Here’s the good: The design is passable – and even unique. In almost every Topps basketball set before it, the team names of the players in question were sprawled either horizontally or vertically along one of the card’s four borders. The 1979-80 Topps set brought about a much-needed change in that the team names were de-emphasized a bit, included on a banner that diagonally wrapped around a basketball in the lower right-hand corner. Keeping somewhat true to its roots, Topps still made the team nickname a focal point on the front and inside of the basketball, it’s even in a prime location. However, it was presented in slightly a way different from years past. The banner ran along the lower edge of the card and also included the player’s name with the position running just underneath it. The rest of the card was dominated by a large color photo or action shot.
Unfortunately, outside of a relatively unique design, there’s not much to see here.
1979-80 was a particularly down year in terms of rookie cards. Alex English is really the highlight in this issue and while he was one of the most prolific scorers of all time (25,613 points), he’s simply not enough to carry the set. While a star player, English often took a backseat to many of the other stars of the 1980s and as a result, his card remains unpopular, usually available for $5 or less.
The only other rookies of notable players include Phil Ford, Reggie Theus, and Mychal Thompson. That you can usually find these in the $2 – $3 range on eBay says a lot about their collectability (or, more appropriately, their lack thereof).
What Could Have Been
While there was a drought of rookie cards in the 1979-80 Topps set, things could have been different. Larry Bird was taken in the same draft as a junior but opted to return to Indiana State for another season after being selected with the sixth overall pick. Bird delaying his NBA debut helped create the iconic 1980-81 Topps card, which also featured the rookie of Magic Johnson. This set would have been much more desirable if Bird went to the league a year sooner.
The set also missed out on including some players that went on to have solid careers. Maurice Cheeks was taken in the second round of the NBA Draft in the preceding year (1978) but was not included in the issue. He became a four-time All-Star, won an NBA title, and eventually had his number retired by the Philadelphia 76ers. There was also Micheal Ray Richardson, who was omitted despite being a lottery pick. He went on to a solid career with four NBA All-Star appearances despite drug issues.
Finally, Michael Cooper, was also left out despite being in the same draft class. Cooper was a staple of the Showtime Lakers teams of the 1980s, was a five-time NBA champion, and a Defensive Player of the Year. Bird actually has called Cooper the best defender he ever faced. All three players didn’t have their debut issue until the 1980-81 Topps set.
Their rookie cards certainly wouldn’t have saved this set, but they would have helped make it a little more attractive.
As with almost every issue, this set includes a boatload of star players from the 1970s and 1980s, such as Julius Erving, Pete Maravich, Julius Erving, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton, and others. Unfortunately, since every other vintage Topps set did the same, it just doesn’t matter all that much. It also doesn’t help that none of the star cards are particularly noteworthy editions, either. These are some of the last Walton and Maravich cards, but the 1980-81 issue is the one that includes their final Topps editions.
Another criticism of the 1979-80 Topps set is that it lacks subset cards. All-Stars, for example, are denoted on the player’s base cards, but they aren’t given separate cards. Subsets don’t generally make or break sets, but they can be helpful in particularly bland issues such as this one.
All in all, it’s difficult to say that any set should be ignored. And the fact that it is so affordable at under $100 makes it an easy target for those looking for vintage sets. This is, after all, the final set of the 1970s and helped usher in the Bird/Magic era, so it has that going for it as well. However, to most collectors there’s just not much to like here.