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A Brief History of Basketball Card Sets

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by Darren Smythe

Basketball collectors have a large assortment of manufacturers, card sizes and players to consider.

For many collectors, it is easy to remember the earliest sets as they each had their own decade.  1948 Bowman, 1957-58 Topps and 1961-62 Fleer are considered to be the only real basketball card sets from the early years of the sport.  These sets, and the rookie cards of the best players from them, are favorites of collectors.  But there were basketball cards before 1948, as small parts of larger multi-sport sets, as well as other basketball collectibles that can be part of a collection.

1933 Sport Kings Joe Lapchick "Lopchick"Several cards for college basketball teams were part of the 1911 Murad set.  The 1933 Sport Kings set had four basketball cards among the 48 cards that comprised the set.  Small bread end labels comprised the 1950-51 Bread For Health basketball set, while several basketball players were included in the similar Bred For Energy set.  1951 and 1952 Wheaties cards included a George Mikan, and in 1952 cards of Minneapolis Laker Jim Pollard and Rochester Royal Bob Davies too.  Kahn’s sets from 1957-58 until 1965-66 had a small number of cards, mostly those of the Cincinnati Royals.  So there are pre-1962 basketball cards to collect but they are tough to find.

Topps was a consistent performer for basketball cards during the 1970s.  Starting in 1969-70 they manufactured basketball cards every season during that decade.  Something that was inconsistent at times was the actual size of the cards.  Topps returned with cards measuring 2 1/2 inches by 4 11/16 inches.  After two seasons of large cards they went with the regular size for the rest of the decade, except for 1976-77 when Topps went really big with cards that were 3 1/8 inches by 5 1/4 inches in size.  The important rookie cards of this decade include Pete Maravich and Julius Erving.

Larry Bird and Magic Johnson increased the popularity of basketball in the 1980s, as did Michael Jordan later in the decade, but card collecting took a while to benefit from it.  Topps would stop making basketball cards, and there were four years with no basketball packs in stores.  There was the cardless year of 1982-83 and then three years of Star cards that were available from hobby stores in team bags.  Fleer would return for 1986-87, the set that has Michael Jordan’s rookie card.

The 1990s gave collectors many sets and large production numbers but now it is the rare cards that many are after.  This has kept the prices high for inserts like the Skybox Premium Rubies, Metal Universe Precious Metal Gems and E-X2001 Jambalaya cards.  NBA collectors were introduced by game-used cards with 1997-98 Upper Deck game jerseys inserts.  Unlike the game-used cards of today, the first basketball jersey cards were inserted at huge odds.  Collectors had plenty of choices when it came to card manufacturers, with Fleer, Topps, Skybox and Upper Deck releasing many sets during the 1990s.  Topps produced two of the sets that collectors enjoyed the most, 1993-94 Finest and its Refractors inserts and also 1996-97 Topps Chrome that had Bryant, Iverson, Marbury and Ray Allen rookie cards.

Card companies began to try different ideas as the 21st century commenced.  Upper Deck included cards in packs of Lego NBA players, Topps produced two Jersey Edition sets that had memorabilia on all cards and also introduced gum back into cards with their Bazooka sets, and the card companies looked at super-premium products.  Upper Deck produced their first basketball Ultimate Collection set in 2000-01, and there were plenty of collectors who could afford that so Upper Deck then upped the price with their Exquisite Collection.  The prices in stores for one box of Exquisite were around $500 to $600, during the years it was available from 2003-04 to 2009-10, and the value went Michael Jordan auto Fleer Retroup on the secondary market.  Something that disappeared from NBA cards was the idea of a Series 1 and a Series 2, as card companies didn’t want packs without rookie cards in them which in the past was common for Series 1 packs as the rookies, in their new NBA uniforms, were often found in Series 2.

Currently, and surprisingly, the NBA has only one licensed card company.  For several seasons, Panini has been the only option for collectors.  For those who always bought Upper Deck or Topps this has been a major change.  Panini’s Gold Standard cards have been popular, the 2010-11 set had insert cards that came with a piece of actual gold and very rare redemption cards for 1 of 1 cards made out of solid gold.  Another hit with collectors was 2010-11 Totally Certified and their Green, numbered to 5, and Black, numbered to 1, parallel versions.  The recent lockout was not helpful to Panini, and they missed out on an entire year of rookie cards but that means their 2012-13 NBA products now have two rookie classes.

There have also been various college basketball sets, in the past these were made for specific teams or for draft classes.  1992 Classic was popular when it was released due to having an early Shaquille O’Neal card.  Today’s collectors still want the Shaq autograph cards from that set.  With Upper Deck currently unable to produce NBA cards, they have recently released Fleer Retro which features stars of the NBA in college uniforms on cards that use Fleer’s famous designs from the past.  Minor league basketball cards were also released in the early 1980s and again in the 1990s.  The ProCards CBA sets did have some future NBA stars like Mario Elie, John Starks and Anthony Mason.

About Rich Mueller

Rich is the editor and founder of Sports Collectors Daily. A broadcaster and writer for more than 30 years and a collector for even longer than that, he's usually typing something somewhere. Type him back at [email protected].

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