It was the time of the basketball card boom when a giant rookie from LSU entered the NBA. Nearly 25 years have passed and he’s now a retired legend of the game and a Hall of Fame nominee. He can still dunk (just ask Charles Barkley), but back then, Shaq rookie cards were sizzling in anticipation of a huge career to follow.
As he matriculated to the Orlando Magic in 1992, Shaquille O’Neal was expected to follow in the footsteps of Russell, Wilt, Kareem, Walton and Hakeem as a truly dominant NBA center. Reebok even made a commercial for Shaq with some of those legends where Shaq dunked and broke a backboard. Meanwhile, avid card collectors and opportunists were breaking open packs by the thousands, hoping to land one of his debut singles.
Upper Deck Shaq Rookie Cards
There are seven Shaq rookie cards and while they would have commanded a huge price in the early and mid-1990s, collector can acquire all of them for the price of a dinner out. They are: 1992-93 Fleer #401, 1992-93 Ultra #328, 1992-93 Hoops #442, 1992-93 SkyBox #382, 1992-93 Stadium Club #247, 1992-93 Topps #362 and 1992-93 Upper Deck #1.
With its borderless design, the 1992-93 Upper Deck #1 can be hard to find in perfect condition and is generally considered his most desirable basic rookie card. With a dark, borderless design, any imperfections along the sides show up clearly, so while production levels were high for all card companies in 1992-93 the amount of graded, gem mint Shaq rookie cards up for sale is never large. According to PSA, 202 Shaq Upper Deck rookies have been graded at 10 and a check online shows them typically selling for around $300. Mint 9s, of course, are much, much less.
While all of the ’92-93 Upper Deck rookies were borderless, unlike the rest of the set, the O’Neal rookie’s unique time-lapse exposure type photo on the front definitely made it stand out. The O’Neal card was also considered to be SP, short printed, back then which made it the card everyone wanted to find. An Upper Deck promotion allowed collectors to trade a redemption card (#1A) for another version of Shaq’s rookie card (#1B) which was the same as his standard Upper Deck rookie but simply said “Trade Card” on the top.
Upper Deck used the same design for international card releases which came out after the season. These can be spotted by a white border on the front as well as a different language on the back.
Topps, Fleer, Hoops and More
Topps had been out of the NBA card business for a decade when they returned just as Shaq appeared. He’s card #362, manhandling the Timberwolves in the paint. There’s also a Gold Parallel version that was a pack insert.
Topps Stadium Club–a fresh new brand back then–had a borderless photo while the back had The Sporting News Skills Rating System. For that, Shaq got a 3.3 for shooting range and a 4.7 for “intimidation.” There’s also a Member’s Only parallel version.
Fleer added a new product that season. Ultra was something that collectors at the time considered a “premium” product, a step up from the regular Fleer brand. The Ultra rookie has one picture of Shaq on the front, shooting in the paint against the Kings, and two pictures on the back.
The standard Fleer rookie card does stand out among the Shaq rookies as it is the only one with him pictured playing in a road game. It also seems to be in shorter supply than some of the other base rookie cards.
Hoops appeared for the first time during David Robinson’s rookie year and they were still a popular brand during Shaq’s first season. The rookie cards in Series 2 really stand out in the set as Hoops used a gold background to highlight their name and also had in large print “ROOKIE” on the front. Shaq looks gigantic on his Hoops rookie card as he powers up for a dunk. You can own one for under $5–under $15 for a graded, mint copy.
Skybox had entered the card market with crazy graphics and original photography, but the designs of the first couple of Skybox seasons were toned down for Shaq’s rookie year. This one is cheap, too, and worth owning for a different reason. On the front of the card Shaq is dunking while two Charlotte players are impressed by his power, and on the back, Skybox put a picture of Shaq singing into a microphone. It was around this time that O’Neal recorded songs with Fu-Schnickens and Shaq gave himself one of many nicknames, Shaq Fu. Ah, the 90s.
Rookie Insert and Redemption Sets
Shaq came along at the right time as his rookie season coincided with the introduction of a number of very exciting insert sets. Collectors had never seen cards like 1992-93 Stadium Club Beam Team, 1992-93 NBA Hoops Magic’s All-Rookie Team and 1992-93 Fleer Ultra Rejector. At the time, his Beam Team #21 card was more popular than the Michael Jordan card in the same set and that was when Jordan ruled card collecting. It often still sells for more.
While Upper Deck had a redemption card for a Shaq card, Hoops had one for ten rookies in their 1992-93 Hoops Draft Redemption program. Shaq is pictured on Draft Night in the traditional suit with team cap.
Classic Exclusive and More
One reason why the NBA brands came up with redemption offers for O’Neal cards was that when he entered the NBA he had an exclusive arrangement with Classic, a maker of college cards. He was card #1 in the 1992-93 Classic Draft Picks and Four Sport sets but there was a Gold version of Draft Picks card and Shaq signed more 2500 Draft Picks, 8,500 Gold #AU cards and 150 from the Four Sport set. All of the Classic cards are easy to land on eBay.
He’s even in some food issue sets. Shaq is #97 in the 1992-93 Tony’s Pizza set produced by Fleer in which frozen pizza buyers got cards packed on top. Most are under $10. Drake’s Cakes also partnered with Fleer for a 1992-93 set that included Shaq as card #37 (also cheap at under $5) and he’s also in a McDonald’s sponsored set produced by Upper Deck with most selling for just a few dollars.
Even at the highest grades,virtually all of Shaq’s rookie cards are affordable. When he was entering the NBA in the 1990s there wasn’t a high dollar product like there is this century and so collector can obtain all of his rookie and first-year cards for less money than one ultra-high end brand rookie card of today’s superstars. Even if the supply isn’t likely to dry up, owning a collection of one of sports’ most memorable stars for such a low-cost isn’t a bad thing at all.