Card collectors of today, with boxes that cost over $1,000 and memorabilia cards that are easy to acquire, might find it hard to believe that when Upper Deck entered the basketball card market in 1991-92 they released what was considered a high-end product. Twenty-five years later, even though prices are low, that first issue is a hobby landmark.
Not only was there a hologram on every card as had become the company’s custom, there was an entire insert set comprised of hologram cards. The chase element that began with Reggie Jackson autographs in 1990 Upper Deck baseball, made its basketball debut with a certain Los Angeles Lakers icon.
Upper Deck’s debut set offered a basketball court border design on the front and the large picture of the player on the back also made the card stand out from Hoops, Skybox and Fleer.
The cards were issued in two series: a 400-card first run followed by 100 more cards later in the year. Second series packs included cards from both Series 1 and 2. Eventually, Upper Deck put all 500 into a factory set, the only season in which it was offered.
Michael Jordan Multiplier… and Rookies
If you wanted to sell cards back then, making Michael Jordan a prominent part of your set was vital. He had a base card in the first series, an All-Star card in the second series, was used on checklist cards, for the Bulls and All-Stars and appeared alongside another first series card with Magic Johnson…not to mention his hologram appearances (more on that later).
The rookie class had some hype, but nothing when compared to the following season when Shaq, Zo and other stars entered the NBA. 1991-92 Upper Deck had Larry “Grandmama” Johnson of the Hornets, Dikembe Mutombo of the Nuggets, Steve Smith of the Heat and other exciting, but not superstar, players. They had posed shots in Series 1 but collectors had to wait for Series 2 to see the rookies with in-game pictures.
Upper Deck also created a Rookie Standouts insert set that came in the larger Jumbo and Locker boxes (packaged as another Jordan ode). Not only were there more cards of first-year guys, but Upper Deck also had players in the insert set like Gary Payton who were rookies during the previous NBA season.
New players made up one insert set, and a player who had been retired for a long time was the subject of another one. 1991-92 Upper Deck Jerry West Heroes chronicled the career of the Lakers great. West signed and numbered thousands of them for random distribution, just as Upper Deck had done with its trendsetting baseball and football issues in 1990 and earlier in ’91. Today, they’re a little hard to find but generally aren’t expensive.
An oversized West card also appeared on the bottom of Series 2 boxes.
The insert set that had everyone opening packs was 1991-92 Upper Deck Award Winner Holograms. There were nine cards in the set, but two of them featured Jordan. His cards, #AW1 and #AW4, were for leading the NBA in scoring and winning the MVP award. The front of the card was a hologram, the back of the card was just like a regular Upper Deck card from that year but without the hologram logo John Stockton, David Robinson and Dennis Rodman were some of the other players in the set.
Upper Deck produced promo cards of Jordan and David Robinson ahead of release and those are somewhat sought after today.
For something really different, collectors can hunt the rare 1990-91 prototypes of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, produced a year before Upper Deck launched that initial offering.
These days, collectors can easily find sealed packs, boxes or factory sets of 1991-92 Upper Deck basketball for a very small investment (see here). While few cards from the set are worth much of anything, it’s a landmark issue and fans of 1990s basketball can rip on a cheap while devouring memories of a great era in the NBA.