One of the NBA All-Star Game’s most memorable contests happened thanks to a player who had retired just three months earlier. It turned out being diagnosed with the HIV virus wasn’t a death sentence or even something that would keep the game’s MVP from competing at the sport’s highest level. It was just one of many triumphs collectors think about when they thumb through Magic Johnson basketball cards. In 2012, Panini Immaculate commemorated the moment with a signed card that shows him holding the All-Star MVP trophy.
Johnson was probably best known for his dazzling passes during the Lakers “Showtime” era but he captivated NBA audiences with his incredible showcase of all-around skills for 12 years. He abruptly retired from the NBA in November 1991 but came back for the All-Star Game after being voted as a starter through fan balloting. After a slow start, he put on a show in the second half, scoring 25 points and dishing out nine assists. It was just a cameo, though. He stayed retired, except for a brief comeback during the 1995-96 season.
The Lansing, Michigan product didn’t have to wait for the bright lights of professional basketball to become a household name, though. He was dubbed “Magic” as a 15-year-old after a sports writer witnessed his play at Everett High School.
The Magic Johnson-Larry Bird Rookie Card
Johnson led his Michigan State Spartans into the 1979 NCAA title game against Indiana State and Larry Bird. While Johnson and the Spartans emerged with the victory, it was a battle that set the tone for a future rivalry in the NBA for years to come. That’s why it’s little coincidence the 1980-81 Magic Johnson Topps rookie card features both Bird and Johnson.
Both quickly became NBA stars. The Bird-Johnson rookie card, made possible by Topps’ unique perforated design that put three ‘mini cards’ onto one, is one of the hobby’s signature modern era cards. Values have skyrocketed in recent years. Regularly sold for just under $1,000 five years ago, a PSA 9 sold for $4,593 via Goldin Auctions last month. Those in an ‘8’ grade have roughly doubled in two years, selling for approximately $800.
1981-82 and Beyond
The following year marked Topps’ basketball farewell for the rest of the decade. Magic appears as card #21 in the main set and on a Super Action card in the West region set. Both are quality action shots and probably a bit underrated considering their modest cost.
During the rest of the Lakers’ remarkable run during the 1980s, you can find Magic Johnson basketball cards in Star Company and Fleer sets. The first Star issue, 1983-84, can be hard to locate in high-grade and is considered a single print. BGS 9 examples typically cost $100-$150. High-grade Fleer stickers from 1986-87 can also be challenging.
He’d appear on several sets produced in the late 1980s and early 90s but most carry little value because of the quantity produced.
His brief NBA stint in ’95-96 produced a few cards that put the bow on his playing career including a Topps Finest that’s popular with collectors.
In recent years, you can find autographed Magic Johnson cards inside Upper Deck and Panini products including some that feature on-card autographs. There are enough in the market that an ordinary Magic signed card is within the reach of most collectors.
Past Glory; Present Dreams
Perhaps his legend was cemented by his ability to play every position on the court. At 6’9, Magic might have been considered to play only forward in the NBA. Instead, he put up highlight reels from the center, forward and point guard position. He finished his career averaging 19.5 ppg and 11.2 assists.
His unselfish basketball play led to five NBA titles (’80, ’82, ’85, ’87 and ’88) and three MVP awards. His “32” jersey hangs from the rafters at the Staples Center as one of the Lakers’ retired numbers.
Johnson is now hoping to be a part of returning the Lakers to at least some of their former glory having accepted a job as special advisor to co-owner Jeannie Buss.
For collectors, cards that resurrect memories of one of the NBA’s most dynamic players–and eras–remain of strong interest. Check out the 32 current most watched Magic Johnson basketball cards on eBay below.