30 years ago, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson finally met. The NCAA title game helped launch one of the game’s best rivalries… and most valuable rookie cards.
The year was 1979.
March Madness was in full swing and basketball fans everywhere were deep in speculation about the upcoming NCAA basketball title game, where Michigan State’s Magic Johnson and Indiana State’s Larry Bird would meet on a court in Salt Lake City–two future NBA superstars embarking upon a rivalry that would last their entire careers.
In a world that was still years away from nightly sports shows, satellite feeds and the internet, many fans had yet to see Bird play live.
The game itself was an exciting one; televised on the evening of March 26, it would become the highest-rated game in the history of televised college basketball. It would also prove to be the catalyst for an NBA renaissance that centered on the Lakers and Celtics—the two teams for which Johnson and Bird were destined. This renaissance would last through the 1980s and 1990s and create a new generation of fans who looked at basketball in a whole new way.
The first company to produce basketball trading cards was Topps, who sold their first cards in 1957. However, due to poor sales, they were discontinued after one season. Much of the disinterest had to do with the NBA itself. Going through considerable difficulties at the time, people were quickly losing interest in the sport as well as the cards.
Topps tried again in 1969 and continued selling basketball cards until 1982 when they once again abandoned the market. In response to the renewed frenzy of interest in the NBA by fans everywhere, Fleer introduced basketball cards in 1986 and at-the-time newcomers Upper Deck joined with their own offerings in 1990. Topps didn’t return to the market until 1992. But, in spite of their missing out on prized rookie cards like Michael Jordan and other mid and late 1980s NBA greats; Topps is still the only game in town for the Bird/Magic rookie cards. And there would be multiples thanks to a quirky design.
The 1980-1981 Topps basketball set was unusual. It included 176 cards that were divided into three panels, for a total of 264 players. The cards came in eight-card wax packs and each card has perforations for separating the panels. Subsets included Slam Dunk, All-Star, and Team Leader. Notably included in the set was the Topps #6 card, which included #34 Larry Bird, #174 Magic Johnson, and #139 Julius Erving. The inclusion of Dr. J turned the card into a future Hall of Famer-packed icon. Bird and Johnson each shared space with other players on different cards that are part of a ‘master set’ of 1980-81 Topps, but not surprisingly, it’s the unique Bird/Johnson combo rookie card that remains the most valuable.
It’s been an interesting journey for the basketball card collector; from that long ago day in March 1979 to now. The game has changed, the fans have changed, and the way we collect cards is changing. But one thing will never change; the respect for Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Two all-time greats whose spark of rivalry lit the NBA–and they’ve been on fire ever since.
Related: List of Bird/Magic rookies on eBay