There was a period of time, just a few short decades ago, that not a single company was producing basketball cards - not even industry giant Topps. In1986, the Fleer Company produced Michael Jordan's definitive rookie card. As Jordan's on court career reached new levels of the stratosphere, so too didthe value of his rookie card. Basketball card collectors began to re-evaluate the long forgotten art of collecting and created a huge demand for notonly new basketball card products, but vintage cards as well.
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The History of Basketball Cards
The Vintage Years
The earliest basketball cards can be traced to the legendary 1933 Sport Kings series, a multi-sport set from the Goudey Gum Company. The set included four basketball players of the era; Eddie Burke, Nat Holman, Joe Lapchick, and Ed Wachter. It would be another 15 years before another basketball set was made and it was in 1948 that Bowman produced its first, and only, hardwood set. This set includes one of the most valuable basketball cards in existence, the George Mikan rookie card. A 72-card, full color set that includes five additional hall of fame players, the '48 Bowman set is a holy grail for many hoops collectors.
After a nine-year absence of any basketball cards, The Topps Gum Company introduced its first hoops set in 1957. The 80-card set contains numerous hall of fame players but despite the inclusion of Bill Russell's rookie card, the lack of popularity of the sport as a whole, resulted in Topps making a quick exit from the market and not returning until the 1969-1970 season.
Filling the gap between those years, The Fleer Company made a go of the basketball card market in an attempt to fill the void left by Topps with a single issue of its own. In the 1961-62 season, they released a 66-card set that introduced the American public too rookie cards of iconic players like Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, Oscar Robertson, Lenny Wilkins and Jerry West. These game-changing pioneers helped the floundering league gain a much-needed boost in its fan base and set the stage for the NBA as we know it today.
It was in the year of Topps' return to the basketball card market that the true modern era of basketball cards was born and along with it the production of one of the most legendary basketball cards of all time, the rookie card of Lew Alcindor. Alcindor would eventually change his name to Karim Abdul-Jabbar and go on to become the NBA's all-time leading scorer en route to winning 6 NBA Championships. The Topps' set of 1969-1970 was unique in stature due to the rectangular design that collectors would eventually tag with the moniker "tall-boys".
Bird, Magic, and Jordan Enter the Picture
Topps was the exclusive manufacturer of professionally licensed basketball cards for the 1970's and early '80's and it was the 1980-81 set that helped influence the future collectibility of the basketball card genre. In that year, Topps incorporated multiple players on the same card in a perforated, horizontal layout. One of the cards contained rookie cards of college rivals, future legends and eventual Hall-of-Famers, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. The third player was no slouch either, albeit not his rookie card, the inclusion of one Julius "Dr J." Erving on the card makes this one of the most coveted basketball cards in existence. Given the nature of perforated format, many a kid separated the cards. Finding the cards intact can be a difficult challenge but yields big monetary rewards when graded and sold on the secondary market.
The following year saw Topps' last basketball product for 11 years. During that period of time many new companies entered, or re-entered, the market including Hoops, Fleer, Star, and Upper Deck. As a result of Topps absence in the market, the iconic trading card company missed the opportunity to produce a rookie card of the greatest basketball player of all time, Michael Jordan or simply MJ. While both Star and Fleer produced Michael Jordan rookie cards, it the 1986-87 Fleer card that is considered his definitive and most desirable rookie card.
LeBron James Ushers in a New Era of Collecting
While the initial regrowth of the hobby was brought on by Michael Jordan, there is another important catalyst that continued the hobby's growth. As the NBA developed an increasingly more media savvy fan base, there was a growing demand for cardsof the NBA's most marketable superstars. In 2003, one of the most talented rookie draft classes to ever hit the league, led by the likes of LeBron James,Dwayne Wade, and Carmelo Anthony, met that demand and then some.
The trio of young superstars inspired the creation of the basketball card industry's first true premium product, 2003-04 Upper Deck Exquisite Basketball, which hit hobby store shelves boasting an MSRP of $500 per pack. This was made possible due to the set's low print run and its abundance of high end rookie cards, many of which featured autographs and jersey patches and most importantly, the speculation and potentialof the draft class itself. LeBron James was thesource of hype, scrutiny and speculation for several years leading up to the draft. By the time the first licensed LeBron James rookie cards were released, collectors were collectively chomping at the bit to get them. These elements combined to form the perfect storm for thisrevolutionary new basketball card product. The hobby hasn't looked back as the game itself has grown in popularity and the NBA has proven to be ahighly talented marketer of its superstars.