That major sports card manufacturers have historically made a habit of taking hiatuses from basketball is well-trodden ground.
That proclivity for punting on hoops meant that the decades of the 1950s and 1960s – or nearly 30% of NBA history – saw the release of just two mainstream sets. On the bright side, as a result of having to make up for lost time, these issues – 1961-62 Fleer and 1969-70 Topps – are obscenely loaded with legendary rookie cards. In fact, the latter, a 99-card set, is over 15% Hall of Famer rookie cards.
Once on the scene, Topps stuck around for over a decade, providing a timely chronicle of the stars and new arrivals in both the NBA and ABA throughout the ‘70s, and into the ‘80s. In 1982, after thirteen years, Topps once again packed it in. There wasn’t much of a lull this time around, as The Star Company took over soon after, its pack-less, regionally-focused distribution making it the name in basketball card in the mid-80s.
More than just a quaint oddity, Star’s model of distributing it’s card in sealed team set (or subset) bags has fueled a debate over the “realness” of its rookie cards, which resulted in yet another set that was deemed packed-to-the-gills with legendary rookie cards: 1986-87 Fleer. Wherever one falls on the Star v. ’86 Fleer RC debate, it’s worth noting that Star cards, at the very least, exist.
Which brings us to the curious case of 1982-83. Wedged in between Topps exit and Star’s rise, 1982-83 is something of a lost season, presumably the last we’ll ever see in which no mainstream basketball were produced. The most significant effect was, again, the deferral of the cardboard debuts of yet another crop of young stars.
As had happened twice before (and would happen again a few years later), the first set back on the scene would be the beneficiary. Under normal circumstances, Star’s inaugural 1983-84 issue would have featured a rookie class headed by Clyde Drexler and Ralph Sampson, with the likes of Kiki Vandeweghe, Byron Scott, Dale Ellis and Derek Harper. Thanks to the pause, the set came to be extraordinarily (if not quite to the standard of other such sets) stacked, with the inclusion of the draft classes of 1981 – headlined by Isiah Thomas, and featuring stars such as Mark Aguirre, Buck Williams, Tom Chambers and Larry Nance – and 1982, which starred James Worthy, Dominique Wilkins and Terry Cummings.
It’s worth noting, though, that while the mainstream spigot was shut off, a few trickles did find their way into the well.
A Set Worthy of Showtime
The 1982-83 season marked the start of a three-year run during which BASF, then the world’s largest plastics and chemicals company, teamed with Wherehouse Records–a California music store–to issue cards featuring members of the Los Angeles Lakers. The 5”x7” cards, released one at a time, every 7-10 days at stores at which BASF products (namely blank audio and VHS video cassettes) were sold, offer a vivid and action-packed snapshot of the early days of Showtime.
The headliners, of course, are Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Also featuring were other key members of the dynasty’s early days: Michael Cooper, Norm Nixon, Bob McAdoo, Kurt Rambis and Mike McGee.
Perhaps most notable, however, is the true cardboard debut of another Hall of Famer: James Worthy. The top pick in the previous year’s NBA draft, a 21-year-old Worthy was not yet at the level that would earn him seven All-Star selections, two All-NBA nods and entry into the Basketball Hall of Fame. He was, however, turning in a hugely encouraging rookie season, in which he made 58% of his shots, and averaged 13.4 points and more than five rebounds in about 26 minutes per game off of the bench.
Beyond its obvious significance, the card also benefits from outstanding photography, as well as some added star power. Featuring a pretty spectacular action of Worthy driving baseline – along with his signature swooping dunks from the wing, a staple of the era – against none other than Julius Erving.
Based on population reports at the time of writing, the first-ever card to feature Worthy’s in an NBA jersey has been graded 13 times by PSA (2 9s, 7 8s, 2 7s, a 6 and a 5) and twice by BGS (an 8 and an 8.5). It’s worth noting, however, that the BGS data seems dubious, as sales have taken place on eBay in the past month, at a range of different grades. Based on admittedly sparse data, the few high graded versions of the card that do exist, and higher quality raw versions, tend to command between $80 and $100.
The other cards from the set that garner attention – Magic and Kareem – can be had in good condition (raw or the odd graded version; a combined 18 Magics and 15 Kareems have been slabbed) condition for anywhere between about $30 and $80.
As with the Worthy, Magic’s card features a sharp action photo of the Laker legend throwing an outlet pass, with another Hall of Famer – this time Kareem – in the background. Kareem, meanwhile, is dribbling in the post, likely prepping to “swing left, shoot right” with his patented Sky Hook.
As much as any set of cards, this hidden gem captures the vibe of the Forum in the 1980s.
(Note: your author is admittedly a lifelong Laker fan, raised on Showtime)
Looking Beyond Hollywood
Though the basketball selection of the day was extremely sparse, it’s only fair that we note that it did not ALL begin and end with the Lakers. So let’s take a moment and mention another trio of similar regional/niche sets:
- At the same time, in Arizona, Giant Service (a local chain of service stations) offered up its own batch of oversized (these, though, are apparently only 3.25”x4.5”) cards of the hometown team. The 1982-83 Suns Giant Service set, however, features just three players. On the bright side, all three – Walter Davis, Maurice Lucas and Larry Nance – were excellent and memorable players. The Nance card, like the one of Worthy mentioned above, is the true cardboard debut one of the NBA’s historically underrated stars, who’d been the 20th pick in the 1981 draft.
- Also in 1982, the Portland Police Department released the latest in what was a long-running string of regional sets featuring members of the Trailblazers. The most recognizable face of the bunch is the legendary coach, Jack Ramsay.
The on-court notables in the 16-card issue are the top pick from the 1978 draft, future champion and father of a future Hall of Famer, Mychal Thompson, and another terribly underappreciated 1980s star, Lafayette “Fat” Lever.
- Similarly, the Denver Police Department (sponsored by Colorado National Banks) released a 14-card set, featuring crisp action shots of a pair of franchise icons and future Hall of Famers in Alex English and Dan Issel, as well as the first-ever card of future All-Star and scoring machine, Kiki Vandeweghe, who’d been the eleventh pick in the 1981 draft.
An interesting “nugget” here is that, in total, 9 cards from this set have been graded by PSA – EIGHT (3 English, 4 Issel, 2 Vandeweghe) have gotten 10s. In case you’re curious, the last is a PSA 8 Issel.
Sets and singles are inexpensive.
- Another set basketball-starved collectors could chase included a 90-card issue featuring CBA players and coaches that was produced for the league by TCMA (the troubled but talented Marvin Barnes, then a member of the Detroit Spirits, is the final card of the set). There’s also a Lancaster Lightning team issue, also produced by TCMA.
- There was a smattering of college sets, too, including Georgetown, featuring a sophomore center named Patrick Ewing.
The landscape would improve dramatically in a few years, when Star pumped out its sets, Fleer jumpstarted traditional wax pack distribution and an increasing collector base demanded more cards. While some will decry the mountain of products that now arrive virtually year-round, collectors who recall that empty season know it surely beats the alternative.