I’ll always have a fondness for the 1971-72 Topps Basketball set. A day or two before Christmas, the boyfriend of my high school age sister dropped by the house and deposited a present under our tree that I quickly deduced was an entire unopened box under our tree. To a kid who had to search the couch cushions to find a dime for one pack, getting 24 of them in one fell swoop put my young brain on overload. My sister actually hid them in her dresser drawer so nine-year-old me wouldn’t open them all at once.
1971-72 Topps Unopened
Actually, keeping the box unopened would have been the smarter thing to do. Today, the 1971-72 Topps box is one of the rarest unopened products in the hobby. You can probably count on one hand the number of wax boxes that survive. Steve Hart of Baseball Card Exchange told us there are also 12-pack boxes, one of which his company sold at last year’s National Sports Collectors Convention for $14,000. Two of them slid into an outer cardboard sleeve to create a 24-pack box.
Topps also made 500-count basketball vending boxes that season. One of them sold via Collect Auctions in December for $4,842, which was actually a pretty good deal.
Topps simply didn’t make that many cards in 1971-72 as evidenced by the grading company population reports which show fewer cards in existence than from the 1970-71, despite the 233 card set being the largest Topps basketball set to date. Wax packs were once again a dime with ten cards in each along with what we now refer to as the “Trio Sticker Insert”, a black sticker card featuring three players.
That ’70s Set
The first 144 cards in the 1971-72 Topps set are NBA players and for the first time, Topps had a deal with the American Basketball Association so cards #145-233 are ABA guys. At the time, basketball cards were the only way kids living in cities where there was no ABA team actually saw color photos of the players. Few games or highlights were ever shown on TV.
The card design is very much in tune with the early 70s. The team name is in giant, colorful letters at the top. The player’s name is at the bottom with the first letters of the player’s first and last name in red and the rest in black. The photos are cropped and placed against a star, solid color background. Backs include the traditional player info, a short bio (if there was room), stats and the ever-popular cartoon.
Rookies and Stars
There is no high dollar rookie card, which makes the 1971-72 Topps basketball set easier for a collector to digest, but there are some notable first year cards. Rick Barry finally got one thanks to the Topps deal, despite having already spent several years as one of the ABA’s biggest stars. Other rookie cards include new Hall of Famer Spencer Haywood, Bob Lanier, Dave Cowens, Nate Archibald, Rudy Tomjanovich, Dan Issel and Larry Brown.
The Milwaukee Bucks were defending NBA champions and Topps made Oscar Robertson card #1. Today, it’s tough to find in high grade with only eight cards rating a ‘9’ from PSA. One sold in 2015 for $1,395 but there are decent examples available for a decent price if you’re not a mint maniac. Elgin Baylor, card #10, is another tough Hall of Famer with just nine mint, graded examples.
Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Lew Alcindor), John Havlicek and more than 20 other Hall of Famers have cards in the set. However, like many basketball cards of the era, even graded NM/MT examples can often be found for under $50.
Commons, Leaders and Champs
Poor centering and other issues plague several cards in the set. There are literally no cards of #16 John Block that have been deemed good enough to merit a ‘9’ grade from PSA, just one of #85 Dick Van Arsdale and only two of #89 Shaler Halimon. #76 Dale Schlueter, 111 LeRoy Ellis, #126 Mike Riordan and #232 Ralph Simpson are also tough. Many cards in the set have fewer than 15 mint, graded examples on the books.
The 1971-72 set includes Leader cards for both the NBA and ABA and playoff cards for the NBA. One of the better looking, more creative cards in the set shows the Bucks’ bench erupting as they come onto the floor to celebrate winning the Finals in the spring of ’71.
There are some classic images in this set–even of guys who spent only a couple of years in the league. From Dan Hester’s epic sideburns and necklace to Emmette Bryant’s headband, Skeeter Swift’s chest hair and Gerald Govan’s glasses, it’s a trip.
Despite relatively low population numbers, the 1971-72 Topps Basketball set is still relatively affordable with even near mint, ungraded sets changing hands for under $400 and many high-grade singles (or even graded ones) available for just a few dollars. Click here to see what’s currently available on eBay.