It was the decade that brought us the Showtime Lakers, the gritty, gutty Celtics and Sixers and a rebirth of pro basketball under commissioner David Stern. The hoops card market was struggling as the 1980s began but still gave us one of the era’s greatest cards. By the end, it was a free-for-all but some of the greats who won MVPs in the era had their rookie cards during the previous decade.
In the second of a four-part series, we’ve got a look at the rookie cards of the 1980s NBA Finals MVPs.
Click the links to see them on eBay.
1980, 1982, 1987. Magic Johnson. L.A. Lakers
1980-81 Topps #146 (with Jan Van Breda Kolff, Julius Erving)
1980-81 Topps #6 (with Larry Bird, Julius Erving)
The perfect storm of events that led to the Lakers drafting Magic paid almost immediate dividends as the dynamic and versatile youngster led L.A. all the way to the 1980 championship series. He would make it a habit.
The ’80 Finals are known for the game when Magic stepped into Kareem’s center position, temporarily, after Abdul-Jabbar’s injury in Game 5 against the 76ers. Johnson averaged 18 points, 7.7 rebounds and 7.3 assists in the playoffs during his rookie season.
Two years later, he was in the forefront again. While Johnson didn’t lead the Lakers in points in the 1982 playoffs, he did pace them in assists with 9.3 and rebounds with 11.3 per game as the Lakers swept the Suns and Spurs before defeating the 76ers in six games.
In 1987, Johnson hit a sky hook to win a game against Boston as the Lakers defeated the injury-depleted Celtics in six games.
Yes, it’s the second card that everyone wants with Larry and Dr. J joining him on what’s become an iconic piece of hoops history, but if you just want a Magic rookie card, the first one, with Jan Van Breda Kolff and Erving, will be a lot cheaper.
The Rockets tried to contain Larry Bird in the 1981 NBA Finals, but they should have learned from the Celtics’ previous opponents in the playoffs that Bird could find teammates with passes. Maxwell made teams pay for not paying attention to him by hitting 58% of his field goals. He also battled Moses Malone on the boards as the Celtics won in six games.
Cornbread was named MVP and his 1978-79 Topps rookie card is neither incredibly beautiful nor incredibly expensive.
1983: Moses Malone. Philadelphia 76ers
The Doctor was not enough, so the 76ers made a big trade to add Malone to their team of Julius Erving, Mo Cheeks, Bobby Jones and Andrew Toney. They won 65 games and Malone predicted his team would sweep everyone in the playoffs (“fo,fo,fo” he famously said). They nearly did, as it was a sweep of the Knicks followed by a win over the Bucks in five games before another sweep in the Finals as they defeated the Lakers. Malone averaged 26 points, 16 rebounds and 2 blocks a game in the playoffs.
Moses had been around long enough to have played in the ABA, which he joined just out of high school. His 1975-76 rookie card is a must-have if you’re a fan of vintage basketball cards. Best of all, you can buy very nice examples for $25-50 at most.
1984, 1986: Larry Bird. Boston Celtics
1980-81 Topps #94 (with Bill Cartwright, John Drew)
1980-81 Topps #6 (with Julius Erving, Magic Johnson)
Larry Bird was the regular season MVP in 1984 as he took Boston to a record of 62 wins and 20 losses. His all-around game was on display during the playoffs as he led Boston in points, rebounds, assists, steals and three-pointers. They Lakers threw a bunch of defenders at Bird but not even Michael Cooper could slow him down and the Celtics won in seven games.
The 1986 Celtics may have been the greatest team to ever play in the NBA, and Bird was their best player. After winning 67 games, the Celtics went through the Bulls, Hawks and Bucks and were surprised to see that Houston was their opponent in the Finals. Olajuwon and Sampson in the paint wasn’t enough as the Celtics won in six games. Bird hit 23 of 56 three-pointers in the playoffs, led the Celtics with 8.2 assists per game and averaged 25.9 points while hitting 93% of his free throws.
Again, you can go all out and grab the Magic-Bird rookie or go the cheaper route with the Bird-Cartwright-Drew version of the funky 1980-81 set.
The Lakers had a hard time getting to the Finals in 1988, as both Utah and Dallas took them to seven games. The Bad Boys of Detroit were a new breed of opponent but Worthy, who had slowly developed into a quiet superstar, was too quick and too skilled for the Pistons. He averaged 22 points, 7.4 rebounds and 4.4 assists in the series. The Lakers won in seven games, with Worthy the only Laker in the playoffs to average more than 20 points a game.
His Star rookie card came in the first set issued by that company following Topps’ departure. It’s not cheap and the recommendation would be to buy a graded one. The 1986-87 Fleer is readily available but varies quite a bit based on grade.
1989: Joe Dumars. Detroit Pistons
It was Dumars’ defense against playoff opponents Dennis Johnson, Sidney Moncrief and Michael Jordan that was a big part of Detroit getting to the 1989 NBA Finals. While he also contained Magic and the other Laker guards in the Finals, Dumars exploded for 27.3 points per game in as the Pistons won their first championship.
Dumars is often overlooked in the 1986-87 Fleer set with mint, graded examples often selling for under $25.