Stop me if you’ve heard this before…
The title of “most hilariously stacked basketball set of the twentieth century” comes down to three names: 1961-62 Fleer (Wilt, West, Oscar, Elgin rookies, plus those of seven other Hall of Famers), 1969-70 Topps (99 cards, 15 Hall of Fame RCs, led by Lew Alcindor’s), and 1986-87 Fleer (Jordan, Barkley, Ewing, Olajuwon, Isiah, Dominique, Malone, Mullin, Drexler, Worthy…)
Not really making waves there.
There is, however, a more lively debate to be had regarding the last of these sets, and the definition of “rookie card”. (We would know…)
Are The Stars Burning Bright…
Purely in terms of cardboard debuts, The Star Company’s 1984-85 set is about as good as it gets. The simple, yet sharply designed set includes the first NBA-licensed cards of the first pick in the 1984 NBA draft, and one of the dozen best players in NBA history, Hakeem Olajuwon, as well as those of another pair of legends – and original Dream Teamers – Charles Barkley and (a good four years before showing up in a Fleer set) John Stockton. And, of course, card #101. The headliner among headliners, Michael Jordan.
For good measure, Star included two additional MJ cards that base set. The first commemorates Jordan’s place on the gold-medal-winning 1984 Olympic team:
The other celebrates his 1984-85 NBA Rookie of the Year win:
Star distributed its cards untraditionally – not via packs, but rather in transparent, sealed plastic bags containing teams sets or subsets (All-Stars, “Court Kings”, “Best of the Best”, etc.). This combined with a general indifference to basketball cards in a world where Michael Jordan was not yet Michael Jordan, and host of manufacturing issues (uneven ink saturation, miscutting, misprints) kept these cards from immediately becoming hobby cornerstones. Despite being the first for number of future legends, the otherwise quite attractive cards were seen as niche efforts from an oddball producer, and not true rookie cards. Rather, they were designated “extended rookies” (XRC).
As a result, the images of these cards were not seared into our brains, as those of the revered 1986-87 Fleer cards were. Thus, the image of Michael Jordan grabbing a rebound against the New Jersey Nets was replaced in the mind’s eye by that of Mike soaring above a crowd – also comprised of Nets – in his Fleer debut.
… Or Fading??
Over time, even interested collectors’ confidence was shaken by counterfeiting risk. First, in the early 1990’s, cards from a sheet of 1985-86 Star, printed by one of Star’s contracted printers, landed in the hands of some former Star employees. This batch, “Type II” cards as they came to be known, included cards between #95 and #172 in the base set (most notably Jordan second-year card and the green eight-card Celtics set), a ten-card Jordan set and the four-card “Best of the New” set, featuring Jordan, Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing and Ralph Sampson. This batch was rejected at the time of printing, never meant for release, and subsequently classified as counterfeits. Needless to say, however, these found their way to market, marketing as the genuine article. This added to the sense that Star cards were, if not illegitimate, than worthy of suspicion.
(A quick aside for the curious: these “Type II” cards can be identified by their glossier fronts, ink spillage on the borders of the pictures on the fronts, and a lack of color bleed on the back edges that’s common on the authentic cards).
The issue was exacerbated in the in the late 1990s, when Star Company president Robert Levin was credibly accused of selling millions worth of counterfeit, high-end Star card on a television home shopping channel. To this day, only Beckett Grading Service – not PSA or SGC – will authenticate and grade Star cards.
In the years since, however, a lot of confidence has been restored and, regardless of where one falls on the “Star/’86-’87 Fleer rookie spectrum”, these cards have rightfully earned a place in the hobby’s pantheon.
Lost In the Mix
Lost in the middle (literally) of debates around authenticity and whether 1984-85 Star or 1986-87 Fleer is the “real” Jordan rookie, is the fascinating case of the definitively NOT Jordan rookie card: 1985-86 Star #117.
A card that, by all objective measures, ought to rank among the hobby’s most significant, Jordan’s second-ever base card is, if not completely an afterthought, something of a phantom.
Most serious collectors, most lifers even, probably can’t immediately call to mind what Jordan’s second base Star card looks like. If we’re being honest, its very existence probably slips a few minds from time to time.
The last of three base sets, 1985-86 Star boasts only Ewing as a high-profile debutant. Thus, much of the heavy lifting was left to the league’s established superstars (namely Magic, Bird, Kareem and Julius Erving) and, of course, Mike.
With Star increasingly looking like it would soon be making for the exit, the ’85-’86 set was the smallest of the company’s issues, clocking in with a checklist of just 173 cards, or an average of 7.5 cards in each of the 23 team bags. The Bulls’ team set bag featured just seven cards, with Jordan on top.
The card itself is understated but (in one man’s opinion) visually very alluring, featuring Jordan – and no one else – mid-defensive rotation. Adding to its appeal is the the fact that the photo is from a road game, meaning that Jordan is sporting the beautiful cursive “Chicago” on his bright red jersey. This, the card’s border and its font place the Bulls’ red, white and black color scheme is front-and-center.
As with previous Star sets, the cards were released in extremely limited quantities. Print runs topped out at around 5,000, with many cards released in smaller quantities. Interestingly, given Jordan’s location on the printing sheets, this card is far less condition sensitive than others in the set, and other Jordan Star issues.
At the time of writing, the Jordan trio from the 1984 has collectively been graded just under 2,200 times by BGS. This includes 939 of XRC #101, 780 of the Olympic card, and 475 of the Rookie of the Year card. A grand total of 77 (3.5%) have received a Mint 9 grade (68 of these are the XRC), and just three (0.25%, all XRC #101) have received Gem Mint 9.5s.
Meanwhile, despite having been slabbed just 539 times by BGS, some TWO HUNDRED 1985 Star Jordans have been deemed worthy of a BGS 9.5, with another three receiving a Pristine (though not Black Label) 10. Another 190 have earned a BGS 9, with a further 87 a BGS 8.5.
On the one hand, even amid the stream of record-breaking sales of the past year, it’s understandable that this card hasn’t leapfrogged to the fore. A Gem Mint/Pristine rate of almost 38%? A 9 or better almost three-quarters of the time? 89% with at least an 8.5? What is this, Prizm?
At the same time, despite a disproportionate number of high-grade versions, there simply aren’t many of them around. At all. Consider…
PSA and Beckett have collectively graded roughly 31,000 of Jordan’s 1986 Fleer, and more than 15,000 of his 1986 Fleer sticker. Meanwhile, Beckett has graded 29 different Michael Jordan Star cards a total of 13,699 times. Roughly 6.9% are the Jordan’s 1984 XRC. The Olympic card from the 1984 set represents another 5.7% of the population. Fair enough. However, that another seven Jordan Star cards have been graded more times than the ‘85-’86, is a bit curious.
Are Our Eyes on the Prize?
We occupy a world in which nearly 3,100 of the eight different Michael Jordan cards from 1991 NBA Hoops have been graded by PSA. Nearly 1,000 more have been graded by Beckett. Against such a backdrop, that fewer than 600 of an early-period, high-end Jordan that’s a close as there is to an “easy A” on the grading table have turned up is worth contemplating.
Now, this card is hardly anonymous. In the midst of early-2021’s parabolic run for just about every relevant basketball card, higher-graded (9+) versions sold in the five digits. And yet, as that wave has (for the time being) crested, broken and pulled back, Gem Mint versions have been selling for well under $10,000, with BGS 8.5s sometimes barely cracking four figures. This despite there being typically fewer than a dozen on eBay at any one time.
Maybe everyone but me knows that there’s a stack of these things lost in Beckett’s backlog, and a deluge is coming. Maybe.
Maybe past debates and crises of confidence have been revived, and are now obscuring our view of an other monumental card.
Or, maybe, in an environment in which any ultra-modern card that’s not “gem” is seemingly not worth having, a collective decision was made that it’s simply “too easy” to find high-grade versions of an historically relevant, 35-year-old card of the greatest to ever play the game. There are (or soon will be) at least 15,000 Gem Mint versions of every relevant Prizm rookie card. While their prices can be prohibitive, they’re readily available to anyone who’s got cash and wants one. By contrast, if every current NBA player decided that he wanted a 1985 Star Michael Jordan, of any grade, there’d barely be enough to go around.
Somewhere along the way, perhaps while we were snapping up freshly-graded junk wax, we lost sight of actual rarity, and left an absolute gem behind.