One of the rarest and most expensive basketball sets ever produced has only 22 cards but nearly all of them would be considered all-time greats. Produced a year before Topps returned to official NBA card production with their 1969-70 set, the 1968-69 Topps Test cards are very different than any basketball sets the company ever made.
The Topps Test cards are only black and white which actually makes them stand out when compared to other sets. Most of the cards show the player in a posed picture, with their name and other information along the bottom of the card. On the back of each card is part of a picture of Wilt Chamberlain, so a collector would need to find the entire set to put the puzzle together.
In order by card number, the players in the set are Chamberlain, Hal Greer, Chet Walker, Bill Russell, John Havlicek, Cazzie Russell, Willis Reed, Bill Bradley, Odie Smith, Dave Bing, Dave DeBusschere, Earl Monroe, Nate Thurmond, Jim King, Len Wilkens, Bill Bridges, Zelmo Beaty, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Jerry Sloan, Jerry Lucas and Oscar Robertson. Fiften Hall of Famers are represented among the 22 cards in the set.
To date, PSA has graded Topps Test cards only 169 times and there are only three complete sets on the company’s Registry, the highest owned by Michael Rakosi with an average grade of 7.74. The set has been the #1 rated example since 2005.
But wait a minute. Are they really from 1968-69? Actually, research by noted collector and broadcaster Keith Olbermann for the Topps Archives blog would indicate they were produced in the second half of the 1967-68 season and should carry that date instead. Why?
Never distributed publicly (or so it seems), the Topps Basketball Test issue may have been an audition for the NBA or it may have been a practice issue once the league granted Topps a license. Whatever the case, a wax pack wrapper or box has never been found. It’s believed the photos were made by the teams themselves.
The set bears a bit of a resemblance to the 1961 Topps Dice Game, which was also black and white and was never distributed outside the confines of Topps.
No one active in the hobby knew the set existed until the early 1990s when about 80 surfaced, followed by around 20 more and then a final group of more than three dozen. The cards that have been uncovered all have a connection to someone who was a Topps executive.
The Test basketball cards are highly coveted by collectors but it’s not unusual to see many months go by without one example offered publicly.
In 2012, the second rated set on the PSA Registry had a final bid of $32,838 via Legendary Auctions Two years earlier, a complete set sold for $29,375. The lot on Robert Edward Auctions featured only PSA graded cards, with 9 of the 22 cards grading 6, including those of Wilt and Bill Russell. The previous year, REA sold a Jerry Sloan card from Topps Test with a PSA 8 grade for $2,644. The Sloan card is unique as it is the only card in the set where the player was photographed in front of a brick wall. Sloan didn’t shoot “bricks” when he played, but his defense was often a barrier to other teams.
Card #5 is an oddity, one of the most expensive John Havlicek cards around shows his name spelled Havilcek” on it. $6,635.44 was paid recently for a Topps Test PSA 8 Havlivek sold at a Mile High Card Company auction. A Zelmo Beaty graded PSA 8 was sold by Memory Lane Inc. a couple of years ago for $940.
There have been unlicensed reprints made of the 1968-69 Topps Test set that are available on eBay. They would seem to be made of different cardboard, not that many collectors would have a real card to compare it with, and have a blank back instead of a piece of the Wilt picture.