Pro basketball wasn’t exactly a powerful draw for college players in the late 1940s. The first number one pick of the BAA (later the NBA) in 1947 was Clifton McNeely out of Texas Wesleyan, who was honored but clearly not enamored. He became a high school coach instead.
The top pick in 1948 was Andy Tonkovich of Marshall who was taken by the Providence Steamrollers, played one year and averaged a little over two points per game before moving on with life.
The next five picks, from 1948-1952, all had careers that ended before the first Topps basketball set. Gene Melchiorre, first pick of the Baltimore Bullets in 1951, was banned before he played a game after admitting to a point shaving scandal in college.
The first number one pick in NBA history to be featured on a basketball card was Ray Felix, a 6’11 center out of Long Island University, taken by the still woeful Bullets in 1953. Felix was named Rookie of the Year for ’53-54, averaging 17.6 points and 13.3 rebounds. You’ll find him in the 1957-58 Topps set as a member of the New York Knicks. He’d finish his nine-year career with the Lakers, just after their move to Los Angeles.
Felix’s card is #35 in the set, an action shot of him standing underneath the rim after a made basket. He’s not a Hall of Famer and his card is typically inexpensive, with prices owing more to the scarcity of the set as a whole, and high-grade examples in particular.
“Ray can score with hook shots from either hand and that makes him a rough man to stop,” the back of the card reads. It also makes mention of his “tremendous height”, which at the time was matched only by a few players including the third pick of the 1956 draft, Bill Russell.
Felix spent years working in the New York City Parks Department and then became assistant supervisor of a Harlem Men’s Shelter where he made quite an impact before dying in 1991 of a heart attack at age 60.
The 1957 Topps basketball set also includes Frank Selvy, who was the top pick in 1954 after a stellar career at Furman. Selvy became a two-time NBA All-Star.
It would take until 1958 for a first round pick to go on to a Hall of Fame career. Elgin Baylor who spent his entire, brilliant NBA career with the Lakers, first in Minneapolis and then in L.A. The lack of an NBA trading card contract meant Baylor didn’t get a rookie card until the 1961-62 Fleer set arrived.
Most Valuable Vintage Rookie Cards of the NBA’s #1 Draft Picks 1947-1987 (NM/MT 8)
- Lew Alcindor $4,350
- Oscar Robertson $2,400
- Elgin Baylor $1,650
- Magic Johnson $700