They went from tall to small, then back to small again. 1970s Topps basketball cards were all over the board in the decade in which they dutifully produced sets each and every season. They’re far from fancy and some years Topps didn’t have the rights to show logos so the players wore shirts backwards when the photographer snapped.
It was like it or lump it for basketball card collectors but even if you’re just a fan with a hankering for the past, we’ve got a list of ten cards that should be in any respectable collection–and with a couple of exceptions, they’re all well under $100 even in great shape. This isn’t a list of the ‘most valuable’ cards from the decade–but it will satisfy hoop hounds who love the history of the NBA.
The 1970s marked the first decade in which there were yearly sets…and that trend lasted only until 1981 before cards became big business again in the mid-1980s. So without further adieu, here are 10 1970s basketball cards a respectable fan can’t live without. Click the title of each to see them on eBay.
1) 1969-70 Topps Lew Alcindor. Easily the priciest of the bunch, you can’t touch this rookie card for much less than $500 in close to near mint condition. He’s no Honus Wagner, but the kid from UCLA is the 1970s hoop holy grail. The skyhook. The goggles. The championships. They said he’d be the best and they were right.
His draft rights in the spring of ’69 were decided by a flip of the coin. Expansion teams Milwaukee and Phoenix had a 50-50 shot. The Suns called tails but the coin came up heads and the rest is history. If you’ve got Kareem then you must have a…
2) 1969-70 Topps Neal Walk. By all accounts, he was a great guy and a solid player but sadly for the Suns, second place in that coin flip was not Magic Johnson or Larry Bird. Walk was a solid college player who actually did enjoy a decent pro career, averaging 20 points per game in 1972-73. He passed away recently after battling health issues. Walk’s rookie card sitting next to the Alcindor makes for a great conversation piece. And you’ll pay about $397 less.
3)1970-71 Topps Pat Riley. Good player, better coach. He looks entirely different on the front of this card than he did while parading up and down the sidelines in LA and Miami.
Fans under 30 may not even realize he spent 11 years in the league, including four with the San Diego Rockets before this card came out. It’s considered his rookie card and there weren’t many others issued after this.
4) 1974-75 Topps Jerry Sloan. Another guy who went on to become a great coach. Sloan’s longevity in Utah was forged out of a hard-nosed decade with the Chicago Bulls. He’d already established himself by this time–a small school player who was a no-nonsense player and a no-nonsense coach.
His 1970-71 rookie card photo is so hideous we had to go with another and this one is perfect. Why? He’s shooting over Walt Frazier. Both are beloved in southern Illinois and proof that in the 70s NBA, you didn’t have to be from a big school to be a Hall of Famer.
5) 1971-72 Topps Wilt Chamberlain. Wilt was nearing the end of his most productive years by this time, but he had enough in the tank to lead the Lakers on a 33-game winning streak, a 69-13 overall record and to their first NBA title in Los Angeles. A magical year for Wilt the Stilt, who left us too early.
6) 1972-73 Topps Phil Jackson. Rookie card for another small school overachiever. Jackson will be known for his days as a Hall of Fame coach who handled a lot of Hall of Fame players but he was a key component on those early 70s Knicks teams too. The picture of the young, carefree Phil simply screams 1970s.
How can you collect old basketball cards and NOT have a Phil Jackson rookie?
7) 1972-73 Topps Julius Erving. Dr. J’s rookie card should be worth more than the $250 or so you’ll pay for a near mint copy. It’s the only major rookie card in the set and while the Doctor has better looking cards, this is one rookie issue that you really need to own for his place in history.
About this time, the NBA started thinking that merging with the ABA was better than competition. Eventually it happened and Doc finally got the exposure he deserved, although is best highlights were in the old league.
The Virginia Squires are remembered for only this one thing. There are worse things in life.
8) 1976-77 Topps Bill Walton. Walton’s NBA career wasn’t as great as it could have been had he not been crippled by injuries but what we saw in the 70s was enough to call him one of the greatest centers of all-time.
This card, representing both Walton’s championship year in Portland and a one-year experiment with gigantic cards, offers the quintessential 1970s Walton photo in all its glory. Throw it down, big man!
9) 1975-76 Topps Bill Bradley. Topps was feeling energetic when this issue came out. 330 cards made it the biggest set of the decade. Unfortunately it’s all too forgettable. Try reading the numbers on the backs of some of these. Blue and green together don’t mix.
The only NBA player to become a United States Senator, Bradley’s later career issues are much cheaper than his rookie card and sort of represent the transition he made into a high-profile second career in politics. It’s also a great shot of him driving against the Bucks’ Mickey Davis at the old Milwaukee Arena.
10) 1972-73 Topps Pete Maravich. It’s not Pete’s first or last card, but it represents The Pistol better than any card from the decade. Dribbling between his legs in that classic (or hideous, depending on your point of view) green and blue Atlanta Hawks uniform with the floppy hair and huge socks? Awesome.
Pete Maravich simply must be in every basketball card collection. It’s the law.