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 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 vintage basketball cards of all-time. Click the title of each to see them on eBay.
Vintage? Well, it’s now pushing 30 years old so at this point, it’s hard to say it isn’t. 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 but expect to pay $2,500 and up for a decent one. Graded 9s and 10s bring double that–and more. There are convincing reprints and counterfeits out there so be sure to stick to graded/authenticated examples.
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.
Mint, graded examples have more than doubled in price over the last 3-4 years. 8’s can still be had for $450-550.
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 Company cards. The cards were available in team bags rather than packs so a collector purchasing the Jordan Star rookie would have also been getting players like Dave Corzine and Sidney Green.
Beckett is the only company willing to grade them. Prices at auction have ranged from $3,500 for NM 7s to $10,000 and up for 9.5s.
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.
You can grab a decent one for a few hundred dollars but the only PSA 10 sold in late 2015 for over $130,000.
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 $250 and up, depending on grade. Something that is very rare is West’s 1968-69 Topps Test card.
The extremely rare 1968-69 Topps Test set consists of 22 cards and you’ll find a smiling Jerry in this one. The fronts have black and white pictures of players, not from games but from various poses. A complete set sold a few years ago for $38,838. All were graded at a high level. A lot of 18 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 player 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, especially in higher grades.
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.
The record-setting sale of a PSA 10 not long ago has already started pushing prices for lower grade examples upward. You can find VG-EX graded examples fairly regularly on eBay for around $2,000–still not bad considering the scarcity and importance.
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 60 years ago.
Very rare, the Mikan card is the most expensive one in the 1950-51 Bread For Health set. A near complete set of this issue (missing only one card) sold at auction for over $35,000 in 2014. The full set includes not only the Mikan card but also other early NBA stars 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”.
Expect to lay down $1,000 for a near mint, graded example of one of the NBA’s greatest players.