Basketball card collecting exploded during the 1990s, as did card production numbers. Once unappreciated cards from all eras suddenly had a big following–and bigger prices thanks to the rise of Michael Jordan, the arrival of David Robinson, the 1992 USA Dream Team, increased TV coverage and the convergence of numerous popular Hall of Fame players. Yet the NBA’s history goes back much further and no list would be complete without some of the players who were legends before multi-million dollar contracts became the norm. Here are ten of the best basketball cards of all-time.
Probably the most famous basketball card ever made, Jordan’s rookie card shows him high above the other players on the court as he soars in for a slam dunk. Believe it or not, you could buy the entire set within a year of issue for $10. Wax boxes that once sold for under $10 are now worth thousands and virtually guarantee three MJ rookies. Prices vary widely based on grade.
Despite having not played a game in nearly ten years, Jordan’s worldwide popularity continues to push his rarest cards higher. This one isn’t rare, but it’s the one every hoop head wants to own.
The 1980-81 Topps cards are the regular size but are actually three mini-cards joined together. This rare occurrence means that collectors can get the rookie cards of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson on the same card, and they also get Dr. J as well. There were no NBA players bigger than those three in the first half of the 1980s, and few as popular as Bird and Johnson during the late 1980s and beyond.
Ungraded, the card sells on eBay for around $100 to $150. Cards that appear to be close to flawless will often go at much higher prices to buyers that want to have them graded. PSA 10 copies often sell for $14-16,000. PSA or BVG 9 examples run $1000-1800. 8’s can be had for $250-300.
Collectors can also find the Larry Bird rookie card or Magic Johnson rookie card without the other player on it, and at a much lower price. The other Bird rookie card has Bill Cartwright and Larry Drew on the other two panels, Magic Johnson shared his other card with Jan Van Breda Kolff and Julius Erving.
3. 1984-85 Star #101 Michael Jordan (Extended Rookie Card)
There is Michael Jordan’s rookie card, from 1986-87 Fleer, and there is his first ever NBA card from Star. In the middle of the 1980s, after Topps had stopped producing NBA cards and before Fleer had started again, there were Star cards. Not sold in packs, the cards were available in team bags. So a collector purchasing the Jordan Star rookie would have also been getting players like Dave Corzine and Sidney Green.
If “The Pistol” was in the NBA right now his card prices would be among the highest. His highlight-filled playing style would have made him very popular among collectors. During his playing career he had just under 20 NBA cards, from Topps between 1970-71 and 1980-81, and his 1970-71 “tall boy” rookie card commands a high price. Lately, cards graded mint 9 have been selling for $1400-1600 while an 8 can be had for around $375-400.
5. 1968-69 Topps Test #19 Jerry West
Many collectors want to have some cards of “The Logo”, Jerry West. His rookie card was in 1961-62 Fleer, and is available at prices around $200 to $400. An insert set in 1991-92 Upper Deck was called Jerry West Heroes, it is a cheap way to find out about his career. He also has memorabilia cards and autograph cards in modern sets. Something that is very rare is Jerry West’s 1968-69 Topps Test card.
The extremely rare 1968-69 Topps Test set consists of 22 cards. The fronts have black and white pictures of players, not from games but from various poses. Recently a complete set sold for $38,838, these cards were all graded with many Near-Mint cards. A lot of eighteen cards, including West, sold for $8,280.
You’re not likely to find these on eBay. They rarely turn up and when they do, they’re in major sports memorabilia catalog auctions.
He scored 100 points in a single NBA game, had a season when his minutes per game was higher than 48, led the NBA in total assists 1967-68, won two NBA titles and was also a Harlem Globetrotter and even appeared in a movie with Arnold Schwarzenegger. Wilt Chamberlain was a unique and unstoppable basketballer and his rookie card appeared in the 1961-62 Fleer set, which was the first basketball card set of any kind issued since 1957. Wilt has an ‘in action’ card in this set as well, but this one, #8, is considered his most desirable rookie card.
Collectors who want cards of championship winners will want Bill Russell’s rookie card. With #6 in the pivot, the Celtics were virtually unbeatable for more than a decade. Russell also added an Olympic gold medal and two NCAA titles.
Prices vary based on condition and they’re a little tough to find on eBay so if you want one, grab it when you see it.
The first superstar player in what was the first real basketball card set. Mikan was a 20-10 player and considered pro basketball’s first drawing card. He won NBA, BAA and NBL championships. A graded, Very Good-Excellent, Mikan recently sold on eBay for $1,491. A PSA 10 example is believed to have set the record for the highest price paid for a vintage basketball card in 2009 when it sold for $218,500 in a Memory Lane auction.
9. 1950-51 Bread For Health George Mikan
Collectors of Panini’s 2011-12 Past & Present basketball cards will have noticed the insert sets called Bread For Health, Bread For Life and Bread For Energy. These cards, with their diecut corners design, are based on bread labels from more than sixty years ago.
Rare to find these days, the Mikan card is the most expensive one in the 1950-51 Bread For Health set. A complete set of 1950-51 Bread For Health cards sold for $15,275 at auction, which not only included the Mikan card but also other stars of the past like Dolph Schayes, Arnie Risen and Harry Gallatin.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar collectors will want to have his first NBA card, when he was Lew Alcindor of the Milwaukee Bucks. His 1969-70 Topps card is from the popular, oversized set. Something that isn’t included on cards at present time is a player’s salary, but on Kareem’s rookie card it says he would start his NBA career with an “estimated 5-year, $1,250,000 contract”.