Basketball card collectors will often identify a group of players and collect their rookie cards. Sometimes it’s a collection of Hall of Famers or simply a favorite player. Team collectors will focus one on franchise.
Another option is to collect the best players at the pinnacle of their careers: rookie cards of the NBA Finals MVPs. These players are the best of the best in the biggest games ever played.
Some from the 1980s present a dilemma for collectors: their first Fleer card or the first time they appeared on an official NBA card as part of a Star Company set? Some decide to just grab both. The superstars of the past two decades provide a different challenge because of the multitude of different cards issued. Collectors generally choose the rookie card that’s most popular.
NBA Finals MVPs of the 1970s are a little easier to chase. All have only one mainstream rookie card. It’s the starting point for our four-part series that will also cover the 1980s, 90s and 2000s, but the first Finals MVP was handed out in 1969 so we’ve included that inaugural winner in our list.
Below are the players who won the first 11 Finals MVP awards, along with information about their rookie cards. Click the title of each to see them for sale and auction on eBay.
Mr. Clutch was on fire against the Celtics in 1969. Thirty-eight points a game certainly makes a player worthy of winning the Finals MVP award, but West was actually on the losing team in the series that went seven games. That should tell you what kind of a series he had. West was at the peak of his game but Wilt Chamberlain was injured during the deciding game. “The Logo” would win a title in 1972.
Prices vary greatly bases on condition but expect to pay at least $400 for a decent one.
1970 and 1973: Willis Reed, New York Knicks
In 1970, Reed was hurting and New York struggled without him in Games 5 and 6. In a famous moment, Reed dragged himself out of the locker room and onto the court for Game 7 and inspired the Knicks to capture their first title. A few years later, he was healthy, Wilt was quite old and the Knicks had an easy victory against the Lakers in the Finals.
Reed’s rookie is relatively inexpensive with near mint, graded examples available for less than $75. Not bad for a two-time Finals MVP.
1971: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Lew Alcindor), Milwaukee Bucks
The Bucks were an expansion team but after drafting Alcindor they quickly became a contender, and with help from Oscar Robertson and Bob Dandridge it was an easy path to the 1971 title for Lew and the Bucks. They swept the Baltimore Bullets in the Finals.
You’ll pay $300-500 and up for a nice copy of his rookie card, which is the key to Topps’ first basketball set since 1957-58 and shows him with a goatee.
1972: Wilt Chamberlain. L.A. Lakers
Wilt and the Lakers won 33 in a row during the season, finished 69-13 and had little trouble during the playoffs. After beating the Bucks for the conference title, Wilt was up against Jerrry Lucas and Phil Jackson in the 1972 NBA Finals as Reed was out with another injury. The Lakers won in five games.
Wilt’s rookie card in the 1961 Fleer set is among the most valuable basketball cards ever made. Put aside $500-700 for one without creases and decent centering but a high-grade example will run into four figures.
1974: John Havlicek. Boston Celtics
Havlicek had been a young star on the great teams of the 1960s but in 1974 he was the veteran leader of a new Celtics contender. Cowens battled Kareem in the paint, Silas got rebounds, White provided points and assists while Havlicek had playoff averages of 27.1 points, 6.4 rebounds and 6 assists. Havlicek and the Celtics beat the Bucks in seven games.
He’d been in the league several years before Topps finally ended America’s basketball card drought with their ‘tall boy’ set. A Hondo card can be had in near mint condition (or close to it) for under $100.
1975: Rick Barry, Golden State Warriors
In 1975 the Warriors had a battle to get to the Finals, needing six games to get past Seattle and then seven to defeat Chicago. The Washington Bullets misfired in the championship series and Golden State swept them, despite not playing on their true home court. Barry hit 92% of his free throws in the playoffs, and his points per game average was nearly double that of the next best Warrior.
A veteran of the ABA, he didn’t have a card until this one surfaced. It’s worth saving up for a higher grade example since they can be had for $100 or less but an ungraded one in good shape should be available for half that.
1976: Jo Jo White, Boston Celtics
Boston defeated the Suns in six games, including winning a three-overtime Game 5. Havlicek and Nelson, at 35 years of age, couldn’t take on as much of the load it was left to White to step up. The Kansas product led all players in the playoffs for total field goals and free throws, and his 22.7 points and 5.4 assists per game led the Celtics.
A steady force in the backcourt for a long time, White’s rookie card is an easy get at under $25 in nice shape.
1977: Bill Walton, Portland Trail Blazers
During the 1977 season, Walton had ankle problems and appeared in only 65 games. For those who don’t understand why Big Red is considered a great of the game, watch his play in the 1977 NBA Playoffs, when he was healthy and able to play 40 minutes a game. He averaged 18.2 points on 51% shooting, and he led Portland in rebounds with 15.2 and in assists with 5.5 per game. Walton also destroyed some of the best centers the NBA had on the way to his first title. Artis Gilmore and the Bulls couldn’t stop Walton. In the next round it was Dan Issel and the Nuggets going down to Portland. Kareem and the Lakers were supposed to be a challenge, but Portland swept them and then crunched the 76ers in six.
Walton’s rookie card is the key to the 1974-75 set but is still fairly easy to land, even in an ‘8’ for under $75. If you’re OK with a touch of corner wear, $25 should nab you a respectable example. In our opinion, Walton’s rookie card is among the best bargains in the vintage basketball card market.
1978: Wes Unseld, Washington Bullets
The Bullets had been a contender for a number of years and they won in 1978 due to the scoring of Elvin Hayes and Bob Dandridge and the many skills of Wes Unseld. He was their defensive anchor in the middle, plus he often ran the offense from the pivot. Unseld won the battle in the paint in the finals against Seattle’s Sikma, Webster and Silas.
The Louisville product finally got his title and would eventually earn a spot in the Hall of Fame. His rookie card is under $50 in near mint condition.
1979: Dennis Johnson, Seattle SuperSonics
Seattle got nearly 50 points from their starting backcourt during the playoffs in 1979. Johnson and Gus Williams scored efficiently from the field and also got to the free throw line a lot. Johnson also displayed his defensive abilities and Seattle used him to contain point guards and shooting guards as they defeated the Lakers, Suns and then the Bullets on their way to the title.
His rookie card is a ‘true NBA Finals rookie’ as the Sonics won the title during the year that produced his first card. The 1978-79 Topps cards are plentiful and DJ’s rookie is under $10, even in near mint condition.