In the third leg of this journey through some underrated gems from hoops hobby history (Part 1 looked at four greats from the dawn of the pro game; Part 2 examined four under-heralded greats from the 1960s), we discussed the monumental challenges – rooted predominantly in false perceptions and demographic bias – that faced the NBA for most of the 1970s.
The NBA struggled to market its stars, thanks largely to the lack of a nationwide broadcast platform on which the league’s best could become household names. That all changed with the 1979-80 season. Or so the thinking goes. Of course, everything began to change in ’79-’80, with the arrivals of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. There was still a mountain to scale – an obligatorily mention that the greatest playoff game of Magic’s career was relegated to tape delay.
All the while, young stars continued to filter into the NBA, which, having merged with the ABA, no longer had to compete with an upstart league for talent. There is a crop of players who arrived in the NBA in the years around that great inflection point, whose careers began in the NBA’s “dark ages”, but ultimately benefitted (to varying degrees) from the exposure and prestige that accompanied Magic, Larry and, later, Michael.
Here we have a look at some stars whose cardboard (and hardwood) debuts came in the calm before the storm – in those days before the NBA became the NBA.
Robert Parish (1977 Topps, #111)
Before he was a perennial All-Star, filling out a Hall of Fame resume in Boston, the Chief spent four seasons in Oakland, developing into one of the NBA’s top young bigs. In the last two of those seasons, once he was getting full-time minutes, he averaged 17 points, 11.5 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game.
In the summer of 1980, after having missed the playoff for three years, the Warriors parted ways with Parish in one of the most significant and infamous NBA trades ever. Then almost 27, Parish was traded to the Celtics, along with the #3 overall pick in the 1980 draft (which became fellow Hall of Famer Kevin McHale), in exchange for the rights to the #1 (Joe Barry Carroll) and #13 (Ricky Brown) overall picks.
The rest is history. Nine All-Star selections (seven in his first seven Boston seasons), two All-NBA nods, two top-ten MVP finishes, three rings, and spots in the Boston Garden rafters, and the NBA top-50 and top-76 lists.
Parish’s rookie card captures him in the delightful Warriors dark blue jersey from the ‘70s, in a clean action shot, elevating to challenge a shot.
PSA 7s (pop: 349) and 8s (733) make up most of the non-qualifier/-half-grade PSA population (1,510) of this card. As they’re not too difficult to find, they can be had for fairly modest prices (typically low triple-digits). PSA 9s (pop: 190) command low four figures, with PSA 10s (of which there are ten), based on three sales in the past year, commanding high four figures.
Adrian Dantley (1977 Topps, #56)
It’s tough to sum up Adrian Dantley’s career.
In 1974, as a freshman at Notre Dame, he played a significant role in handing John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins their first defeat in 89 games. In three college seasons, he averaged about 26 and 10, and twice earned All-America honors. He was a top-ten pick in the NBA Draft and won the NBA’s Rookie of the Year award in 1976-77. He averaged more than 30 points per game for four straight seasons (he only played 22 games in ‘82-‘83, but let’s assume he’d have gotten there), had two others of 28 and 29.8 per, and another five of 20+. He won a pair of scoring titles, and earned six All-Star and two All-NBA Second Team selections.
His Win Shares total (134.2) ranks 38th in NBA/ABA history, just behind Clyde Drexler and Bob Pettit, just ahead of John Havlicek, and well ahead of the likes of Dwyane Wade, Dominique Wilkins and Walt Frazier. A total of 27 players in NBA/ABA history have scored 23,000 points, with a Player Efficiency Rating above 20. The list is a literal who’s who of basketball history. Only fourteen of those guys bettered Dantley’s .189 Win Shares/48 Minutes mark. Only four – Artis Gilmore, Shaq, Kareem and Charles Barkley – have a higher raw field goal percentage than Dantley’s (and Wilt’s) 54%. Only Artis (62.3%) has a better True Shooting Percentage than Dantley’s 61.7%. His scoring average, 24.3 points per game, ranks in the top 20 (minimum 500 games played) in the history of the sport. Of the guys ahead of him, only Kareem and Shaq made more of their shots.
And yet, most fans probably don’t think about Dantley at all, let alone like that.
The wildly itinerant start to his career probably didn’t help. In September 1977, after one NBA season, the Buffalo Braves traded him to Indiana – he remains the only Rookie of the Year to be dealt prior to his second season. In ’77-’78, though he was averaging 26.5 and 9.4 rebounds per game, he was traded again, after just 23 games, to the Lakers, in exchange for (essentially) James Edwards. In two seasons in L.A., he averaged more than 18 per game. However, the Lakers opted for Jamaal Wilkes as their starting small forward and, a month prior to Magic Johnson’s NBA debut, dealt him to the Jazz, in exchange for a 31-year-old Spencer Haywood. (OOF)
In Utah, Dantley became one of the great bucket-getters in basketball history. Over seven seasons, he averaged 29.6 points per game (never worse in 26.6) on 63.2% True Shooting, won those two scoring titles, led the NBA in Offensive Win Shares four times, total Win Shares and Win Shares/48 once (in 1983-84). Of course, there were also just two playoff appearances and, by the time he was traded to Detroit in the summer of ’86, a frayed relationship with head coach Frank Layden. Once in Detroit, unsurprisingly, he averaged an efficient 20 per game in two and a half seasons. He also clashed with Isiah Thomas, Chuck Daly and GM Jack McCloskey, prompting a midseason deal to Dallas in ’88-’89, in exchange for Mark Aguirre, with whom the Pistons went on to win their first championship.
It’s not a huge mystery how this stuff, and the lack of a true NBA home work against a long-term legacy. At the same time, it’s an incredible shame that it obscures Dantley’s place among the greatest pure scorers in NBA history.
On the bright side, Dantley’s sharp, if simple 1977 Topps rookie card remains a fantastic value. At the time of writing, one of 118 PSA 7s (out of 601 total slabbed by PSA) can be had for well under $100, with PSA 8s (pop: 308) barely pushing into the triple digits, and PSA 9s (pop: 65; there are just three 10s), after an April 2021 peak of $4,000, in the low-four-figures.
Alex English (1979 Topps, #31)
What if Adrian Dantley had found an NBA home?
One of the most quintessentially ‘80s NBAers, Alex English’s career began similarly to Dantley’s. Drafted in the second round of the 1976 draft by the Bucks. English spent a pair of unremarkable seasons in Milwaukee (7.7 points and four rebounds per game), after which he signed in Indiana as a free agent.
With the Pacers, English, if not “broke out”, at least established himself as a quality NBA player, averaging 15.6 points and 7.7 rebounds over a season and a half. However, midway through the 1979-80 season, though, he was on the move again, this time to Denver, as part of a deal for George McGinnis.
English found his stride immediately in Denver, averaging 21.3 points and 9.4 rebounds over the last 24 games of the ’79-’80 season. From there, he was off to the races. Roughly 24 and 8 in 1980-81, followed by his first All-Star campaign (and Second Team All-NBA selection) in 1981-82, when he put up 25.4 points (on over 55% shooting). He reached new heights in 1982-83, leading the league in with 28.4 points per game, and again earning All-Star and Second Team All-NBA honors. In the six seasons that followed, English, now one of the league’s most efficient and effortless scorers, averaged 27.4 points per game, never dipping below 25, and posted a career-high 29.8 in another Second Team All-NBA season in 1985-86.
In a decade’s worth of full seasons in Denver, English became the face of the franchise, and is still the Nuggets’ gold standard. He still holds the franchise record for points (by over 6,000 over Dan Issel and almost 8,000 over Carmelo Anthony), Win Shares, points per game and assists, while ranking third, fourth and sixth, respectively, in steals, rebounds and blocked shots.
In all, he averaged 25+ points for eight straight All-Star seasons (during which he became the first-ever player with eight straight 2,000-point seasons), scored more points in the 1980s than any other NBAer, and more per game than anyone other than Dominique (by 0.1 ppg) and Mike. During his time in Denver, the guy was good for 0.73 points per minute. Incredible.
English led the Nuggets to nine straight playoff appearances, a pair division titles and the 1985 Western Conference Finals (a five-game loss to the Lakers). That’s all well and good, but this is a story about quiet consistency – and buckets. Lots and lots of buckets.
Interestingly, English’s rookie card features him in the jersey of neither the team that drafted him nor the one with which he’s synonymous. Rather, the best of a meager crop in the stylistically underrated 1979 Topps set features him as a member of the Pacers. Disorienting as non-Nuggets Alex English is at first glance, that he’s raising up for his signature silky smooth jumper restores some order.
As is the case with most cards from this era, of 730 graded by PSA, the majority have earned grades of PSA 7 (pop: 169) or PSA 8 (313). However, there is a greater proportion of 9s (114) and 10s (13) than is typically the case.
PSA 7s can be had for, frankly, next to nothing. After peaking in early-2021 at around $70, they’re now available for under $30. PSA 8s, meanwhile, can also be had for well under $100, with PSA 9s residing in the mid-triple-digits, and PSA 10s (based on two sales in the 12 months prior to writing) fetching between $2,500 and $3,000.
In between the cardboard debuts of Dantley and English, there’s perhaps the most impressive set of the era, boasting the rookie cards of four Hall of Famers.
The tenth card in set belong to an Alex English-like figure, though one with a less sustained peak: Walter Davis.
The fifth pick in the 1977 draft by the Phoenix Suns, “the Greyhound” burst out of the gates in the NBA, with one of the great rookie campaigns in history. He poured in an efficient 24.2 points per game (he made 52.6% of his shots) and grabbed six rebound per game, earned All-Star and Second Team All-NBA honors, and captured the league Rookie of the Year award. As great as that all is, it sells Davis’ debut season short.
Since 1959-60 (chosen both because it was Wilt’s rookie year, and late-40s/50s figures are a bit strange), Davis is one of just seventeen rookies have racked up at least 10 Win Shares. Since ’77-’78, when both he and Marques Johnson did so, only the one-namers – Magic, Bird, Hakeem, Michael, the Admiral, Shaq, Timmy and CP3 – have managed the feat. Over that same stretch, just ten rookies have racked up 10+ Win Shares with a PER of at least 22. Davis was the first to do it post-Kareem, and only Jordan, Robinson, Shaq, Duncan and Chris Paul have done it since.
Davis was arguably even better in his second season, when, as a 6-foot-6 shooting guard, he made over 56% of his shots en route to 23.6 points, with 4.7 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game, and another All-Star/Second Team All-NBA double. Though the sky seemed the limit, unfortunately, by his third season, Davis had peaked. He did average nearly 20-per-game with two more All-Star nods over the next two seasons, and 20-per (on 50% shooting) with another two All-Star selections between ’82-’83 and ’87-’88 (including near-career-best 23.6 in ’86-’87), but a combination of knee injuries and substance abuse issues kept Davis from those early heights. In all, Davis spent eleven seasons with the Suns, during which he averaged 20.5 points (on 52% shooting) and 4.4 assists, and 21.8 points and five assists in 59 playoff games.
Davis’ rookie card is one of the most overlooked and under-graded cards from the era, with only 293 having found their way into PSA slabs. A PSA 7 version (pop: 25) fetches about as much as a decent deli sandwich, and just one NM-MT 8 (pop: 113) has cracked $20 since 2018. PSA 9s, meanwhile, have skyrocketed over the past four years – though it’s worth noting that this journey (per PSA data) began in May 2017, at $4.25 (!!), reached $11.50 in early 2020, before jumping to the mid-$50s, and finally cracking $75 in August 2021.
Next up, the most notable card from the set, featuring one of the most electrifying scorers of the ‘80s, and a New York icon.
At his peak, Bernard King was the quintessential offensive weapon: powerful, fast skilled, agile and forever on the prowl for buckets. Unfortunately, that he was often injured, always seriously, is one of the first things that comes to mind when Bernard’s name pops up. Sure, he was limited to just 19 games in his third season. And yes, in the middle of his prime, a knee injury did cost him the entire 1985-86 season and limit him to just six games in ’86-’87. And YES, his career was ended by another knee injury in 1991.
This dude was on the floor a lot more than most folks tend to remember. In the 14 seasons that effectively span his career, King took the floor in 64+ games ten times, and had seven seasons in which he suited at least 77 times. His career total of 874 games played is one fewer (with almost 15 more Win Shares) than Dave DeBusschere, and trumps the tallies of the likes of Sam Jones (871), Bob McAdoo (852), Elgin Baylor (846), Jerry Lucas (829) and Walt Frazier (825).
And he was as prolific as players come. Prior to missing most of his third season (which, interestingly, was with the Utah Jazz, alongside Dantley and an aging Pete Maravich), he’d put up 22.8 points (on 50% shooting) and 8.8 rebounds with the Nets. In the two seasons that followed, with the Golden State Warriors, he averaged 22.5 per game, while making an astounding 57.7% of his shot.
Then, of course, there are the Knicks years. Though it certainly doesn’t seem like it – the Christmas Day bonanzas, playoff scoring binges, including a mind-melting playoff duels with Isiah Thomas and, well, the New York of it all tend to have a skewing effect – King played just three seasons with the Knicks. Two of these, 1983-84 and 1984-85, encapsulated his true prime. In ’83-’84, he poured in 26.3 points per game in leading the Knicks 47 wins a playoff berth, during which he averaged just under 35 per game over 12 games, including a grotesque 42.6 per in a series win over the Pistons. The following season the Knicks crashed back down the earth, but King hit his individual peak, scoring a league-best 32.9 per game. Of course, this was over just 55 games, as his season was cut short by the ACL injury that effectively ended his Knicks career.
After basically two years away, King came back in 1987-88, as a member of the Washington Bullets… and built it back up. In what might be terms his “second prime”, King played all but 31 regular season games over a four-year run in which he raised his scoring average each season – all the way to a third-in-the-league 28.4 in 1990-91, at age 34. Sadly, that season ended for him after just 64 games, with the ACL injury that all but (32 games with the Nets in ’92-’93) ended his career.
It will comes as no great shock that King’s is the most-graded rookie (pop: 882), and the fifth-most-graded overall (behind Kareem, Dr. J, Maravich and Bill Walton), from the 1978 Topps set. King’s rookie tends to grade out better than other cards from the era, with PSA 8s (pop: 311) and 9s (204) both outnumbering PSA 7s (156), with PSA 10s (28) also relatively plentiful. As a result, despite his popularity and the general “New York effect”, high-grade versions can be had for low- (PSA 8) to mid- (PSA 9) triple-digit prices, with 7s available for well under $100, and – 2021’s early bubble notwithstanding – 10s selling (a couple of times a year) in the low four figures.
Finally, we’ve got a duo who teamed in Seattle up to deliver the final NBA title of the pre-Magic/Bird era, before becoming synonymous with other franchises.
Jack Sikma is one of the NBA’s first big men with a reliable outside touch and, in the mold of Bill Walton, a keen passing eye from the high post. These days he’s probably best remembered as the rock solid veteran anchor of some excellent Milwaukee Bucks teams in the 1980s. Or, perhaps, as a deadeye shooter from the free throw line. After all, his career mark is a very un-centerly 84.9%, and, in 1987-88, his 92.2% mark made him the only center ever to lead the league in free throw shooting. However, while in Seattle, the lesser-spotted young Sikma had the makings of an all-time great.
Of course, Sikma’s time in Seattle is best remembered for postseason successes. As a rookie, he helped lead the Sonics to a franchise-record-tying 47 regular season wins, before averaging 13.7 points and 8.1 rebounds over a 22-game postseason run that culminated in a six-point loss in Game 7 of the 1978 Finals. The Sonics came back stronger the next year, racking up a then-franchise-record 52 wins. They marched back to the Finals – and a rematch with the Bullets – where, thanks in part to nearly 16 and 15 from Sikma, they needed just five games to capture Seattle’s first-ever championship.
However, the eight overall pick in the 1977 draft was something of a statistical marvel as well. Sikma spent nine seasons as a member of the Sonics, during which he averaged nearly 17 points and 11 rebounds, along with 3.3 assists per game. In the seven seasons after his rookie year, he averaged a double-double seven times, and was named an All-Star… yep, seven times.
In Seattle Supersonics’ history, no one ever grabbed more rebounds, made more free throws or (minimum 400 games played) grabbed more rebounds per game. Only Gary Payton racked up more Win Shares and points. Only Shawn Kemp blocked more shots. Only five guys had more steals and Win Shares/48. And only five point guards handed out more assists.
Fittingly, Sikma’s rookie card features a sharp action shot of him as a high-post playmaker, in Washington, taking on the Bullets. Some 449 of these have been graded by PSA. Like the King card, the Sikma grades out quite well, with PSA 8s (pop: 166) outnumbering 9s by just two (164), with PSA 7s (40) hardly outpacing PSA 10s (23). Price-wise King has the slight edge, as a PSA 7 Sikma comes with a bit of change from a $20, with PSA 8s commanding high-double-digits, 9s low triple digits, and 10s (which pop up about quarterly) in the low four figures.
And, finally, there’s Dennis Johnson.
To the extent that he’s remembered these days, it’s as the backcourt stalwart of the 1980s Celtics. That’s well-earned. After all, as a member of the Celtics, DJ was an All-Star, a four-time All-Defense selection and a two-time champion. along the way he earned the titles of “the greatest backcourt defender of all time” and “the best teammate I ever had” from none other than Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.
Of course, it wasn’t until his eight NBA season that Johnson arrived in Boston. In fact, that his making the NBA at all was something of a longshot. After high school, he was working as a forklift operator in Los Angeles, and only played in junior college and for a season at Pepperdine University after a late growth spurt. During that time he earned a reputation for being undisciplined, and was thrown off of the team a couple of times. Ultimately, though Seattle made him the 29th pick in the 1976 draft.
Like Sikma, Johnson began his career in Seattle in 1977. Like Sikma, as a Sonic he developed into one of the league’s young stars, earning two All-Star selections, two First Team All-Defense selections and a Second Team All-NBA nod. Like Sikma, he helped the Sonics to back-to-back Finals appearances. Unlike Sikma, however, Johnson rode a rollercoaster of emotions in those Finals runs. In 1978, he capped off an otherwise solid playoff run in 1978 with a nightmarish 0-for-14 performance in a six-point loss in Game 7 of the Finals. The following spring, however, he averaged more than 20 points and six rebounds in the postseason, and his 22.6, 6 and 6 (with a combined 20 blocks and steals) over five Finals games not only help clinch a title, but earned him the Finals MVP. After his third (and best) season in Seattle in 1979-80, Johnson’s relationship with coach Lenny Wilkens deteriorating, and he was sent to Phoenix.
Like Adrian Dantley, in the relative obscurity of early-80s Phoenix, Johnson played the best individual ball of his life. In three seasons with the Suns, he averaged 17.5 points, nearly five rebounds and more than four assists, earned a pair of All-Star selections, an All-NBA First Team selection and three First Team All-Defense selections. Not bad for a period of which most people have literally no knowledge, let alone actual memories!
Like Sikma’s, Johnson’s rookie card also features a sharp, characteristic action shot. In this case, it’s a young DJ, also playing on the road in Washington, defending on the perimeter. Like the New York effect that boosts Bernard King, Johnson gets a bit of a “Boston boost” in terms of volume. 799 Johnsons have been graded (second among RCs in the set, to King) by PSA, though it’s worth noting that the grades for this card skew a bit lower than for others in the set. PSA 8s (pop: 352) comfortably outnumber PSA 7s (111) and PSA 9s, while 29 PSA 10s is proportionately in line with the Bernard rookie. Price-wise, however, DJ is far closer (if a bit lower) than his former Seattle teammate Sikma.
He was a star for three franchises over the course of his career – first as a shooting guard, and later at the point – accumulate three championship rings, win a Finals MVP, earn five All-Star selections, nine All-Defensive selections and a pair of All-NBA nods.