To most, the 1978-79 Topps basketball set is one that does little but help connect the ABA/NBA merger era to the popular 1980-81 Topps issue, which features the rookie cards of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. Hidden, however, in this collection is a quiet group of underappreciated rookie cards featuring many NBA stars and Hall of Famers. While the set doesn’t include high-dollar cards there are many first-year issues of star players that are undervalued.
Ugly but Effective
The set’s design won’t be winning any graphic art awards anytime soon. Topps tried something different for the first time with the team name displayed vertically down the left edge with letters on their side. Previous issues, such as 1976-77 did include a vertical layout of the team names, but kept the letters right side up. That it was the only time Topps tried this in their older basketball sets was perhaps an indication that it wasn’t all that popular. The team city and name were also printed as such, albeit in smaller font so as not to lessen the team name, which was clearly the focal point of the text. In the lower right hand corner was a small circular headshot of the player with an action shot taking up most of the card.
Technically, all the information is there but visually appealing, this set is not. Sure, there are exceptions. George Gervin’s card capturing his iconic shot is a thing of beauty, for example. But by and large, the design and look of the cards is lacking.
One of the bigger name rookies included is Bernard King. King is a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and is arguably considered the top rookie card in the set. After staring at Tennessee, where his number was retired, he was an NBA Lottery Draft Pick and spent 14 years in the league.
King was one of the top scorers of all time in the NBA, finishing 16th on the league’s career scoring charts with just under 20,000 points in his career. He was the tenth player in NBA history to score 60 points in a game, was a two-time All NBA First Team selection, and in 1985 among the likes of Dr. J, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson, led the league in scoring, averaging 32.9 ppg with the New York Knicks. Overall, his rookie card at under $10 is a steal.
Also in the set is Hall of Fame point guard Dennis Johnson. Johnson epitomizes the undervalued collection of talent in this set as he was often regarded lost in the shuffle alongside big name players. Playing with Bird, Robert Parish, and Kevin McHale, he didn’t get to do as much as he could have on offense with the Celtics. But as he proved in stops with Seattle and Phoenix before arriving in Boston, he was more than a capable scorer. In a three-year stretch with those teams, Johnson averaged over 19 points a game and was one of the league’s top scoring guards. He also was a winner.
Before joining the Celtics, he led the Seattle Supersonics to an NBA title (claiming Most Valuable Player honors) and then won two more championships in Boston. Johnson was a five-time All-Star and landed on nine different NBA All-Defensive First and Second Teams. His card, like King’s can be had for under $10.
Rounding out the Big Three here is Walter Davis. Davis was an Olympic Gold Medalist in 1976 part of Team USA and after a standout college career, was an NBA Lottery Draft pick in 1977. He was a star from the very beginning, scoring 24.2 ppg in his first season, winning Rookie of the Year honors. Davis endured drug problems later in his career, but not before making six All-Star teams and becoming the Phoenix Suns’ all-time leading scorer. Davis’ cards are also a steal at under $5.
Even beyond those three, there are many other key rookie cards here of former key players. There’s legendary guard Norm Nixon, who was a two-time all-star and won two NBA titles as a member of the Showtime Lakers. Boston Celtics great Cedric Maxwell also won two titles and his first card in the set. Five-time All-Star Marques Johnson and seven-time All-Star Jack Sikma are there, too. Rounding out the set are rookie cards of James Edwards and Quinn Buckner, both part of NBA championship teams. Overall, there are plenty of rookie cards in this brief 132-card set and all of these players can usually be found on eBay for under $3.
And Don’t Forget …
In addition to the rookies, the set also has its regular assortment of stars. Magic and Bird aren’t yet there, but you will find a heavy dose of 1970s stars, including Bill Walton, Julius Erving, Pete Maravich, Walt Frazier, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Rick Barry, Artis Gilmore, Moses Malone, Earl Monroe, Wes Unseld, George Gervin, Elvin Hayes, Calvin Murphy, Nate Archibald, and many more.
Overall, this not-so-visually appealing set will be passed over by many. But at under $75 for a complete set, the rookie cards of so many key NBA players in the 1980s make pursuing it a worthwhile venture.