There are four sets of basketball cards from the twentieth century that stand above the rest.
The first, 1961-62 Fleer, boasts the rookie cards of four of the NBA’s inner-circle greats – Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and Oscar Robertson – as well as that of fellow Hall of Famer Lenny Wilkens. The set also contains the first major, post-rookie issue of Bill Russell, along with “in action” cards of each of legend.
1969-70 Topps is headlined by the rookie card of the arguable (if not consensus) greatest player ever, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor), but also features rookies of Hall of Famers Earl Monroe, Walt Frazier, Bill Bradley, Dave Bing, John Havlicek, Willis Reed, Wes Unseld, Nate Thurmond, Gail Goodrich, Connie Hawkins and Jerry Lucas. The set also includes late-career cards of Chamberlain, West, Baylor and Robertson. The distinguishable tallboy issue captures an era as well as any in the hobby.
Then there’s the most revered basketball set in hobby history: 1986-87 Fleer. Its spot atop the mountain is well-deserved, as the set features beautifully photographed, red, white and blue-framed rookie cards of Hall of Famers Charles Barkley, Clyde Drexler, Joe Dumars, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, Chris Mullin, Hakeem Olajuwon, Isiah Thomas, Dominique Wilkins, James Worthy and, of course, Michael Jordan. Fleer’s landmark issue also features non-rookies of Kareem, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Julius Erving, as well as sought-after stickers of many of the greats, inserted one-per-pack.
Because of the gaps in basketball card production during the league’s first four decades, some sets got packed with rookie cards of stars from across the era. 1961-62 Fleer should “only” feature rookies of West, Robertson and Wilkens, as Chamberlain and Baylor debuted in 1960 and 1959, respectively. The stars from the ’69-’70 set began their pro careers throughout the 1960s. And 1986-87 Fleer captures rookie classes from 1982 through 1986.
The fourth is 1996-97 Topps Chrome Basketball. Initially offered to less-than-enthusiastic hobby dealers, Chrome was ultimately released as a retail-only product. Topps’ first “chromium” basketball issue mirrors the regular Topps product, down to the 20-card ProFiles, 25-card Season’s Best and 15-card Youthquake insert sets. There’s also a refractor parallel, which pops up every 12 packs.
Hum to a Roar
Despite the cards’ built-in rarity – a 20-pack, 4-card-per-pack configuration meant that one had to rip through three boxes before encountering all 220 base cards, and 132 boxes before each of the 220 different refractors came along – Topps Chrome initially failed to gain traction. At the time of release, and for a time after, boxes could be had for well under $100. After all, in a world in which “Chrome fever” had never gripped the hobby, why would anyone want a weird silver version of an already-released Topps set?
One name: Kobe Bryant.
Though he was a high-flying teenage curiosity, Kobe’s brash, precocious and spectacular style resonated with the city of Los Angeles and young fans everywhere. He won both the Rookie Game MVP and Slam Dunk Contest at All-Star weekend, and showed – through four airballs in a playoff elimination game in Utah – that he was unafraid of any moment. He came back for his second season so improved, and so spectacular, that, despite not yet starting for the Lakers, he was voted to start the All-Star Game. That weekend in New York became something of a coronation, and Kobe was anointed the “Air Apparent”.
Then the run began.
Kobe was the engine, but he wasn’t alone. The top pick from the 1996 draft, Allen Iverson, turned in a spectacular Rookie of the Year campaign, and fellow top ten picks Ray Allen, Marcus Camby, Stephon Marbury, Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Antoine Walker all looked destined for stardom. It was around this time that collectors began to realize that Topps Chrome’s rookie cards were in short supply – and that the refractors were SUPER rare – and prices exploded.
Kobe’s base Topps Chrome rookie went from sitting a consignment case at my local card shop – in Los Angeles – for weeks, with a $12 price tag, to between $250 and $400, per Beckett price guides. His refractor also shot up, to a seemingly astronomic $1,000… that still woefully underestimated its rarity. By the turn of the century, the price of boxes was well into the hundreds of dollars.
Ultimately, Iverson endured, and fulfilled his promise of becoming an all-timer, but it’s still Kobe that put the set in the pantheon. He gave the “next Jordan” thing as good a go as anyone ever will, to the tune of over 33,000 points, five NBA titles, two Finals MVPs, the 2007-08 MVP, 18 All-Star selections, four All-Star MVPs, 15 All-NBA First or Second Team nods, 12 All-Defense selections, and a positively obscene list of scoring feats. He so epitomized superstardom that not only did he become an all-time great, he developed a cult of personality that, powered by the NBA’s largest and most rabid fan base, made him a generational icon – and a hobby giant.
Around them, the rookie class evolved. Ray Allen remained Ray Allen, but Marbury, Abdur-Rahim and Walker fell off, and Camby went the excellent-but-not-superstar route. Replacing them were Jermaine O’Neal (for a bit) and late blooming two-time-MVP to-be, Steve Nash.
Kobe’s base card had long since become his key rookie card, and his refractor one of the hobby’s high-dollar treasures. Thus, 1996 Topps Chrome prices held up over time, with boxes selling for about $1,000 through the mid-2010s.
Chrome Kobe Crushes It
What’s happened in recent years – even in the context of the recent explosion in sports cards – is nothing short of staggering. Between October 2020 and January 2021, three 1996-97 Topps Chrome boxes have changed hands via eBay, at prices between $13,000 and $16,250. At the time of writing, there’s one available for purchase, with an asking price of $30,000. Heritage Auctions has one in their current Modern Trading Card Auction that appears ready to approach or surpass that figure.
Kobe remained the key driver. As of this moment, there have been 5,622 of his base Chrome rookies graded by PSA. Of these, 704 were deemed NM/MT 8, 3,980 Mint 9, and 830 have been rated Gem Mint 10. Per PSA’s data, between 2016 and mid-January 2020, PSA 8 Kobe Chrome rookies sold regularly for $200-$300. On January 26, 2020, the tragic helicopter crash claimed the lives of Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and nine others. Five days later, a PSA 8 Chrome sold for about $800. There have since been fluctuations, but the card now sells regularly for $1,500-$2,300.
More stark is the PSA 9 base rookie, which sold regularly for $500-$700 and, until the morning of January 26, 2020, could be had for $800. After the accident, the card shot up, past $2,000. After an early-COVID slump to under $1,000, it continued to rise in late-2020, to $3,000-$4,500, and recent sales now suggest a value of over $5,000.
The PSA 10 tells a similar story. The card sold regularly for about $1,000 for most of the decade, before cracking $2,000 in late-2019. Just like the PSA 9, the PSA 10 base Kobe rookie spiked to over $8,000 immediately after his passing. After an identical mid-2020 pullback, it broke $10,000 in July 2020, and currently sells for $15,000-$21,000.
Just over 400 Kobe refractors have been graded by PSA. 286 have received a Mint 9 grade, and 63 have been rated 10. Per PSA, between 2017 and late-2019, PSA 9s consistently sold for between $3,500 and $5,000, with an occasional spike to $6,000+. On January 20, 2020, a new high of just over $9,000 was reached. Over the next five months, five sold for over $12,000, culminating in a new high of $18,000. The next sale, seven weeks later… was for $41,988. Six sales have taken place in six months since, at an average price of about $37,500, with the most recent again making a new high of $44,280.
Meanwhile, 22 transactions have reportedly taken place since September 2016 for PSA 10 Kobe refractors. Following a 2013 sale (additional data is unavailable) of $4,730, in September 2016 the card first cracked five figures ($12,555). Over nearly three years and ten sales, it remained in a $10,000-$18,500 range, before a sale of $21,576 thirteen days before Kobe’s passing. Three days after the accident, another sold for $37,600. Nine have sold since, none for less than $65,000, and all but one for over $75,000. Four sales have eclipsed $100,000, including the three most recent (all in December 2020) of $121,324, $134,400 and $138,000.
Let’s spare a moment for the “Youthquake” set. Despite (in hindsight) a rather disappointing lineup of young stars, the forward-looking insert set offers collectors a more affordable rookie-year Chrome Kobe option. In ungraded but in good condition, this can be had for about $400, with graded versions typically ranging from $500 (PSA 8), to $1,000 for PSA 9s. On the very rare occasions they come available, PSA 10 versions command at least $2,500.
Our list of the most watched Kobe Bryant card eBay auctions provides a snapshot of the current market overall as there ae usually a variety of Chrome cards populating it.
Iverson Answers; Nash Nudges Up
This rising tide has raised other boats as well, namely those of Allen Iverson and Steve Nash. Roughly three years ago, a base PSA 8 Iverson could be had for under $30. The same card currently sells for just over $200. PSA 9, which consistently sold for under $130 as recently as April 2020, now runs about $400, while a “Gem Mint 10”, which only cracked $400 in February 2020, is now firmly in the $1,700-$2,000 range.
The case of Iverson’s refractor is even more stark. There is no record of a $1000+ sale of a PSA 9 Iverson refractor prior to March 2019. After a pair of $1,300-$1,500 August 2019 sales, seven of the nine sales have been for at least $6,000, with the most recent (a week ago) coming in at $7,877. The PSA 10 (of which there are just 36) tells a similar story. Between September 2016 and June 2018, nine sold for between $1,500 and $2,077. Between early-2019 and January 2020, five sold for between $2,500 and $3,500. Then, in July 2020, one sold for a staggering $18,610. Two have changed hands since. On December 23, the price jumped by a third, to $25,100. Eight days later, on New Year’s Eve, the price jumped by another third, to $33,633. That’s more than 30x in just under two calendar years.
And so it goes…
PSA 9 base rookie Steve Nash: sold for $65 a recently as late-April 2020. Now? $250 consistently, and trending up. His PSA 10 (which doesn’t come around too often) went – with no sales in between – from $208.50 in December 2019 to $750 in April 2020, and now resides between $1000 and $1,200.
Just 84 Nash refractors have been graded, with 65 receiving a “9”. From a price of about $650 in 2019, the card jumped to $1,726, and then $4,111 in mid-2020. It’s since sold for between $4,500 and $6,000. PSA 10s, meanwhile, of which just six exist have sold twice in recent years: for $4,051 on September 19, 2019, and for $17,600, almost exactly a year later.
Michael Jordan’s Chrome Debut
Finally – not that His Airness ever actually needs a hand – there is the leap in Michael Jordan’s first ever Topps Chrome card. PSA 9 versions, which were readily available for under $50 until last January, spiked to $750 during spring 2020, and have since settled in at around $400. PSA 10 base Jordans – which sold for under $300 as of February 2020 – now consistently clock in at between $1,000 and $1,700.
Unsurprisingly, MJ refractors are also now commanding sky-high prices, whether graded 8 ($5,848, in December 2020) 9 (4 sales in the past seven months, averaging just over $8,000) or “Gem Mint 10” (of which there are just seven), which has gone from $5,000-$6,000 in 2018-19, to two 2020 sales, of $20,000 and $25,100).
All this, and barely a mention of Ray Allen, a Hall of Famer with a $700 Gem Mint base rookie and refractors in PSA 8 and 9 (there are just over 50 of each… and TWO “10s”) command $850 and $1,700, respectively.
Just imagine if Topps had taken another hiatus from the NBA in ‘90s, and Kevin Garnett, Chris Webber, Grant Hill and Jason Kidd had snuck in here too…