and memorable inserts ever. Inserted 1:240 packs of 1996-97 SkBox Z-Force Series 1, the checklist includes Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal and eight more of basketball's best veterans at the time. Expect to pay $30 and up for singles today.
1997-98 E-X2001 Jamabalaya is one of the wildest insert sets to gain traction in the hobby. Inserted at an astounding 1:720 packs, they're extremely hard to come by. And 1997-98 E-X2001 wasn't exactly an entry-level product that people ripped tons of. Cards are die-cut into ovals and have a foil background. The 15-card checklist is headlined by Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. Other standouts include Shaquille O'Neal, David Robinson, Scottie Pippen and Kevin Garnett. On July 10, 2012, a BGS 9.5 1997-98 E-X2001 Jambalaya Michael Jordan sold for $4,500 on eBay. Several bidders targeted the card with bids of $4,000 or more. Even less-desirable players like Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Keith Van Horn can sell for $75 or more ungraded.
Inserted 1:288 packs, 1997-98 Metal Universe Platinum Portraits use tiny die-cut holes to create a picture of the player's face. The result is something extremely unique, a trait common among many of the most popular 1990s basketball inserts. A PSA 10 1997-98 Metal Universe Platinum Portraits Kobe Bryant sold for $650 on June 25, 2012. Even common players on the 15-card checklist usually go for around $20.
Returning for another year at even tougher odds, 1997-98 SkyBox Premium is even more valuable than the 1996-97 version. Landing 1:360 1997-98 SkyBox Premium Series 1 packs, the die-cut cards have tons of gold foil. The 15-card set has a textured feel thanks to embossing. Online, prices of ungraded 1997-98 SkyBox Premium Michael Jordan cards have passed $600. Less desirable players sell for around $20 and up.
Although not quite as popular as the previous year's cards (and not nearly as distinct), 1997-98 SkyBox Z-Force Big Men on Court benefit from being extremely tough to find. Inserted 1:288 packs of 1997-98 SkyBox Z-Force Series 2, the cards are printed on plastic thermo-stock and have a 3D look to them. A PSA 10 Michael Jordan sold for $999 on July 22, 2012. Most players sell for $40 and up.
One of the most complex insert sets ever produced, 1998-99 Fleer Playmakers Theatre features die-cuts, gold foil card stock and embossing. They're also numbered to 100 copies. At least original copies are. 1998-99 Fleer Playmakers Theatre cards can be found without serial numbers and embossing. While it's difficult to pinpoint the exact origins of these versions, it is very likely they came from excess Fleer stock that was auctioned off when the card maker went bankrupt. While both versions carry strong secondary market value, it's the original cards that are the most popular (as they should be). On July 17, 2012, a 1998-99 Fleer Playmakers Theatre Allen Iverson sold online for $395 after heavy bidding.
Although coming out of a product that was originally very affordable, 1998-99 SkyBox Thunder Noyz Boz cards have risen to prominence thanks to their long odds. Falling 1:300 packs, individual singles remain tough to come by. The die-cut design is also popular with collectors. Not surprisingly, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant are the highlights of the 15-card set. Commons can be found for around $20. A BGS 9.5 1998-99 SkyBox Thunder Noyz Boyz Michael Jordan sold on eBay for $810 on June 3, 2012. A couple of weeks later, a PSA 10 Kobe Bryant went for $500.
1998-99 Ultra Exclamation Points are a case hit, falling 1:288 packs. Each came housed in a condition-sensitive die-cut sleeve. As far as rare 90s inserts go, 1998-99 Ultra Exclamation Points may be one of the better bargains. Although graded versions of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant can command massive amounts, raw copies featuring star players can still be found for around $20.
Even in the post-Michael Jordan 90s inserts can command huge amounts. Want proof? Check out 1999-00 Fleer Mystique Raise the Roof. Numbered to 100, the rare inserts have a beautiful background shine that takes up the majority of the design. The ten-card checklist is made up of explosive players (at least as they were perceived at the time). 1999-00 Fleer Mystique Raise the Roof is one of the toughest 90s inserts to find today.