The most paid-attention-to streak in sports came to an end Fri., Jan. 19 as the Denver Nuggets knocked off the Boston Celtics in what many fans and pundits called a probable preview of the 2024 NBA Finals.
The loss was Boston’s first of the season at home, as they had won their first 20 games. Dating back to last season, they had won 27 straight at home.
The streak brought a lot of attention to the 1985-86 Celtics, who many say is the greatest Boston basketball team of all-time. They went 40-1 at home and cruised to the NBA championship.
While the success of the current Celtics is driving interest and sales for cards of Jayson Tatum. Jaylen Brown, Kristaps Porzingas, Al Horford and the rest of the team, the 1985-86 Celtics did not drive card sales at all.
In fact, other than polybagged sets of cards made by Star, there were no NBA cards available for the five-year window between the time Topps left the basketball card market and Fleer jumped in. That five-year window coincided with the greatest years of the rivalry between the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers, which was a continuation of the Magic Johnson-Larry Bird rivalry that developed in the 1979 season when the two future stars were center stage at the NCAA Tournament final when Johnsons Michigan State Spartans knocked off Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores.
Today, you can buy a 1985-86 Star Celtics set for $100-$150 but at the time, the NBA had no national retail and hobby trading card partner despite being in its golden era.
Fleer, in its 101st year of operation and still owned by the Fleer family, wanted to take advantage of the popularity of the NBA and saw a niche they could fill. They were one of three companies producing Major League Baseball cards at the time. But this was a market they would not have to share with Topps and Donruss, or with Pacific who was selling huge volumes at retail of its Baseball Legends cards.
Fleer produced a set that would be considered almost remedial by the standards set just a few years later. There was one form with 132 cards, which was standard for bordered cards at the time. There was a sticker insert, but no insert cards as we know them. The product was by no means overproduced, as its print run was a fraction of the size of its baseball sets, but it wasn’t rare at all. From its release through the mid-1990s, it seemed that every wax dealer at every sports card show in America, from the National to a local 24-table show in a local Elk’s Club, had it for sale.
The 1986-87 Fleer set included 68 rookie cards, though very few of the key players from the Celtics dynasty had rookie cards in that set. Many of the 68 rookies in the set had been on Star Cards, but Star cards were given a designation of “XRC”. This denoted a pre-rookie card or an extended rookie card. Beckett came up with the concept of the XRC earlier in the decade. Their rookie definition, which became the industry standard, was that a rookie card would be in a fully-licensed set that was sold in packs.
How Good Were Bird’s Celtics?
The 1985-86 Celtics finished with a record of 67-15, which included the 40-1 record at home. Three of their home games were played at the Hartford Civic Center, and they were 37-1 at the Boston Garden.
In order for a team to be great, its best players must be great. The 1985-86 season was probably Bird’s finest. He won his third straight MVP award and led the Celtics in scoring (25.8 ppg), assists (557), rebounds (805) and steals (166). He also led the NBA in three-point field goals.
The Celtics were much more that Larry Bird. The 1985-86 team is known for its rare blend of talent, chemistry, competitiveness and depth. With Bird, Robert Parish and Kevin McHale, as well as NBA Sixth Man of the Year Bill Walton, they had one of the greatest front courts of all time. All four made it to the Hall of Fame.
Veteran Dennis Johnson and former Toronto Blue Jays third baseman Danny Ainge started in the back court. Johnson, the MVP of the 1979 Finals with Seattle, was 2nd Team All-NBA Defensive Team. McHale was First Team.
Walton was the addition to the Celtics that took them from being 1985 finalists to winning a championship in 1986. The Celtics traded former Finals MVP Cedric Maxwell to the Los Angeles Clippers for Walton.
“The problem was that none of the teams thought I would be able to pass the medical,” Walton recalled at an interview at the 1995 National in St. Louis where he was acting as a spokesman and special guest for Topps. “I didn’t think I would pass the physical either.”
Walton recalled that the doctors were not going to pass him for the medical due to the long term damage his feet had taken over his career.
“I heard them saying, ‘What are they going to tell Red?’ And then, Red Auerbach comes bursting in with a cigar in his mouth demanding to know what was going on. He comes up to me and said, ‘Walton, can you play?’ I told him I thought he could and he said it was good enough for him. The doctors told them they couldn’t pass me, and he told them to shut up, and that I passed and I am going to play.”
Walton played in career-high 80 games that season, averaging 18 minutes per game.
In the playoffs, they faced the Chicago Bulls in the first round in a best-of-five series. The Celtics swept the Bulls, despite Michael Jordan’s 63-point performance in Game 2. The Celtics held him to 19 in the third game of the series.
The Celtics then disposed of the Atlanta Hawks and Milwaukee Bucks to earn a trip to the finals against the Houston Rockets. They had upset the defending champion Lakers behind the play of their “Twin Towers”, Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson. Larry Bird led the Celtics to a 4-2 series win.
Larry Bird was at his best in that series, especially Game 6,” Walton said. “He was the best player in the NBA. He did everything well, and he did things that no other players could do.”
Walton said Bird was instrumental in bringing Walton to Boston.
“He was sitting in Red Auerbach’s office when I called him, so he was involved in the conversation and wanted me to come to Boston.”
Two Rookie Cards
In the 1986-87 Fleer set, there are seven Celtics included among the 132 cards. Walton, Bird, Parish, McHale, Johnson, Ainge, and back-up guard Jerry Sichting. Ainge’s card is considered a rookie card, even though he had baseball cards from when he was a Blue Jay. Sichting’s card is the other Celtic rookie card in the set.
“Jerry Sichting was the other guy that came in when I did,” Walton said. “He played an important role for the team. He was the first guard off the bench and he was tough as nails, he could defend, and he could shoot.”
While Sichting was a role player for the Celtics, he is best remembered for a fight with Ralph Sampson in Game 5.
“Jerry is 6’1” and Ralph Sampson is 7’4”,” Walton recalled. “Sampson threw a couple of punches at Jerry and ended up getting ejected.”
Sichting found himself posting up against Sampson after a defensive switch. Sichting was backing into Sampson for positioning, and the frustrated Rocket center threw a punch, and then another at Sichting. Mayhem broke out, and Walton took down Sampson.
“That team was one of the greatest in NBA history, but people still bring up that fight, especially if Jerry’s name is brought up,” Walton said.
Sampson, who was in his fifth NBA season at the time, also has his rookie card in the 1986-87 Fleer set.
The Chicago Bulls had a great run in the mid-to-late 1990s with some great teams. Bulls fans will argue they were the best teams of all times, while Celtics fans will claim that up and down the roster, the Celtics were better. Lakers fans will argue that some of their dynasties, including the Magic Johnson-Kareen Abdul-Jabbar teams, were the greatest.
But while the Bulls’ dynasty came at a time when there were more card sets made per year than in any other era in NBA history, the only cards for fans of the Celtics dynasty and the rivalry with the Lakers are in legends insert sets.
Perhaps the 1985-86 Celtics are not the best team in NBA history, but when you look at their roster top to bottom, they are likely the most collectible team ever.