Although the 1986-87 Fleer basketball card set that featured Michael Jordan’s rookie card was issued several years into his career, it is, in most collectors’ eyes, the first real Jordan printed by a major manufacturer.
In the early 1980s, NBA popularity was so low on the totem pole that Finals games were televised on a tape delay basis. Yes, the incredible 1980 Game 6 performance of Magic Johnson was shown after your late local news.
That hoops ennui even transmitted to basketball cards as Topps experimented with gimmicks like the three-in-one cards of 1980-81 or the regional aspect of 1981-82 Topps to try to spur sales. Basketball had always been a third spoke compared to baseball or even football cards but in the early 1980s those cards barely drew a ripple in the sports pond. Topps was simply not finding enough buyers so for 1982-83 and then for several years going forward they abandoned basketball cards.
Amazingly, neither Fleer nor Donruss, despite having a baseball license, ponied up enough money to get into the game. The NBA finally made a deal with Star Company, an entity unknown to just about everyone. For a few years in the 1980s Star Company was the only licensed manufacturer of basketball cards and those cards were only issued through their dealer network and were bagged and ready for sale. There was a period where no packs of cards could be bought at stores, shows or even drug or convenience stores.
After the 1985-86 season. Fleer was able to secure a license to become the sole producer of NBA cards and although not issued in great supply, collectors could actually again, beginning with the 1986-87 set, open packs to attempt to get their favorite players. The time was right and a classic was about to be born.
Around that time, Jordan, who had not yet won any professional titles, was exploding in Chicago. MJ was already known for how high he could jump and how many points he could score, seemingly at will, and just about anything with his picture on it was starting to become very marketable.
Fans were thrilled with his 63 point playoff performance against the Celtics including one time where he seemingly casually dribbled the ball between his legs before drilling a jumper over Larry Bird. Jordan had also previously won an NBA slam dunk contest and his greatness was just beginning to become evident to the wider populace.
For its first Jordan card, Fleer used a photo of him soaring through the air. Surrounded by Fleer’s red borders, the card appears to be a perfect mix of colors, action and– oh yes, the name of the player.
The return of basketball card packs and boxes was not an instant hit. There are countless stories of collectors passing on these boxes at $10 per box (yes, I was one of them). As a whole, basketball cards were dirt cheap, just as they had been throughout the card boom of the early 1980s. Just a couple of years later, though, Jordan, Bird, Magic and a few other NBA stars were generating massive interest in the NBA among young adults who jumped on the affordability of basketball cards and drove prices skyward on MJ and the older Topps issues.
These days, of course, ’86-87 Fleer packs sell for big bucks and the highest graded Jordan rookie cards bring thousands. There are usually at least three Jordan rookie cards in each unopened box as Fleer’s distribution was usually excellent.
With such a great card leading the way, one can see how basketball cards almost overtook baseball cards in terms of popularity by the time he went into a temporary “retirement” in 1993. And it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if the increasing return of the 1990s kids to the hobby leads to a major bull run on 1986-87 Fleer basketball cards over the next decade? It might already be happening.
Check out the live eBay ‘most watched’ list of cards from that landmark set: