Unlike baseball cards--and even their football cousins--basketball cards don't even begin to cover the game's history. There were no mainstream complete sets before 1957 and only one in the first nine years of the '60s. There's even a gap in the 1980s when the pro game struggled so much, the NBA Finals were on tape delay and the league couldn't score a trading card contract.
Such scarcity of product does mean that the sets that do exist have a special place in the hobby. Their reputation, though, is a pricey one. Most collectors think of the first rookie cards of the modern era's pioneers. Mikan. Russell. Chamberlain. Robertson. Alcindor. All are in the pre-1970 era and all have a strong following among vintage sports card collectors.
The sets themselves? Not cheap. Unless you're willing to settle for low grade, only the 1969-70 set is within the budget of the average collector. That doesn't mean you can't have a nice collection of vintage basketball cards representing a great cross-section of the game's history--and even have some star power.
With a budget of $500 and a strategy, we've zeroed in on five cards you should be able to find, appreciate and show off.
1) 1933 Goudey Sport Kings Joe Lapchick. Nothing demonstrates the lowly status basketball had for the first three-quarters of the 20th century than this one. Even dealers who sell this card sometimes have no clue that his real name is Lapchick--not "Lopchick" as it says on the front and back of this card. Lapchick was one of the original Celtics, a Hall of Fame player who went on to become a very successful head coach at St. John's and the New York Knicks. Lapchick was the game's first top level center.
He's one of four hoopsters in the Sport Kings set, but many overlook him in favor of Ruth, Cobb, Thorpe or Rockne. To have a truly representative collection of basketball cards, you should consider one of the cards from the Sport Kings set.
With some of the older cards, we have to accept a lower grade to stick within our budget, but there's nothing wrong with a VG example for around $130. It may take awhile but they're out there. Near mint examples sell for several thousand.
2) 1948 Bowman Red Holzman. Most fans know Red as the coach of the great Knicks teams in the late 60s and early 70s. Long before that, he was a star player in the earliest days of the league. There were no pro teams west of the Mississippi then and only in the major east coast cities was basketball considered worthy of marquee attention. Holzman's card is a true connection between the pioneer days and what evolved into the NBA as we came to know it.
Like Lapchick, he's #32 in the set and one of few recognizable names to today's fan. The 1948 Bowman basketball issue is really somewhat obscure. The cards are hard to find but important because they represent the first mainstream basketball card set and the first year of Bowman as a sports card manufacturer. We'll look for a nice mid grade example at around $120.
3) 1957-58 Topps Dolph Schayes. This card was issued nine years after Schayes was drafted but with no cards issued during the first part of his long career, the '57-58 is his rookie card. Schayes was one of the NBA's first superstars. He was one of the last--and most deadly--set shot artists, with a high-arc that writers referred to as "Sputnik". However, he also knew how to drive to the hoop.
Schayes was named to the NBA's 50 Greatest Players team in the 90s. As great as he was, durability was also a hallmark. Schayes did not miss a game from February 17, 1952, until December 26, 1961; 706 straight games at a time when travel was less than ideal. His rookie card in ex-nr mt shape can be found for around $65...an absolute steal.
4) 1961-62 Bill Russell in Action. Russell's rookie card from the '57-58 Topps set hits four figures even in mid-grade. His regular '61-62 Fleer card generally sells for $250-400 in the same condition.
Not bad, really, considering Russell's stature in the game, but his In Action card from the same set (#62) is roughly half the cost. Considering this is one of just three mainstream Russell cards on the market, we're adding this to our little portfolio in a '6' type grade at around $110. It may take some shopping around or negotiating to get there but there are enough of them out there to make it a realistic goal--and a great buy.
5) 1969-70 Topps Walt Frazier. We've got the 40s, 50s, and early 60s covered. Now's the time we use the rest of our money on a card to bridge the gap from vintage to modern in our cardboard hoops museum and no one does it better than Clyde Frazier.
He floated in from Southern Illinois University and took over as the king of New York City cool in the late '60s and early 70s. Frazier was much more than that, though. A Hall of Famer who helped the Knicks to championships and division titles throughout his career. He's #98 in the oversized '69-70 Topps basketball set, the next to last card, so finding a nice one is a little tougher than you might expect. Still, we can get a near mint copy for around $70...because Clyde never walked around with creases.