By 1989, basketball cards had been in the marketplace for some time. Some existed in the pre-war era through sets like the 1933 Goudey Sport Kings release. Their production really got underway with the creation of the 1948 Bowman issue and, subsequently, Topps sets, starting in the 1950s. Topps would produce sets for many years into the early 1980s and become the clear ‘go to’ for basketball cards. However, they ultimately bowed out of the market until they returned in 1992.
Topps’ exit left a real void. In the 1980s, Star Company and then Fleer picked up the baton. The level of acceptance of Star cards has varied among collectors.
Once Topps exited after their 1981-82 set, Fleer assumed the mantle of the top basketball card manufacturer in 1986-87 and their inaugural set became one of the top releases of all time with accepted rookie cards of many players that had come into the league since Topps’ final set five years earlier.
Fleer would continue to have a stranglehold on the card market for two more seasons. But 30 years ago this fall, another player entered the marketplace. Hoops would ultimately stick around to produce numerous sets, but that first set was a seminal moment in the trading card hobby.
The cards were an instant hit with basketball collectors for at least two primary reasons. First, they became an instant competitor of Fleer, which had really been the only game in town for collectors wanting cards issued in unopened packs. Second, the Hoops set included a real live chase card with the rookie issue of David Robinson. The Hoops card design left a lot to be desired, if you really think about it. But that mattered little as collectors were happy just to have another viable choice of cards to buy.
Robinson was the top overall player selected in the 1987 NBA Draft, chosen by the San Antonio Spurs. Because he was in the Navy, he could not immediately join the NBA and needed to fulfill his time of service there. But he later signed with the Spurs in time for the 1989-90 season and he made an immediate impact. That year, Robinson averaged 24.3 points per game while pulling in 12 rebounds per contest. He played in all 82 games and was named the Rookie of the Year at season’s end. His inclusion in the Hoops set more than anything was the largest reason collectors flocked to those cards.
Robinson was actually featured on two cards in the 1989-90 Hoops set but it was his card in the first series which got all the attention. That card features Robinson in a suit holding up his Spurs jersey. Keep in mind this was an era in which first year players were just starting to have rookie cards actually available during their rookie season. Also of intrigue was that it was a shortprint, although given the quantities of Hoops cards produced that year, hardly says much. But demand was enhanced given that the card was a tougher pull than others.
Hoops snapped some early season game action photos for its second series, released a bit later in the season and dropped a fresh Robinson card. The second series was more of a “mini update” with players on the new expansion teams included. The additions totaled only 52 cards (#301-352) so the bulk of the cards found in Series 2 boxes were still from Series 1.
Part of the reason Robinson’s card was so important is because it was his only real rookie issue. Fleer, which did issue a set for 1989-90, did not include him. And while Fleer would begin producing update sets with rookie cards in 1990-91, they did not have one for their 1989-90 set. Thus, collectors wanting Robinson’s rookie card were forced to get it through the Hoops set. And that card drove up demand for the company’s unopened product.
Today, both cards are readily available on eBay for $1-2 although graded copies can fetch a little more.
There was more to the 1989-90 Hoops set than the Robinson card, though. The set included Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and every other big name stars. A shortprinted card featuring the world champion Detroit Pistons from the second series was also in demand. But if you’re looking for the card that put Hoops on the map, it was clearly the Robinson rookie.
Hoops, for a brief time, had the attention of card collectors. That was helped by some really lackluster sets produced by Fleer in Hoops’ first two years. However, they wouldn’t have the spotlight for long. More competition in the basketball card market would quickly surface.
In 1990-91, Skybox and their innovative design would capture the minds and wallets of collectors. A year later, Upper Deck entered the market. In 1992-93, Topps returned to the industry with its first set in more than a decade. And Classic, which produced cards of collegiate players entering the professional ranks, became a force by signing Shaquille O’Neal to an exclusive deal to produce his first rookie cards. More and more sets were ultimately produced but it was Hoops’ inaugural effort 30 years ago that helped usher in an entirely new era for basketball cards.