by Darren Smythe
A fun way to learn about the history of an NBA team is to track down a card for every player who had one in that team’s uniform. It is up to the collector have much they want to invest. You can stick with base sets of common products or grab a mixture of cards from various issues trying to acquire as many different players as possible. NBA trading card history isn’t quite as extensive as baseball so it’s a project that’s a lot less daunting.
Buying a bulk team lot on eBay can be a cost-effective way of starting a team collection. Look for a team lot that encompasses several years and doesn’t have a ton of duplicates. Some dealers specialize in team sets, which is a quick and effective way to plow through several different years at once, generally at a low price, but without the sizzle of relics and autographs.
At card shows and shops some collectors go through boxes looking for inserts or cards of superstars to be graded or those relics and signed cards which leaves many common cards available, often for a dime or quarter each, sometimes less in bulk.
A quick way to find out which cards are out there is to search on the Beckett web site. Change the search box from “Marketplace” to “Collectibles” and type in the team name.
Another useful item is an old Basketball Card Price Guide and Alphabetical Checklist. The books from the early editions, around the early 1990s, had a list of every card a player had in the back of the book and the checklists for sets mentioned what team each card was for. This information was either listed in the set description, like “Denver Nuggets (71-81)” for 1990-91 Skybox which indicated the card number range for Nuggets, or the team name was listed for every card which was used for the upper Deck sets at that time that had a random order of players in the set.
The Beckett guides will also have information about official team sets of NBA cards that were only available in regional areas. Some were part of a store promotion, others were in a set that was given away at one of the home games. Chicago Bulls fans who are after cards of obscure players like Granville Waiters and Charles Davis can search for Bulls Entenmann’s cards. The many Trailblazers Franz sets have rare cards of Wayne Cooper, Drazen Petrovic and Caldwell Jones.
No matter how much searching is done, some cards will still be found by accident as lists can contain errors and new cards are always being produced. Another search idea that’s a lot of fun and generally pretty effective is to try is to find a list of every player to play for the NBA team, and then search for the player on eBay. Sometimes those Beckett lists won’t include players who suited up for only a month or two but a regional set produced at a point in the season where the player was active will include him. The official team sites and basketball stats sites can have this information for all the players who played a game for the team. You will likely find several players who simply didn’t have a card while playing for your team.
For teams with a long history, like the Lakers and Knicks and Celtics, it can be very expensive buying the early cards of the stars. If Mikan and Baylor rookie cards are too high in price, then newer cards from 1996 Topps Stars or other sets can provide cards of the players and even official reprints of their rookie cards.
Something that collectors need to be aware of is that sometimes a card is listed by the team they were playing for and not the picture on the front. A way to search effectively is chronologically by player. If a player ended their career at your favorite team, after spending time with many others earlier, then work back through the years to see if they had cards with the team.
Some sets are more useful than others when filling in places in the collection. If the set has the word “Update” in it then it should have cards of players that are new to a team. Panini Season Update was often the first chance to get traded players in their new uniform, and if their career ended that season sometimes the only chance. Those wanting some unknown players from the past might find them in 1991 Fleer Update. Topps Total sets, which were produced for a few years, had a huge number of players in them, as well as coaches and assistants. In new Panini products, sometimes an autograph card is produced that is the only card that ever features the player in a certain uniform.
Collectors will have to decide if they want to collect cards of players who were on the team but have a different team’s uniform on the card. Those collecting for a team that has relocated may decide to get all the players who played with the franchise no matter where they were, so a Sacramento Kings collector can look for Cincinnati Royals and Kansas City Kings cards too, or decide that the collection starts with the team’s move, which is how a team collector might approach the OKC Thunder cards and not purchase the Seattle Sonics cards even though some players did move with the team.
Card companies in the past went out of their way to find rookie cards that other companies were not producing. This means sometimes the only cards a player has for a specific team are when they were playing on a summer league team. This occurs with second round picks and free agent signings on non-guaranteed contracts or players who were traded before the season started. Celtics fans can find NBA cards of players like Brandon Wallace and Darius Songaila even though they never played for the team.
Team collectors will also need a large supply of card storage pages and folders. A system for the card order is also useful, it can be alphabetical or oldest to newest, while another idea is to just store them by which player is the favourite from the team. Collecting every player for a team will be a long search but it is also an incentive to travel to card shows and conventions and it’s always a blast when a rare card of an obscure player is found.