Basketball cards seemed like a tall order for Topps during the 1960s, but the card company came up with back-to-back “tall boy” sets and an intriguing product.
The tall boys were similar to the design used for the 1965 Topps football set. The ’65 set revolved around one star — Joe Namath — and the 1970-71 Topps basketball set also was notable for the hottest rookie to enter the NBA in years.
That would be Pete Maravich, and his rookie card is the main draw for this 175-card issue. It was the first time Topps had two series for a basketball set.
Topps had tried a basketball set in 1957-58, and Fleer took a shot with NBA cards in 1961-62, but neither product caught on. But with the Celtics’ dominance of the 1960s winding down and the retirement of Boston center Bill Russell, plus the anticipation of UCLA star Lew Alcindor joining the league, the time was ripe for Topps to produce a basketball product.
The first series of the 1970-71 set had 110 cards, with 22 short prints, including John Havlicek and Len Wilkens. Series 2 had cards 111-175.
At the time, it was the largest Topps basketball card set, and the first to have back-to-back releases.
The lineup of players in the set was tantalizing for collectors. In addition to Maravich, the 1970-71 boasted rookie cards of Pat Riley, Calvin Murphy, Bob Dandridge and Norm Van Lier. There were also future Hall of Famers like Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Walt Frazier, Bill Bradley and Havlicek.
Within the checklist, Topps introduced subsets for the first time in a basketball set. Cards 1-6 were league leaders, All-Stars were featured on Nos. 106-115, and the NBA Finals series between the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers were cards 168-175. Card No. 175 shows the Knicks celebrating their victory as NBA champions.
The design of the 1970-71 Topps set featured a photo of the player either with a posed shot or a large, close-up headshot. A large basketball in one of the bottom corners of the card front contains the player’s name, position and city.
The cards themselves measured 2½ inches by 4 11/16 inches, which is perfect for basketball, a sport that is defined by height.
Topps produced plenty of them and it’s a popular issue for grading. For example, barely 60,000 cards from this set have been submitted to PSA for grading. Of those, 230 have been graded Gem Mint 10, and more than 6,800 have a PSA 9 grade. Two of the more than 3,100 Maravich rookies have been rated 10.
There are no PSA 10 cards of Riley despite 732 submissions. There are, however, 10 cards that have reached PSA 9. Murphy’s rookie card has had 634 submissions but only one came back Gem Mint. Among the veterans, Alcindor’s card has just one PSA 10 card among 1,901 submissions.
Two cards have 13 cards that have PSA 10 designations. One is not a surprise — card No. 173, which features Wilt Chamberlain for Game 6 of the NBA Finals. The other one is a mild surprise — Len Chappell (card No. 146), a nine-year NBA veteran who played his 10th and final season in the ABA.
Complete sets have grown in value over the last couple of years with better ungraded sets selling for $2,000 and up.
High-grade rookie cards of Maravich have also skyrocketed with mint 9 examples currently selling in the $15,000-$21,000 range. A 10 hasn’t come to market since 2019 when one sold for over $130,000.
The tall boy set that Topps put out was stacked with stars and promising rookies. It was definitely one of the better sets put out until the era of Michael Jordan more than a decade later.