While NBA cards debuted before the 1980s, it was in this decade that they first took hold. Leading the way are the top basketball rookie cards of the 1980s.
To quote a much-used Charles Dickens passage, "it was the best of times, it was the worst of times," at least for basketball cards in the '80s. When Topps ducked out after their 1981-82 release, there weren't any mass-produced cards for five years.
While Star Company had various sets, they were mostly extremely limited releases that couldn't reach a wide audience. As a result, the Star cards are not included on the list.
After a lull, basketball cards stormed back with 1986-87 Fleer Basketball, one of the greatest modern base sets. It gave collectors the first pack-inserted cards of several legends, including Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone and a huge portion of what would become the 1992 USA Basketball Dream Team.
Fleer continued to make basketball cards for the remainder of the decade. They were joined by Hoops in 1989 where both companies enjoyed several years of success during the height of the hobby's popularity.
With so few basketball card sets produced in the 1980s, the list of the decade's best rookie cards doesn't have a lot of variety in their appearance. However, this also means there's no overlap in players either as each only has one rookie card.
Carrying over the success of this generation of players, the 1990s NBA rookie cards saw even more changes.
Top 1980s Basketball Rookie Cards to Collect
Bolded links go directly to a detailed player or set profile.
15. 1986-87 Fleer James Worthy RC #131
Drafted first overall in the 1982 NBA Draft, James Worthy was a huge part of the Los Angeles Lakers' Showtime era. A three-time NBA Champion, Worthy was also named one of the league's 50 best players. He is the first of many players on the list with a rookie card in 1986-87 Fleer.
14. 1986-87 Fleer Chris Mullin RC #77
Also in '86-87 Fleer, Chris Mullin is an all-time fan favorite for the Golden State Warriors. Mullin also won gold medals in both the 1984 and 1992 Olympics. He was the seventh pick in the 1985 draft and went on to be a five-time All-Star.
13. 1981-82 Topps Kevin McHale RC #75
The 1981-82 Topps Basketball rookie for Kevin McHale was originally only available in the eastern portion of the United States. That's because much of the set was packaged regionally. McHale won three championships with the Celtics during the 1980s. Since retiring, McHale has remained in the spotlight, working in the Minnesota front office, coaching and becoming a TV analyst.
12. 1988-89 Fleer Reggie Miller RC #57
Reggie Miller is a modern rarity, spending his entire playing career with one team. He also has just one rookie card, which was released in 1988-89 Fleer Basketball. The best Indiana Pacer of all-time, he was also one of the game's most clutch shooters. Miller captured headlines for his play against New York and an ensuing feud with the filmmaker, and loyal Knicks fan, Spike Lee.
11. 1988-89 Fleer John Stockton RC #115
John Stockton and Karl Malone made up one of the best tandems in the game's history. The point guard holds the NBA record for most assists and steals. Stockton was a 10-time All-Star. His rookie card probably deserves to be higher, but the 1988-89 Fleer Basketball set doesn't have the same iconic status as the 1986-87 set.
10. 1986-87 Fleer Isiah Thomas RC # 109
Isiah Thomas was the leader of the Detroit Pistons squads that won back-to-back NBA Championships in 1989 and 1990. One of the game's best point guards, Thomas was named one of the league's 50 top players. Several of the players ahead of him also have rookie cards in 1986-87 Fleer Basketball.
9. 1986-87 Fleer Clyde Drexler RC #26
Yet another '86-87 Fleer rookie, Clyde Drexler was a 10-time All-Star. Although he's best remembered for being a leader on the Portland Trail Blazers, Drexler won his lone NBA championship with the Houston Rockets in 1995. Drexler was also a member of the 1992 Dream Team.
8. 1988-89 Fleer Scottie Pippen RC #20
Scottie Pippen was Robin to Michael Jordan's Batman. Or Ed McMahon to Jordan's Johnny Carson. That said, Pippen was more than a sidekick. He was one of the game's best forwards. Pippen won six championships with the Bulls. He also appeared in seven All-Star Games and was named to the NBA's All-Defensive First Team eight times. His 1988-89 Fleer Basketball rookie is the top choice from that year.
7. 1986-87 Fleer Dominique Wilkins RC #121
Dominique Wilkins will forever be known as one of basketball's all-time greatest dunkers. The "Human Highlight Film" was also one of the game's top scorers, leading the league in 1986. Although he was drafted by the Utah Jazz, Wilkins spent the majority of his career with the Atlanta Hawks. He also suited up for the Clippers, Celtics, Spurs and Magic in the twilight of his career.
6.1986-87 Fleer Patrick Ewing RC #32
In his prime, Patrick Ewing was one of basketball's most feared centers. Picked first overall in the 1985 draft, he was named Rookie of the Year in 1986. Ewing was an All-Star in 11 of his first 12 years in the league. Although he will always be remembered for being a member of the Knicks, Ewing spent a year each with the Seattle SuperSonics and Orlando Magic.
5. 1986-87 Fleer Hakeem Olajuwon RC #82
Before changing his name, Hakeem Olajuwon used to go by "Akeem." So when you're searching for this 1986-87 Fleer rookie card online, it's good to search both the proper spelling and the error spelling. The first pick in the 1984 draft, Olajuwon brought back-to-back NBA championships to Houston a decade later. He was a 12-time All-Star and the league's MVP in 1994.
4. 1986-87 Fleer Karl Malone RC #68
Karl Malone was a two-time NBA MVP. He spent nearly all of his career with the Utah Jazz, where he and John Stockton made the team a perennial title contender. However, the two never did win a championship. He was a 14-time All-Star and was selected as a member of the NBA's 50th Anniversary All-Time Team.
3. 1986-87 Fleer Charles Barkley RC #7
Charles Barkley was one of the game's most dominant players during the '80s and '90s. And as great as he was on the court, Barkley's outspoken personality gave him that certain x-factor with collectors. Although he was an 11-time All-Star, Barkley failed to win an NBA title. He was on both the 1992 and 1996 Olympic gold medal teams, though.
2. 1980-81 Topps Magic Johnson RC, Larry Bird RC, Julius Erving
Usually, when players are paired together on a rookie card, it hurts the overall appeal. While one player may go on to great things, the other (or others) often does little. However, the pairing of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson makes for one of the best rookie cards the hobby has ever seen. 1980-81 Topps Basketball came in panels of three mini cards. Perforations make them easy to separate, but most collectors want the panels intact, especially on this card. Johnson and Bird were rivals even before entering the NBA and the pairing makes a lot of sense. In between the two all-time greats is a Julius Erving "Scoring Leader" card.
1. 1986-87 Fleer Michael Jordan RC #57
Was there ever any doubt? Michael Jordan is not only basketball's greatest player, but he's also the most collected. The 1986-87 Fleer Basketball Michael Jordan rookie card is one of the hobby's true gems, no matter the era. It's instantly recognizable as Jordan heads up to the hoop, showing his trademark intensity.