Last weekend’s six-figure sale of the PSA 10 1969-70 Topps John Havlicek rookie card was quite a jaw dropper. The price, of course, was incredible for a relatively modern basketball trading card of someone not named Jordan but kind of funny since it’s not really a “rookie” card.
No, Hondo had spent seven years with the Boston Celtics before Topps and the NBA finally got together for a set that was short on subjects but long on physical size. Seven years. Havlicek wasn’t done yet, luckily. He’d play at a high level through much of the 1970s before finally retiring which meant he appeared on several sets during the decade.
Other players weren’t so lucky.
Between 1957-58 and 1969-70, there was only one mainstream national basketball card set and that one didn’t make it into a lot of markets. So while we have 1961-62 Fleer rookie cards for guys like Wilt and Oscar and Jerry, we missed out on seeing any for the rest of the decade.
So many players who were NBA stars in the 1950s and 60s have only one or two trading cards–either in the ’57-58 Topps set or that ’61-62 Fleer issue. Those lucky enough to debut during the ‘dead years’ from ’62-’68 and then enjoy long careers did have cards in the 1970s Topps sets but we missed out on being able to collect cards issued in the prime years of their career. Other players debuted in the mid to late 1950s and were retired by the time Topps got back in the game.
The list of guys with short checklists is a long one. Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, Bob Pettit, Sam Jones, West and Robertson–all were done prior to the mid-70s. Other guys didn’t make it that far and weren’t included in any set.
Wouldn’t it be fun if Panini could fill in those missing years with an annual issue along the lines of Topps Heritage? Obviously we can’t go back and time and create a true Rick Barry rookie card from his 1960s ABA debut. We’re stuck with calling his ’71-72 Topps issue that. But with today’s card making technology, surely a comprehensive NBA set that looks vintage could be made, one with a checklist that accurately reflects the 1965-66 world of pro hoops with “Retro Rookie Card” designations. Make it an annual issue, distributed each winter and focusing on one season at a time. Include the coaches and maybe guys who were in the ABA during the 1960s. The league didn’t have a lot of teams so the sets wouldn’t be that large but with leader cards, playoff cards and maybe some special inserts there would be enough content.
Some of today’s hit conscious collectors might not buy it without some autographs and relics, but I wouldn’t be opposed to including those. We get cards of Hall of Famers in some of today’s products anyway, so why not include them–even cut autographs of deceased players?
I know there are cards produced each year that feature all-time greats and many are very well done (you can see a couple of them on this page) but these “missing” cards would be sets in the truest sense of the word if the project was executed right.
I’m guessing the market for retro cards probably isn’t strong enough to make it worthwhile to breakers or hobby shops. Maybe it would have to be an online only concept. I don’t know.
I do know that no sport has such a dearth of post-War sets and with the NBA’s current popularity considered very strong, it sure would be nice to see if someone could give it a whirl.