Although it may not seem like it on the surface, considering it’s issue date in the midst of the junk wax era, the 1991-92 Fleer Basketball set actually had a lot going for it.
Fresh off of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls’ first NBA Championship, MJ was heavily featured within the set. A G.O.A.T. heavy product is always a plus.
It was the sixth year running for Fleer’s NBA line and this iteration was the largest set (400 cards in two series) that the company had produced to date. It was also the first basketball set to include autographed cards in packs with 2,000 each of the Dominique Wilkins and Dikembe Mutombo subsets randomly seeded in Series 2 packs.
There’s also a virtually unknown component of this 30-year-old issue: the 3-D Acrylic Wrapper Redemption cards.
On the back panels of the wrappers of the packs of cards, Fleer promoted an offer for what it called “3-D Plastic” basketball cards. For $4.99 (plus 50 cents shipping and handling) and three wrappers, collectors could could order their choice of any base card souped up with a special coating. All the collector had to do was print their name, address address and zip code on a plain piece of paper and specify the card they wanted. Delivery took 6-8 weeks.
It was the first “print on demand” basketball card product from a mainstream manufacturer and the first “3-D style” basketball card product of any kind.
The acrylic cards actually came back to the purchaser in a sealed plastic baggie with the advertised card stand included to properly display your new high end and unique collectible.
The technology used was not the often used lenticular– or in layman’s terms, the annoyingly scratchy sounding plastic material. The1991-92 Fleer redemption cards were made of multiple layers of a fine acrylic material, similar to the acetate later found on many cards in the hobby.
This is one of those classic instances where talking about or even seeing online pictures of a card does not do it justice.
Mitch Kalman, a longtime contributor to Tuff Stuff Magazine and 90s basketball super collector/New York Knicks fan, saw first-hand how spectacular these cards were upon their release.
“I went berserk.” he shares. “I thought this was the greatest thing since sliced bread. I called up Fleer because I was doing the pricing for Tuff Stuff. I wanted more information about the program. The gentleman I spoke to said it was a very easy process to make. They just cut out the image and pasted it on acrylic and that was it. I have every single Knick in that set, I have 19 Knicks.”
Kalman, an IT product manager for over 30 years, was so excited about the 3D prospect that he wanted to cover it in the legendary price guide. When he enquired about other lines and offerings, he got a pleasant surprise.
“When I got ahold of the Fleer representative, the manager in charge of production, I told him I wanted to get the product in Tuff Stuff.” Kalman shares. “I asked if they did any other cards than the Fleer. He said no but if I sent him a card from another company he would make it a 3D acrylic for me. I sent him a 1991-92 Hoops Patrick Ewing. He ended up making a one of a kind Ewing acrylic from the Hoops set.”
From all reports it appears as though not many collectors took part in the 3-D card redemption, as there are usually only 80-100 that are on eBay at any given time.
The company could have very well made up a three dimensional equivalent acrylic versions of every base card but but with the program fulfilling only the requested cards, it’s more likely that many of the acrylic versions for certain players in the set were never produced or have a population today that you can count on one hand.
If the company did produce excess cards, it’s also thought that Fleer may have discarded any left over inventory once the promotion came to an end.
No official print runs were ever announced but looking at graded population reports shows how scarce these junk era gems truly are. Most cards have a total graded pop of less than 5. The majority of cards in the set have either one or no graded examples at all. The Jordan base card shows 51 on the PSA pop report and 25 on Beckett. His League Leader card has been graded 16 times by PSA and 18 by Beckett. Between both companies there are only 14 of Larry Bird and fewer than 30 of Magic Johnson. Beckett has graded a total of 311 cards from the set.
Certainly, it’s possible there are numerous ungraded examples sitting in collections, but the overall production is clearly very low compared to just about any other 1990s era sports card product.
Basketball collectors have taken notice lately as raw versions of these cards, even for players basically considered commons, sell for hundreds of dollars while superstars like Jordan at the top of the food chain bring four figure prices. Raw copies of the Jordan base card have sold for well over $500 in recent months. In June, a Mitch Richmond copy sold for over $300. A Glen Rice base sold for over $260 the same week. At the end of July, the base Jordan in a BGS 8.5 slab sold for nearly $900. Even at that level, they might be undervalued considering how few exist.
Kalman has been monitoring–and participating–in the market.
“I bought a Michael Jordan League Leader. I ended up selling that on eBay for over $400. Right after I sold my Jordan, I sold my Chris Mullin base and Team Leader cards together for $525. I am blown away by the prices as well. I never thought they were worth anything. I thought they were a novelty. Nobody collected them. All of a sudden they are hot.”
So why was the promotion apparently kind of a dud at a time when the hobby was hot and basketball cards had been soaring in popularity? It’s hard to know for certain, but one factor could be cost. $5.49 back then equates to around $9 today and for that much, you could have bought quite a few packs. The mindset of many back then was to complete sets and that wasn’t practical with the cost of the mail-in cards. Collectors may have seen it as an unnecessary gimmick or not been quite sure what to expect for their $5.49.
For a rather obscure product that came from a wildly overproduced set and era, it’s safe to call Fleer’s unique promotion a diamond in the rough. Many have either forgotten about them or never knew they existed. Serious collectors have really begun to take notice of the scarcity, though, and it’s reflective in current sales prices. The 1991-92 Fleer 3D Acrylic cards are starting to take a seat at the table of highly sought after 1990s basketball products.