The NBA was having a rough time back in the late 1970’s. The league had merged with the ABA but the limited excitement created by the move didn’t last long. Rumors of franchise shifts were common and sometimes they happened. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson hadn’t yet arrived and Michael Jordan was still in high school.
Trading card sets were kept to a bare minimum–just 132 cards were produced in 1977 and and Topps stuck with that formula for the two years after that. Open a box of 1978-79 basketball packs and if the card distribution was good, you might have two full sets and a good start on a third.
More than 40 years later, those sets are starting to garner a lot more appreciation. Despite the lack of a strong class of rookie cards, the odds of pulling a Hall of Famer or big name star out of a pack isn’t bad. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is here. Julius Erving. Pistol Pete. George Gervin. Walt Frazier. Bill Walton.
The design is basic, but clean. There’s an action shot, with the player’s name and position at the bottom along with a head shot. In fact, Topps touted “more thrilling action shots” in the sell sheet it sent out to stores and trading card dealers in hopes of drumming up excitement. The team name is in vertical form along the side.
While the 1978-79 Topps basketball set isn’t exceptionally great looking or valuable, it does have rookie cards of Bernard King, Walter Davis, Jack Sikma, the underrated Marques Johnson, Norm Nixon and Cornbread Maxwell, among others. Complete sets have ticked up in value over the last year, but solid examples can still be had for $125-$200.
The latest edition of Vintage Pack Facts sponsored by Vintage Breaks, features a deeper look at the packaging for a hoops set from the disco era.
1978-79 Topps packaging photo gallery
Pack Facts: 1978-79 Topps Basketball
- The first thing collectors noticed as 1978 unfolded was that the price of packs had gone up. It began with baseball and continued through the company’s other sports lines including basketball. 15-cent wax packs had given way to 20-cent packs. Each pack held ten cards and with 36 packs per box, set building was generally pretty easy. You can watch a pack break below.
- Cases of 1978-79 Topps basketball held 16 boxes. A full case–opened and with each box authenticated–just sold via Memory Lane for $57,530. Not bad considering that in the early to mid-1980s, dealers were often happy sell them at anything close to retail cost ($115.20). Basketball just wasn’t selling.
- Among the offers on the side panels of ’78-79 packs: an NBA team logo tote bag, Marvel Comics subscription and the ever-popular Topps sports card locker.
- Topps also produced “tray packs” that were usually distributed through grocery stores and retail outlets like K-Mart. Each tray held three wax packs and usually sold for around 55 cents. They’re fairly rare today.
- Vending cases were sold in the typical format: 24 boxes of 500 cards each: 12,000 cards per case usually surrendered 85-90 complete 132-card sets. A single box sold for $1,640 in the summer of 2020.
- Shipping cases featured a generic basketball player illustration on the side. There’s an empty one listed on eBay now.
This issue offers a lot of fun for the hoops fan and collector who likes his sets nice and tidy and his pack ripping to be reasonable.
You can learn more about participating in vintage pack breaks—or just watch—by visiting VintageBreaks.com.