When James Naismith invented the game of basketball back in 1891, he could not possibly have foreseen how popular the sport would become in the years that followed. He probably would never have imagined that the National Basketball Association, which was founded in 1946, would go on to become a league that had fans in every corner of the world. The players who played the game, past and present, have become idols and icons in the hearts of those fans. This is probably why collectible basketball cards have become so adored. However, these weren’t very popular trading cards at first.
History of Collectible Basketball Cards
It took a while for professional basketball to reach real prominence in the United States, mostly because everyone viewed baseball as the national pastime. As such, basketball trading cards didn’t really hit very big until the 1970’s.
Before that time, they had the same type of start that baseball cards had, which was that they were more commonly used for promotional purposes. Wheaties was one if the bigger names that adopted the use of basketball cards for promotion, which shouldn’t really come as a surprise since athletes have always been heavily featured on the front of their cereal boxes.
Topps Enters the Baskettball Card Market
The late 1960’s was when Topps, the renowned card maker, took over the basketball card market. They were already considered the go to name for baseball cards, so it only made sense that they would also put their name to another sport that was very much on the rise in the United States. (Just a note: Topps did release a couple of sets in the 40s and 50s.)
Rookie cards have always been in big demand among collector’s, with the most sought after cards from this particular era being the Pete Maravich and Julius Erving cards. Autographs obviously play a factor in the value of the card, which meant that when Maravich passed away in 1988, the value of his cards with a signature on it shot up in value. It’s a rather garish stat to be sure, but one that has to be considered when placing a value on collectible basketball cards.
The 1980’s Changed the Collectible Basketball Card Market
Collectible basketball cards never really seemed to catch the imagination of the buying public in the way that baseball cards did (or even football cards, for that matter), which may explain why Topps stopped making them in the 80’s. To many now, it seems like a strange decision as this was a decade that proved to be something of a golden age for the NBA. The laundry list of stars that came through the league in the 80’s is almost endless. With Topp’s leaving the basketball card market, space was made for a new player in town, and that came in the form of Fleer, who began making basketball cards again during the 86-87 season (There were a couple lessor known sets in the 60’s and 70’s).
The major stars that played the game during the 80’s led to the NBA becoming a global brand. It’s fair to say that Michael Jordan had a lot to do with that rise, as people who weren’t even really fans of the game would clamor to see the greatest player ever take to the court. This upswing in interest led to a whole slew of collectible card makers entering the marketplace.
Basketball Card Collecting Explodes in the 90’s.
Companies like Skybox and Upper Deck entered the fray, leading to an era in the 90’s that saw packs of collectible basketball cards everywhere you turned. This sudden explosion of card availability did something a little strange to the collectors market.
While people who collected cards would still hold on to every single rookie card imaginable, the real search was for the cards from the decades prior to the 90’s.
Since production volume was much lower than modern cards, their value started to really take off at that point. As you might imagine, the Michael Jordan rookie cards are among the most sought after from that period, and are actually now pretty hard to find in Mint or Gem Mint condition. In fact, Gem Mint examples of Jordan’s Fleer rookie card will easily bring in over $10,000. If you can get your hands on one that has a verifiable signature of the star on it, you will have the equivalent of a winning lottery ticket.
The way in which collectors of basketball cards build their collection is a little different from other sports cards. You will hear of many collectors who go out of their way to build sets from championship winning teams throughout the years. What that means is that a lesser bench player on a championship team may have a card that is very desirable.
Let’s face it, kids who buy the card packs hold onto the cards of the players they know best, while quickly ditching the rest or tossing them in a box. Those forgotten cards can quickly become like gold dust to those collectors that want to put together championship series collections.
Collectible Basketball Cards Today
The popularity of collectible basketball cards has continued to remain constant in the digital era. The makers of the cards have found new ways to keep things interesting.
You can now find limited edition cards that contain jerseys or ball pieces, but those pale in comparison to the cards made by a company called Panini. They deliver a Prestige set of cards cut above anything else that is made, and they also put together a Playmaker’s set that have rare cards that instantly become a must for any collection. They have found a way to keep the collecting of basketball cards and sports memorabilia interesting during a time when it would be easy to view cardboard pictures of sports players as something of a relic from a bygone era.
List of Popular Basketball Card Sets
Here is a list of the more popular sets of collectible basketball cards among collectible investors.
- 1948 Bowman
- 1957-1958 Topps
- 1961 Hawks Essex Meats
- 1961-62 Fleer
- 1968-69 Jack in the Box San Diego Rockets
- 1969-70 Topps
- 1970-71 Topps
- 1971-72 Topps
- 1971-72 Topps Trios
- 1972-73 Icee Bear
- 1972-73 Topps
- 1973-74 Topps
- 1974-75 Topps
- 1975 Carvel Discs
- 1975-76 Topps
- 1976 Buckmans Discs
- 197677 Topps
- 1977-78 Topps
- 1978-79 Topps
- 1979-80 Topps
- 1980-71 Topps
- 1981-82 Topps
- 1986-87 Fleer
- 1986-87 Fleer Stickers
- 1987-88 Fleer
- 1987-88 Fleer Stickers
- 1988-89 Fleer
- 1988-89 Fleer Stickers
- 1989-90 Fleer Stickers
- 1990-91 Fleer All-Stars
So what sets or cards are you most interested in with collectible basketball cards? If you’d like to start building a collection of collectible basketball cards, eBay is a great place to start. Also feel free to reach out to me with any questions.