40 years ago, something new and different showed up in the candy aisle…basketball cards.
For kids who grew up in the 1960s, “basketball cards” wasn’t even a phrase. Not unless an older brother just happened to have a few 1961-62 Fleer stuck away in a box. Or an uncle who offered tales of a Topps set produced in 1957. Baseball cards were king. Football was around.
Basketball? You’d have better luck finding hockey card packs.
The arrival of a special player and two marquee teams on each coast changed that.
Everyone was talking about Lew Alcindor. A once in a generation player, ready to graduate from UCLA and turn one lucky NBA team into a winner. The New York Knicks had Reed, Frazier, Bradley and DeBusschere. The Los Angeles Lakers had Chamberlain, West and Baylor. If ever the time was right for the league and Topps to get together, ’69 was it.
The cards began hitting store shelves just in time to greet Alcindor’s arrival in Milwaukee. It was the era of the big man…two seven-footers were more than the league had ever seen…and each was a Hall of Famer in the making. To fit with the times, Topps 1969-70 basketball set would have cards measuring 2 1/2″ wide by 4 and 11/16″ high. Topps, of course, knew something about rectangular cards. In 1965, its AFL set –the one with Joe Namath’s rookie card–was just like the new basketball issue. This one, though, was more appropriate to the subject matter.
Not only does the ’69 basketball set include Alcindor’s rookie card, but the dearth of basketball cards throughout the decade meant that the set features rookie cards of a humer of superstars and Hall of Famers, including Connie Hawkins, John Havlicek, Wes Unseld, Earl Monroe and Gail Goodrich. The ten-card packs meant that you owned just over 1/10 of the entire set by buying just one, assuming all of the cards were different.
Today, the 1969-70 Topps basketball set is tough to find in high grade. The size of the cards and the white borders led to corners that were far from perfect. To keep them organized, many kids (and moms) used rubber bands–a crease-maker if there ever was one. Centering has proven to be a major issue for collectors who are concerned about such things today. Only a handful of Alcindor rookies have been graded near mint or better. A mint copy can run $3,000-5,000. The checklist (#99) is the last card in the set, and its placement in the lower right corner of the 99-card uncut printer’s sheet meant that many of the checklist cards had damage before they ever left the factory. In addition, proper storage methods were seldom used and there were no boxes or plastic sheets meant specifically to hold them.
The good news for collectors is that prices have stabilized over the past several years. A PSA 9 graded Havlicek rookie card sold for $10,000 in 2003. Today, the same card is worth a few thousand dollars less. Demand is still high, though, especially for the stars and Hall of Famers or hard-to-find common cards like Tom Meschery and Joe Caldwell.
The 1969-70 Topps basketball set is one of the most affordable vintage card sets on the market if you’re not focused on buying mint rookies and stars.