The ABA’s mystique is steeped in the mystery of unseen thrills and unknowable greatness.
Happily, those there to witness the feats firsthand are more than happy to tell the tales (Terry Pluto’s Loose Balls is the best trove of these stories). YouTube and various documentarians have also done an admirable job. It’s imperfect, but, we get what we get, right? At the same time, given mainstream media’s lack of regard for professional basketball half a century ago, it’s a wonder we got what we got.
If we’re being honest, given the visceral way in which the league is described by those involved, “perfectly imperfect, with a dusting of nostalgic hyperbole” is the brand immortality the American Basketball Association deserves.
That, of course, and the cardboard debuts of a generation of all-time greats..
Here, now, a stroll through hobby history, and the nine rookie cards that tell the story of a renegade league:
Rick Barry (1971-72 Topps, #170)
Total Graded: 925 (note that all sales data excludes PSA/DNA autos and cards with qualifiers)
PSA 10 – pop: 10; 1 sale in the past 6 months – September 2020, for $6,655 (Year-ago: $3,827)
PSA 9 – pop: 52; 3 sales in the past 6 months: $1,257 average (Year-ago: $485)
PSA 8 – pop: 305; 6 sales in the past 6 months: $547 average (Year-ago: $120)
PSA 7 – pop: 276; 14 sales in the past 6 months: $287 average (Year-ago: $45)
Rick Barry’s early career took an itinerant and chaotic path that only the ABA could make possible.
Drafted second overall in the 1965 NBA draft, Barry initially spent two seasons with the San Francisco Warriors, winning Rookie of the Year, and then averaging an awesome 35.6 points per game in 1966-67. Barry then made a deal to move to the ABA’s Oakland Oaks. A legal tussle between the leagues barred him from playing in 1967-68. After one spectacular season in Oakland, he joined the Washington Capitols… with whom he spent one characteristically excellent season.
As he was drafted in the midst of Topps’ 1960s basketball card hiatus, all the while, Barry didn’t have a rookie card.
In 1970, he was on the move again, this time to New York. In two seasons on Long Island, he averaged 30.6 points, 7.2 rebounds and 4.5 assists, and led the Nets to the 1971-72 ABA Finals.
It’s at this point that Barry returned to the NBA – and the Bay Area – for another six seasons with the Warriors, during which he earned six All-Star selections (bringing his career total to twelve) and, in 1974-75, became the first ABA great to win an NBA title, winning Finals MVP in the process.
It’s also at this point that Topps, now back in on basketball, finally included Barry in one of its sets. Visually, Barry’s cardboard debut screams “ABA”. Between the funky font and the iconic red, white and blue ball – which blends beautifully with the Nets jersey – there’s no ambiguity as to when this card is from.
Despite his incredible resume and relative sparsity of high-grade versions, Barry’s rookie doesn’t break the bank. As of February 2021, PSA 7s still fetch under $300, while a PSA 9 can be had for a little over $1,000.
Spencer Haywood (1971-72 Topps, #20)
Total Graded: 258
PSA 10 – pop: 1; no sales on record
PSA 9 – pop: 9; 4 recorded sales, none since June 2019, all with “OC” qualifier: $60 average
PSA 8 – pop: 91; 2 sales in the past 6 months: $163 average (Year-ago: $150)
PSA 7 – pop: 91; 1 sales in the past 6 months: December 2020, for $37 (Year-ago: $31)
After a dominant high school career, a season each at junior college and the University of Detroit, and an Olympic gold medal, Spencer Haywood was granted basketball’s first-ever “hardship” exemption, and allowed to forego his remaining eligibility. He turned pro in 1969, signing a three-year deal with the ABA’s Denver Rockets.
He saw out just one season of that deal, but… what a season! In one of the great debuts in sports history, Haywood led the ABA in scoring (30 points per game), total points, rebounding (19.5 per game), offensive, defensive and total rebounds, Player Efficiency Rating, Win Shares, Win Shares/48, and minutes played. For his trouble, he was named an All-Star, First Team All-ABA, Rookie of the Year and league MVP. For good measure, he also averaged 36.7 points and 19.8 rebounds in twelve playoff games, leading the Rockets to the West finals.
After a contract dispute that summer, Haywood jumped to the NBA, joining the Seattle Supersonics. He had five excellent seasons in Seattle, four of which included All-Star and All-NBA selections. Sadly, issues with drugs and discipline turned the final eight years of his career into a nomadic slog. All the same, he left an indelible mark, on and off the floor and was eventually elected to the Hall of Fame in 2015.
Dan Issel (1971-72 Topps, #200)
Total Graded: 619
PSA 10 – pop: 4; 2 recorded sales – August 2019, for $3,827; September 2020, for $5,655
PSA 9 – pop: 50; 3 sales in the past 6 months: $327 average (Year-ago: $230)
PSA 8 – pop: 226; 4 sales in the past 6 months: $108 average (Year-ago: $53)
PSA 7 – pop: 199; 3 sales in the past 6 months: $43 average (Year-ago: ~$30)
By any statistical measure, Dan Issel is one of the ABA’s best ever. In six seasons, he averaged 25.6 points and 10.9 rebounds – including 30 points and 12 over his first two seasons – and racked up more Win Shares (75.5) than all but one player in league history. He was an All Star six times, and teamed with Artis Gilmore to lead the Kentucky Colonels to the 1974-75 ABA title. After five years in Kentucky, Issel spent the 1975-76 season – the ABA’s last before merging with the NBA – with the Denver Nuggets, whom he also led to the ABA Finals.
Issel remained with the Nuggets for all nine of his post-merger seasons. He averaged more than 21 points and eight rebounds over the first eight of those seasons, but somehow only earned a single NBA All-Star selection. He did, however, become the face of the Nuggets franchise, its first Hall of Famer, and served as president, GM and head coach – twice.
Interestingly, despite being so synonymous with a single city and franchise, and having an on-court resume superior to those of fellow 1971-72 Topps rookies Bob Lanier and Dave Cowens, Issel’s rookie card – at the PSA 7/8 level, at least – is largely on par with Haywood’s.
Artis Gilmore (1972-73 Topps, #180)
Total Graded: 684
PSA 10 – pop: 12; 4 sales February-September 2020: $1,720 average; January 6, 2021: $6,400
PSA 9 – pop: 94; 2 sales in the past 6 months: $437 average (Year-ago: $275)
PSA 8 – pop: 299; 10 sales in the past 6 months: $210 average (Year-ago: $65)
PSA 7 – pop: 130; 5 sales in the past 6 months: $139 average (Year-ago: ~$30)
Artis Gilmore joined the Kentucky Colonels the season after Issel did. Like Issel, he hit ground sprinting.
Also one of the greatest-ever ABAers, Gilmore, like Haywood two years earlier, won Rookie of the Year and MVP in 1971-72. He was an ABA All Star five times, led the Colonels (with Issel) to the ‘74-‘75 title, and holds the ABA record for Win Shares, with 82.2. Over five ABA seasons, he averaged 22.3 points, 17.1 rebounds, 3.4 blocked shots per game, led the league in total rebounds five times, and rebounds per game four times.
Like many ABA greats, the full measure of Artis’ greatness is lost to time, his peak coinciding with the dwindling exposure of a dying league. That the late-70s/early-80s NBA was itself struggling for mainstream attention certainly did not help.
After the merger, he continued to consistently put up excellent numbers, first with the Chicago Bulls (20 points, 11.5 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game over six seasons), and then with the San Antonio Spurs (16 points, 9.7 rebounds and 1.8 blocks over five seasons). The Bulls and Spurs teams on which Gilmore featured managed just three winning seasons and two playoff series wins in eleven seasons. Not quite the formula for becoming a household name.
Like Barry’s, Gilmore’s Topps rookie is as “of-an-era” as a card gets. The tri-color ball is again front and center, as is Gilmore’s glorious (though not yet in full flow) afro. After failing to crack the $100 mark for years, PSA 7s and 8s have each more than tripled over the past year. At the higher end, a PSA 9 can still be had for under $1,000.
Sharing a set with a truly iconic rookie card can often work in favor of secondary rookies. However, Artis never really capture the hobby’s imagination. Which is a bit strange, given that the head of his class is…
Julius Erving (1972-73 Topps, #195)
Total Graded: 3,610
PSA 10 – pop: 1; no sales on record
PSA 9 – pop: 158; 11 sales in the past 6 months: $15,011 average (Year-ago: ~$5,000)
PSA 8 – pop: 931; 68 sales in the past 6 months: $5,280 average (Year-ago: $865)
PSA 7 – pop: 859; 62 sales in the past 6 months: $2,180 average (Year-ago: $430)
PSA 6 – pop: 761; 37 sales in the past 6 months: $1,164 average (Year-ago: $245)
Because there is so much to be said about Dr. J in the ABA, it’s extremely tough to say anything about Dr. J in the ABA. He was the prototype on which Michael Jordan was based. He was a statistical absurdity, averaging 28.7 points, 12.1 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 2.4 steals and 2.0 blocked shots per game over his five ABA seasons. Three times he was the league’s leading scorer and MVP. In the playoffs he was actually better, averaging 31, 13 rebounds and five assists. As a 21-year-old rookie, he led the Virginia Squires to within a game of the ABA Finals, with postseason averages of 33.3 points, 20.4 rebounds and 6.5 assists. He subsequently led the New York Nets to two ABA titles.
Erving went on to superstardom in the NBA as well, leading the 76ers to four Finals appearances, an NBA title (alongside someone we’ll meet in a moment), and earned eleven All-Star selections and league MVP in 1982-83. In the ABA, however, he was a revelation. “ABA Doc” combined speed, strength, agility, fluidity, length and leaping ability into a never-before-seen cocktail of elegant devastation.
His 1972-73 Topps rookie – which, oddly, lists Erving as a center on the back – is the Holy Grail not just for ABA collectors, but the entire basketball card hobby for the decade. However, while it does stand head and shoulders above all other 1970s rookies, that PSA 6s and 7s still only carry low-four-figure price tags is a bit puzzling.
Now, if that one PSA 10 ever hits the market…
George Gervin (1974-75 Topps, #196)
Total Graded: 919
PSA 10 – pop: 4; 2 sales on record: April 2018: $9,000; August 2019: $9,988
PSA 9 – pop: 65; 4 sales in the past 6 months: $3,189 average (Year-ago: ~$900)
PSA 8 – pop: 311; 13 sales in the past 6 months: $855 average (Year-ago: $140)
PSA 7 – pop: 312; 14 sales in the past 6 months: $476 average (Year-ago: ~$100)
The “Iceman” spent his first four professional seasons in the ABA (one with Virginia, three with the Spurs). At the time of the merger he on the rise – a three-time All-Star with four-year averages of 21.9 points and 7.4 rebounds – but not yet an era-defining offensive force. In the immediate aftermath of the merger he truly hit his stride, averaging 25+ points per game in seven of eight seasons, winning four of six scoring titles, and earning nine straight All-Star selections.
Like Gilmore – with whom Gervin played for three seasons – Gervin’s accomplishments are somewhat lost to pro basketball’s “dark ages”. And, like Gilmore, Gervin never really broke through in the postseason.
Gervin’s rookie card – the first we’ve seen here featuring an action shot – shares the top tier in the 1974-75 Topps set with Bill Walton’s. Had Walton remained healthy and put together a truly legendary career, there’s a case to be made that Gervin, by association, would have received more hobby love over the years. Regardless, like a lot of vintage cards, Gervin rookies are drawing interest now, with just about every PSA grade more than tripling.
Marvin Barnes (1975-76 Topps, #252)
Total Graded: 249
PSA 10 – pop: 36; 1 sale in the past 6 months: September 2020, for $107.50 average (Year ago: ~$75)
PSA 9 – pop: 121; 4 sales in the past 6 months: $50 average (Year-ago: $11)
PSA 8 – pop: 74; 1 sale in the past 6 months: November 2020, for $42.50 (Year-ago: $12)
Marvin “Bad News” Barnes’ 1975-76 Topps rookie card is one of the most ABA rookie cards of all time. In a renegade league, Barnes stood out as a renegade. Though not the priciest of ABA cards, higher grade versions of have drawn more attention than ever over the past year.
In 1974, Barnes was drafted second overall by the 76ers in the NBA draft, and also selected by the ABA’s Spirits of St. Louis, whose more lucrative offer drew Barnes to the ABA. He was spectacular as a rookie, averaging 24 points and 15.6 rebounds, earning Rookie of the Year, All-Star and All-ABA honors. He was excellent in his second season as well, again averaging 24 points, this time with 10.8 rebounds, and earning another All-Star selection. Sadly, however, that ’75-‘76 season – the ABA’s last – also marked the end for Barnes as a quality pro. By this point, his demons – indiscipline and drug use – had caught up with him.
He spent four years in the NBA with the Detroit Pistons, Buffalo Braves, Boston Celtics and San Diego Clippers, but he was a shell, averaging just over nine points and five rebounds in 171 games. Two ABA seasons, however, were enough to carve Marvin’s name into history. In 144 ABA games, Barnes averaged 21.4 points, 13.4 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.9 blocks, and embodied the “spirit” of a league.
Moses Malone (1975-76 Topps, #254)
Total Graded: 1,457
PSA 10 – pop: 36; 3 in the past 6 months, all August-September 2020: $8,742 average (Year-ago: ~$2,000)
PSA 9 – pop: 343; 19 sales in the past 6 months: $1,459 average (Year-ago: $200)
PSA 8 – pop: 643; 27 sales in the past 6 months: $605 average (Year-ago: $65)
PSA 7 – pop: 260; 10 sales in the past 6 months: $240 average (Year-ago: ~$30)
Moses Malone is arguably the greatest NBA player to have played in the ABA.
Moses’ body of work in the ABA, while modest, hinted at what was to come. As a 19-year-old rookie with the Utah Stars, he averaged a stellar 18.6 points and 14.6 rebounds, and earned All-Rookie honors, before joining Barnes in St. Louis, where he averaged 14.3 and 9.6 rebounds in 43 games. And then, the ABA exited Stage Left.
Malone was drafted by the Portland Trailblazers in the dispersal draft. Before he’d ever played for the team, however, the Blazers traded him to Buffalo… for six days and six minutes of game action. In October 1976, he was traded again, this time to the Houston Rockets. He never looked back.
Beginning in 1977-78, Malone averaged at least 19.4 points and 11.8 rebounds per game for twelve straight seasons and, during his seven-year peak, averaged 26 and 14.8 rebounds. Malone’s six seasons in Houston yielded a pair of MVPs and a trip to the 1981 NBA Finals.
In 1982, as the league’s reigning MVP, he was dealt again, this time to Philly. His first season as a Sixer, 1982-83, is one of the greatest in NBA history. Malone averaged 24.5 points and 15.3 rebounds – the last 20-15 season to date – earned a third league MVP award, and, along with Dr. J, powered the 76ers to a title, picking up Finals MVP along the way.
However, despite being the only player in NBA history to average 20-10 in a season with four different teams (Rockets, Sixers, Bullets and Hawks), Malone is a man without NBA roots, the game’s most accomplished nomad.
For some time, his 1975-76 Topps rookie card – which features a skinny and spry Moses in full flight, blocking a shot – received virtually no attention. Collectors are clearly paying attention now, as the card – in any grade – has increased in value by 500% to 1,000% over the past year.
David Thompson (1976-77 Topps, #110)
Total Graded: 712
PSA 10 – pop: 3; 1 recorded sale – April 2019, for $7,085
PSA 9 – pop: 80; 3 sales in the past 6 months: $750, $635, $510 (Year-ago: $370)
PSA 8 – pop: 366; 6 sales in the past 6 months: $155 average (Year-ago: $49)
PSA 7 – pop: 177; 1 sale in the past 6 months: October 2020, for $132 (Year-ago: ~$20)
Also, after five years of standard-sized sets, Topps opting for a 3-1/8” x 5¼” format for the 1976-77 set – their largest for any regular set in any sport. The first post-ABA set comprised of just 144 cards, and features crisp photos that put the player front and center. The set’s rookie class includes the likes of Lloyd (later “World B.”) Free, Alvan Adams and Gus Williams, but the headliner could only ever b David Thompson.
An exceptional college career at NC State, the obscenely athletic Thompson was seemingly destined for greatness. So much so, in fact, that the Atlanta Hawks selected him first overall in the 1976 NBA draft. Like many before him, he opted for a bigger payday in the ABA, and joined the Denver Nuggets. In his first season as a pro – the ABA’s last as a league –Thompson was spectacular, averaging 26 points, winning Rookie of the Year and All-Star MVP, and making Second Team All-ABA.
His early NBA days suggested more of the same. Four times between 1976-77 and 1980-81 (he lost much of 1979-80 to injury) Thomson averaged 24+ points, earning two First Team All-NBA selections, three All-Star selections, and winning the 1979 All-Star MVP.
Sadly, by the early 1980s, a combination of drug abuse and knee injuries had sapped his athleticism and, by 1984, Thompson was on his way out of the league. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1996 and introduced Michael Jordan at MJ’s own Hall induction 13 years later.
Though it, too, has gained popularity of late, under different circumstances, David Thompson’s rookie card is one of the most sought-after from this era.