It’s difficult to imagine that company executives could have envisioned what they were creating with the release of the 1986-87 Fleer basketball set. It was the company’s first foray into the basketball card world and despite a less than enthusiastic initial reaction, it ultimately became a heck of a debut. Thirty years later, the issue stands near the top of the list of all-time great basketball card sets.
Issued beginning in late September–a few weeks before the NBA regular season got into full swing–they were the first basketball cards to be issued in packs since Topps’ 1981-82 issue. Fleer had made the announcement of its deal with the league in mid-July 1986.
Fleer said it decided to enter the NBA trading card market because of “renewed interest in the sport,” according to Steven Peck, a spokesman for the company at the time.
The 1986-87 Fleer basketball cards are standard trading card size at 2 1/2″ wide x 3 1/2″ tall. The design includes a unique red, white, and blue border around the entire card with a photo in the middle. At the bottom in white lettering against a blue background, collectors will find the player’s name, team, and position.
The red, white, and blue theme is carried over onto the back. Text and logos were printed in blue against a red and white background. Included on the backs are team logos and statistical information for the player in question.
In all, a total of 132 cards and 11 stickers (one per pack) make up the set.
If ever there was such a thing as a loaded rookie lineup, this is it. Now, it’s not as if the 1986 NBA Draft was the primary factor for that. While there were some good players in that group, in actuality, they had nothing to do with the strong rookie lineup. Topps was previously the sole printer of mainstream basketball cards but after their 1981-82 issue, they took a hiatus lasting until 1992-93. Star Company snapped up the NBA license but distributed them in bagged team sets as opposed to unopened product and weren’t generally seen as one of the mainstream card companies with their low production quantities.
Topps’ exit left a massive four-year window where there were no packs of major-label basketball product. For that reason, players in the NBA Draft from 1982 to 1986 were being placed on their ‘rookie’ cards, even though many had been in the league for a few years. As a result, the set contains numerous first-year cards for big name players such as Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, Clyde Drexler, Isaiah Thomas, Dominique Wilkins, Chris Mullin, James Worthy, and more.
In all, nearly half of the entire set is composed of rookie cards.
Ironically, Fleer’s inaugural set could have been even more jam-packed with rookie cards. Interestingly enough, players in the 1986 NBA Draft weren’t included in this set and in some cases, didn’t surface for a few years.
Brad Daugherty, the top overall player taken, didn’t show up until the 1987-88 Fleer set. Others, such as Dennis Rodman and Mark Price, weren’t included until two years later in 1988-89. Point guard Scott Skiles, who had a solid career, didn’t debut until the 1989-90 set. Fleer’s limited checklist often pushed younger players to the side for more established veterans.
And sadly, Len Bias was never included. The No. 2 pick in the 1986 NBA Draft overdosed on cocaine and tragically passed away shortly after the draft.
The 1986-87 Fleer set isn’t only about rookies, though. There were plenty of big name stars happy to land on their first cards in many years.
Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were two such players, who had only two previous major cards (1980-81 Topps and 1981-82 Topps) before the Fleer set. There are older guys such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Julius Erving. And appearing on their final big name trading cards during their playing careers, there are Hall of Famers Bill Walton and George Gervin.
The toughest card to find in high grade, however, has proven to be a player who most fans have forgotten. Card number 78, Johnny Moore, sells for several thousand dollars in a ’10’ grade and several hundred in a 9.
The 1986-87 Fleer set doesn’t end with just the base cards. In each pack, Fleer included a special sticker card featuring a total of 11 players. These differ from the regular base cards in that they have a white border and completely different design.
The highlight of the 11 card-issue is a second Michael Jordan rookie. Four other ‘rookies’ include Hall of Famers Patrick Ewing, Isaiah Thomas, Dominique Wilkins, and Hakeem Olajuwon. The remainder of the checklist includes Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Erving, Alex English, and Adrian Dantley.
1986-87 Fleer Prices
While high-grade rookies in the set are all the rage, the set isn’t too expensive given the amount of star power that’s included. Commons are plentiful on eBay in the $1-$2 range. Stars, such as Magic and Bird aren’t difficult to find for $15-$20. Even the bigger name rookies such as Barkley, Malone, or Olajuwon are easy to spot for under $50.
The big fish, of course, is Jordan. The Jordan card has been heavily counterfeited due to its value so buying a graded example will help your chances of securing the real deal. A decent Jordan rookie in mid-grade condition will generally start around $1,000 and high-grade examples are much steeper. Currently, PSA 9 examples are selling in the $5,500 to $6,000 range with 8s at roughly half that.
Can’t afford the Jordan? Try looking for a sticker. The Jordan sticker rookies aren’t cheap, but at $150 or even less in decent condition, they’re a fraction of the price of a card.
Despite the price tag and somewhat scarcity, complete sets aren’t too hard to find. Prices will obviously vary by grade, but a complete set with a PSA 8 Jordan rookie card recently sold for nearly $4,000.