In terms of the sheer depth and quality of their rookie cards, three basketball card sets forever stand alone.
Because, these days, it’s unlikely that all major card manufacturers will simply bail on basketball for several years.
The gorgeous 1961-62 Fleer set, for instance, is hilariously stacked, featuring rookie cards of inner-most circle legends Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Oscar Robertson and Elgin Baylor, as well as those of fellow Hall of Famers Lenny Wilkens, Sam Jones, Walt Bellamy, Hal Greer, Richie Guerin, Bailey Howell and Guy Rodgers. It helps, of course, that the product was released during a golden age for the sport. Every bit as helpful, though, is that this was the first mainstream basketball product since Topps’ 1957 set.
Had basketball cards been dutifully produced in the interim, the legends who’d debuted between 1956 and 1960 (Wilt, Baylor, Jones, Greer, Guerin, Howell and Rodgers) would have anchored their own sets. 1961 Fleer would, thus, have a rookie class of “just” West, Robertson, Wilkens and Bellamy.
At this point, Fleer elected to step away from the sport for the next quarter century. Topps, meanwhile, waited nearly a decade before stepping in to fill the void. Like Fleer’s 1961 effort, Topps’ 1969 “tallboy” set is positively bursting at the seams with legends. The set is headlined by the foundational Lew Alcindor rookie, but also features the cardboard debuts of Bill Bradley, Dave Bing, John Havlicek, Willis Reed, Wes Unseld, Nate Thurmond, Walt Frazier, Earl Monroe, Dave DeBusschere, Gail Goodrich, Connie Hawkins, Billy Cunningham, Jerry Lucas and Elvin Hayes. Over 15% of a 99-card set dedicated to Hall of Famers’ rookie cards.
Similarly, had someone stepped into the breach sooner, Havlicek, DeBusschere, Thurmond, Lucas, Reed, Goodrich, Cunningham, Bing, Frazier and Monroe would all have appeared in earlier sets, leaving 1969 with a rookie crop of Alcindor, and 1968 debutants Bradley, Hayes and Unseld. Worth noting is the case of Connie Hawkins, whose NBA debut came in 1969. However, this is only because, after graduating high school in 1960, he was wrongfully implicated in a point-shaving scandal during his freshman year at Iowa, and subsequently blackballed by the NBA. He spent the majority of the 1960s as a nomad, drifting from the short-lived ABL to the Harlem Globetrotters for three years, to the ABA, where he starred for two seasons. Do with this what you will.
After an uninterrupted twelve-year run of timely rookie cards, Topps once again dropped basketball after its 1981-82 set. For three years, packs of basketball cards were not released by any major manufacturer. This time, however, the scene wasn’t totally barren.
A Star Take Center Stage
The only NBA-licensed producer from 1982 until 1986, The Star Company distributed its cards not via traditional packs, but in transparent, sealed plastic bags containing all of the cards of players of a particular team or subset (All-Stars, “Court Kings”, highlights from the previous Finals, etc.). Nationally, they were available through a network of “master distributors”, and through ads in hobby magazines. Locally, the bags were sold in hobby shops and at sporting venues. In some cases no purchase was necessary at all, as unsold bags were sometimes simply given away at local sporting (not necessarily NBA) events. It’s against this backdrop that a legendary crop of superstars made their cardboard debuts.
Star’s inaugural, 275-card 1983-84 set features the first licensed cards of Isiah Thomas, Clyde Drexler, Dominique Wilkins and James Worthy, plus those of several other All-Stars. The 1984-85 set was even more stacked, with the first cards of John Stockton, Hakeem (then “Akeem”) Olajuwon, Charles Barkley and, of course, Michael Jordan. For good measure, two other cards, one commemorating Jordan’s place on the 1984 Olympic team, the other his Rookie of the Year win, are included in the base set. The 1985-86 set, meanwhile, boasted just four first-timers: 1984 draftees Danny Young, Jerome Kersey and Kevin Willis, and the top pick from 1985, Patrick Ewing.
Thanks to their untraditional distribution, Star cards are not considered “true rookie cards”, but rather “extended rookies” (XRC). This, of course, hasn’t prevented them from becoming hobby cornerstones. Limited print runs (most didn’t exceed 5,000), quality control issues (uneven ink saturation, miscutting, misprints) and general indifference to basketball cards at the time made good-conditioned versions a rare commodity. Meanwhile, elevated counterfeiting risk (PSA and SGC still do not authenticate or grade Star cards) place an added premium on the genuine article, and made purchases of raw cards a high-stakes wager.
To this day, relatively high grade versions carry significant price tags. The ultimate prize, Jordan’s XRC (#101) from the 1984-85 set, graded BGS 7.5, regularly sells for about $30,000. BGS 8.5 versions, when they surface, pull in over $50,000. The last sale on eBay of a Jordan XRC (graded BGS 7.5) was on March 9, 2021, for $29,433. That same day, a BGS 9 1986 Fleer sold for $22,000. The previous day, a BGS 9 (with two 9.5 sub-grades) sold for $32,700. Even lesser-conditioned versions (BGS 5 or 5.5) of the set’s two other Jordans (Team USA #195 or Rookie of the Year #288) carry four figures price tags.
In the cases of Olajuwon, Barkley and, interestingly, Dominique Wilkins, BGS 7.5 and 8s bring in over $1,000, with BGS 9s, when they come available, selling for well over $3,000. Isiah, Drexler, Stockton and Ewing, meanwhile, are moderately more affordable, with BGS 8/8.5 in the $600-$800 range, with 9s fetching $1,200-$2,000. For context, these command at least double the price of the players’ comparably BGS-graded 1986 Fleer cards. Speaking of which…
Fleer’s Return “Packs” a Punch
By 1986, Star was out of the game, and Fleer returned to basketball. As with 1961 Fleer and 1969 Topps, a staggering lineup of stars was brought under a single umbrella. Thanks to nationwide distribution via packs, 1986-87 Fleer was seen as the “official rookie cards” of players who’d previously appeared in Star sets.
Thus, more than half of the 131 player cards (card #132 is a checklist) in the set are considered rookies. Heading up the class are the “official” rookies of Jordan, Barkley, Drexler, Ewing, Olajuwon, Isiah, Dominique and Worthy, with the likes of Mark Aguirre, Rolando Blackman, Tim Chambers, Sam Perkins, Kevin Willis making up an outstanding second tier.
Interestingly, despite having been included in the 1984-85 Star set, John Stockton was omitted from ’86-’87 Fleer. On closer inspection, though, while he’d appeared in every game over his first two seasons, averages of six points and six assists in 21 minutes per game didn’t scream out for inclusion in a lineup of 131. Stockton didn’t break out until 1987-88, and didn’t get a traditional rookie card until 1988-89 Fleer.
This does, however, beg the question: what does this set look like if we do consider Star cards to be the “true rookies”? Who are the “rightful rookies” of ’86-’87 Fleer?
Again, as was standard at the time, the players selected in the 1986 draft were not included in 1986-87 Fleer, as, say, the Kobe-Iverson class of ’96 was in 1996-97 sets. Printing rookie cards of athletes in their actual rookie seasons didn’t become a thing until 1989 (hello, Hoops and David Robinson). In case you’re wondering, the best first-rounders from the 1986 draft were Brad Daugherty, Chuck Person and Ron Harper, with Mark Price, Dennis Rodman and Jeff Hornacek going in the second round.
This leaves us, effectively, with the draft class of 1985, and anyone drafted prior to that, but not featured in a Star set. Let’s unpack this thing, huh?
Will the “Rightful” Rookies Please Stand Up?
There are 18 players with rookie cards in ’86-’87 Fleer who do not also have a Star XRC. Of these, nine – John Bagley, Manute Bol, Pat Cummings, Larry Drew, Frank Johnson, Danny Schayes, Larry Smith, Mel Turpin and Orlando Woolridge – were drafted between 1978 and 1984, but had never appeared on an official card. Thoroughly uninspiring, but true rookie cards none the less. They’re in.
Then there’s another group of nine 1985 draftees who were not featured in a Star set. The clear headliner here is Karl Malone, with fellow Hall of Famers Chris Mullin and Joe Dumars rounding out the top tier.
The next group is a collection of excellent pros – Xavier McDaniel, Charles Oakley, Wayman Tisdale. And Benoit Benjamin. An unfortunate omission is Detlef Schrempf, who was selected eight overall, after Mullin and before Oakley. Interestingly, though, the 87th overall pick (a fourth-rounder) did find his way into this club. Of course, winning a dunk contest against Dominique while standing five-foot-seven will do that…
Which leaves us with Patrick Ewing. On the one hand, it’s interesting that only a single guy from a draft with four Hall of Famers in the first eighteen selections made the cut for inclusion in the final Star set. On the other hand, of course, Ewing had been cast as “the next Bill Russell” since high school, and had been the most sought-after college recruit since Lew Alcindor. He was a generational can’t-miss prospect. He’s the reason the NBA implemented a draft lottery when it did. Any opportunity to get him onto cardboard early was always going to be taken.
For the “strict rookie card constructionists” among us, that boots Ewing off of the list of 1986-87 Fleer rookies, leaving a “rightful” rookie crop of the Mailman, Mullin, Dumars, and a few pretty good bigs. Hardly a disaster, but by no means the stuff that dreams – and bank balances – are made of.
Why Pick Nits? Just Make Room for Both!
There is a an interesting debate to be had here, with viable and defensible arguments on either side. The argument against the “rookification” of much of the 1986-87 Fleer set has prominent supporters, including new PSA Chairman Nat Turner. If this is where you fall and, to you, the fabled #57 is nothing more than a third-year Jordan? Have at it. At the same time…
Why seek out flaws in something so serendipitous and perfect?
Allow me to set cold logic and rationality aside for a moment, and adopt a more freewheeling approach. That the Star sets exist at all is awesome. That so many NBA greats first featured in the those sets is cooler still. Those cards are among the lesser-spotted, truly iconic gems of the hobby. Thankfully, the dual XRC/RC designations provide a loophole, through which we can pay proper respect to the last of two particular breeds of unicorn.