The 1973-74 Topps Basketball set may never measure up to the sets produced during the golden age of basketball cards — the emergence of 1980s stars Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, followed by Michael Jordan, was a big turning point for collectors. But the set gave basketball card collectors another taste of the two-league war being waged by the NBA and the upstart ABA, and that made for an interesting set. A compact set, to be sure, but a star-studded one.
For the second consecutive year, the NBA’s partner produced a 264-card set. The NBA was represented by cards Nos. 1-176, while the ABA held down cards Nos. 177-264 (the same format that was used for the 1972-73 set).
Packs were still a dime with either 24 or 36 packs in a box (Topps made both).
A Haul of Hall of Famers
The big names in this set read like a who’s who among pro basketball’s greats — Nate Archibald, Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson, Pete Maravich, Rick Barry, Bill Bradley and John Havlicek were some of the marquee NBA stars included in this set. The ABA was no slouch either, with Julius Erving, Artis Gilmore, Dan Issel, George McGinnis and Billy Cunningham.
Pat Riley and Phil Jackson, who would excel as NBA coaches, were part of this set as players.
Archibald was card No. 1, and it’s hard to argue that designation. “Tiny” had enjoyed his greatest season in 1972-73, leading the NBA in nine different categories, including most points, field goals, free throws, minutes played and assists.
1973-74 Topps Basketball Design
The card fronts for the 1973-74 Topps basketball set show the player in either game action or a stilted, posed shot. Some of the posed shots look as though the player was told to stand in front of a wall. In the lower left-hand corner of the card, there is a basketball net with a ball hovering above it. The ball contained the player’s position, with his team name in large letters to the right, with his name placed underneath the team name.
Topps had to sort out the issue of two franchises using the Rockets name — the NBA’s Houston franchise and the ABA team in Denver (which would change its name to Nuggets starting with the 1974-75 season). The name change did some good in Denver, by the way, as the team’s 37-47 mark in 1973-74 improved to a breathtaking 65-19 in 1974-75.
To solve the team confusion, Topps added “Houston” to the NBA Rockets cards.
Card backs were vertical in design, with a cartoon at the top. A red box contains the player’s personal statistics, like height and weight, and a green box contains a summary of his career. Year-by-year statistics appear below those boxes.
For the first time, there was not an All-Star subset. The player’s base card simply has an all-star designation, along with a white inset photo with a floating head shot.
There are, however, subsets for league leaders—the NBA’s top statistical stars are featured on card Nos. 153-158, while the ABA’s best are on card Nos. 234-239. The NBA playoffs were placed on card Nos. 62-68, and the ABA postseason was chronicled on card Nos. 202-208.
The crop of rookies in this set was not overwhelming, but the key first-year players include Bob McAdoo, Paul Westphal, Chris Ford and Fred Brown.
There are plenty of graded cards from the 1973-74 Topps basketball set, with 22,925 submitted to PSA. Of those cards, 507 graded out gem mint — but there are no PSA 10s of Archibald, Erving, Havlicek, Cunningham, Gilmore, Issel or Walt Frazier. There is one gem mint of Robertson and Reed, and two of Abdul-Jabbar.
There are 879 cards graded by SGC, but only one card — the No. 4 of Jim McMillian — fetches a grade as high as 98. There are 227 cards designated as SGC 96.
The set’s NM/MT and even Mint graded star cards are cheap. An Erving graded 8–his second card–is usually under $35 with ungraded NM examples even less. Commons and minor stars often sell for less than what it costs to grade them.
Set prices, as always, depend on condition but with no impact rookie cards, the 1973-74 Topps Basketball set is one of the cheapest truly vintage sports card sets in the market. You can own a solid example for $250-300.
There were inserts in the 1973-74 set in the form of 27 team logo stickers. They are made in the form of a large team logo, along with a smaller one on the same sticker in a pennant design. Take a look at that Carolina Cougars logo: it looks like an attempt to copy the Pink Panther.
The 1973-74 set has some great names and affordable cards. Prices are reasonable for graded and raw cards, and a set builder should be able to assemble this product with minimal effort.
You can see them on eBay here.