1980s Basketball Rookie Cards: 10 of the Best

It’s a study in contrast.  While it gave us Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan rookie cards (as well as other members of the famous 1992 Dream Team), it was also a near wasteland for mainstream issues.  A list of the top 10 basketball rookie cards of the 1980s relies primarily on just a handful of sets.

Rest assured, though, the decade holds some of the NBA’s greatest players—and personalities of all-time.  The only dilemma is whether to include the numerous Star Company sets.  While they were sold to collectors, you couldn’t just walk into a drug store and buy a pack.  We’ve opted to sprinkle a couple of them in since one shouldn’t ignore a brand that did carry an NBA license, but for the most part, you’ll find cards that are relatively plentiful—and popular.  Click the links inside the story to see cards for sale or auction on eBay.

John Stockton Fleer rookie card10. John Stockton 1988-89 Fleer #115

No player ever accomplished what Stockton did during his career.  He set records for the most assists and steals, and plenty of others like his nine assists in only one quarter of an All-Star game.  He averaged 10.5 assists per game during his time with the Utah Jazz and the 6-1 point guard also shot 51.5% from the field.  Stockton won two Olympic gold medals, and that was despite missing out on being picked for Team USA in 1984.

The picture on the front of his Fleer rookie card shows Stockton directing the offense.  On the back of his rookie card there are four years of NBA statistics, as it took a while for Fleer to include a Stockton card in their NBA packs.  He does have cards from the early days of his career in the Star Company sets, which one could also put in the place of his one.

While it would be a couple of years later when Fleer and other  manufacturers dramatically increased the supply, there are still plenty of 1988-89 Fleer cards around so Stockton rookies are very affordable.  A PSA 10 graded Stockton recently sold for $94 on eBay but you can buy a nice, ungraded example for less than $10.

Clyde Drexler 1986-87 Fleer9. Clyde Drexler 1986-87 Fleer #26

The Glide" scored 22,195 points in the NBA but he was much more than a scorer, averaging over 5 assists and 2 steals per game during his career with Portland and Houston.  Drexler went to the NBA Finals twice with the Trail Blazers, and won the 1995 NBA Championship with Houston after going to the Rockets in a blockbuster, midseason trade.

Drexler was really an exciting player but his first NBA card doesn't show that.  Clyde is standing on the court with his warm-up top on, looking up and waiting for a rebound.   His shirt is an interesting one with a huge NBA logo on it.  Funny to see that Clyde also had a bit more hair early in his career compared to later when he was a lot more famous.

Drexler is another player whose first appearance comes on the Star Company sets, but they're quite rare.  The Fleer rookie shows him in some pretty resplendent red shoes, on the move during the prime of his career.  A BGS 9.5 will cost upwards of $150 but a check of eBay shows you can land a PSA 9 for around $50 or an ungraded near mint example for less than $25.

1986-87 Fleer Dominique Wilkins8.  Dominique Wilkins 1986-87 Fleer #121

Picked for the All-Star team every season from 1986 to 1994, the always entertaining Wilkins also won two NBA dunk competitions.  In 1985-86 he led the NBA in scoring with 30.3 points per game.

Wilkins may not have been a better all-around player than some of his contemporaries but in his prime, he was unforgettable.

Collectors watching eBay can see what the difference in a grade can make for a card.  'Nique's rookie card is a little hard to find in high grade and when you see a '9', expect to pay more for it.  When one of the 46 PSA 10 Wilkins cards in the world was on eBay recently, the buyer dropped $3,500.  Those looking to spend a little less can get his first Fleer card near mint and ungraded for between $20 and $35.

1988-89 Scottie Pippen rookie7.  Scottie Pippen 1988-89 Fleer #20

Jordan never won without him, and there were some things Pippen did better than number 23.  Pippen could guard anyone from a point guard to a power forward and even provide help defense against big centers.  Pippen was also a more-willing passer of the ball, running the offense as a point forward.  He was a tremendous complement to MJ and certainly deserving of the Hall of Fame.

The front of Pippen’s Fleer rookie card shows him high in the air attacking the rim.  The back of the card mentions how he attended the University of Central Arkansas.  He is the only player from that school to play in the NBA.

PSA 10 examples will bring $350 and up when offered but thanks to more product continuing to be opened as collectors look to pick up gradeable cards, PSA 9 Pippens can be had on eBay for $30 or so.  Nice ungraded examples shouldn’t cost more than $10-15.  Ungraded lots of Pippen rookies sometimes provide a nice bargain considering his stature in the game's history.

Karl Malone Fleer Rookie Card6.  Karl Malone 1986-87 Fleer #68

"The Mailman" delivered 36,928 points over his NBA career.  A lot of the work was finishing off a pass from Stockton, except for Malone's last season when he was a Laker.  Malone won two NBA MVP awards with the Jazz, he also had a record-setting 11 seasons in a row of scoring at least 2,000 points.

Malone's rookie card was produced at a time when the Jazz didn't know if Rickey Green or John Stockton was their point guard.  Green had appeared in an All-Star game but the Jazz also thought the younger Stockton was going to be the future.  But on the Malone card, there isn't a point guard around and Karl is hustling up the court dribbling the ball.

Recent eBay sales for Malone rookies have included BGS 9.5 cards selling for around $300 and a PSA 9 selling for $105.50.  Ungraded cards have been going for around $20 with higher prices being paid for some with perfect centering.  Buy the best you can afford and comparing prices is easy since there are usually plenty to go around on eBay.

5.  Patrick Ewing 1985-86 Star #166

Star Company Patrick Ewing rookie"The Hoya Destroyer" went to the Knicks with the first pick of the 1985 NBA Draft after New York won the first ever draft lottery.  The seven-footer turned the franchise into a contender but he never won it all, although he came very close against Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets in 1994.  Shooting over 50% from the field for his career, Ewing averaged 21 points.  He set many records for the Knicks, including most points and most rebounds.

Ewing has a short haircut on his rookie card and as Gerald Wilkins looks on Ewing challenges the shot of a Clipper, possibly center James Donaldson.  Ewing would block a lot of shots during his career, and in 1991-92 Donaldson would play a small number of games for the Knicks as Ewing's backup.

After 30 bids, a recent eBay auction for Ewing's rookie with a grade of BGS 9.5 ended at a price of $402.  Otherwise, mint, graded examples are worth around $100.  NM/MT copies, graded and ungraded, range from $25-45 but the card is often found as part of a Knicks Star Company team set that sells for around $50.

4.  Charles Barkley 1986-87 Fleer #7

Chuck is very famous, and while at one time it was only because of his play on the basketball court it is also now because of his continued high profile on the NBA’s studio show.  An undersized power forward, few defenders could stop "The Round Mound of Rebound".

In his third NBA season "Sir Charles" led the NBA in rebounding with 14.6 rebounds a game.  The 6-6 76er, although many have said he may have been closer to 6-4 in height, shot 60% from the field in 1989-90.  A trade to the Phoenix Suns in 1992 gave him a fresh start, an MVP award that season and a trip to the NBA Finals.  He would later play with the Rockets before becoming the media superstar he is today.

Barkley's Fleer rookie card shows him executing a power dunk.  There are no opponents pictured so it could have been on the end of one of his exciting breakaways.  Barkley would rip down a defensive rebound, and while he was said to be close to 300 pounds at that time, he could sprint down the floor and score the quick basket.

Over the last few months, four BGS 9.5 Barkley cards have sold on eBay for $300 and up.  PSA 9's bring $160+ and 8's settle in at around $50.  It's worth monitoring this page to try and spot a Barkley rookie slipping through the cracks at a below market price since it's unlikely they'll be dropping across the board.

Jordan Star Co. 19853.  Michael Jordan 1984-85 Star #101

This is Jordan’s ‘true’ rookie card if you accept the Star Company sets.  While in much shorter supply than the readily available Fleer rookie, Star Company Jordan cards are a must for MJ collectors and for those wanting something actually issued during his early NBA seasons.  They have been the target of counterfeiters and some grading companies have shied away from them.  Beckett graded examples are now likely the best way to go.

The ’84-85 MJ rookie has an action photograph around the rim and Jordan is in the air but it isn't what he is famous for.  On the card front Jordan is grabbing a rebound in traffic, not dunking, while the back of the Star card has his college statistics for the three seasons he attended UNC.

BGS 8.5 examples can sell for $3,000, those in the 7.5 range are around $1,600, while any cards under $1,000 could be too good to be true.  Not only are there counterfeits of this card but collectors will want to make sure they are not looking at a Topps "Original Reproduction" which was in packs in the 1990s when they made reprints of famous rookie cards.  On a quick glance they can look the same but on closer inspection the writing from Topps on the back does indicate it isn't a great bargain.  They're not often found on eBay but it's worth checking here from time to time.

1980-81 Larry Bird Magic Johnson rookie2.  Larry Bird, Magic Johnson 1980-81 Topps

Before their meetings in the NBA Finals, and not long after they played against each other in the NCAA title game, Bird and Magic were linked together on a basketball card.  They entered the NBA at the same time, although Bird was drafted a year before, and Johnson had his first NBA title in 1980 while Bird would win his first in 1981.  Both players can say they are the most versatile basketball player to ever play.  Bird was a 6-9 combo-forward who could pass and shoot outside shots.  Johnson was a 6-9 point guard who could attack the basket or use his size to score over other point guards.  Over his NBA career with the Boston Celtics, Bird averaged 24.3 points, 10 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game while hitting 649 three-pointers.  Earvin Johnson averaged 19.5 points, 7 rebounds and 11.2 assists a game for the Lakers.

The unique players get a different type of card to those from other years as Topps made three-panel cards for 1980-81.  They were three little cards that could be separated, but shouldn't be.  Bird is out on the court, watching the play away from the ball.  Magic's picture has a bit more action. He is high in the air as he attacks the basket and looks to score.  The third player, located in the middle of the card, isn't out of place among the future Hall of Famers as it shows Julius Erving.

It's best to buy a graded example when dealing in a high dollar card such as this and you can usually find a few up for sale or auction each week.

Michael Jordan BGS 9.5 rookie1.  Michael Jordan 1986-87 Fleer #57

While fans of Kobe may not agree, Jordan is clearly the best shooting guard to ever play in the NBA and one of the greatest players in the league's long history.  He went to the NBA Finals six times, and not only did his Bulls win every time but he was always picked as the NBA Finals MVP.  Jordan also led the NBA in scoring every season of his career with the Bulls, except for two of his seasons which were shortened by injury or retirement.  Jordan even had a triple-double at the 1997 All-Star game, and was a famous dunk champion too.  He did draft Kwame Brown with the top overall pick but all the championship rings, scoring titles, gold medals, TV commercials and game-winning shots against the Cavs more than make up for that.

On the list of sports cards that collectors and casual fans can identify, this Jordan card could be at the top.  It has an iconic picture of Jordan floating high above the court, and the other players, as he is just about to slam dunk the basketball.  The front of the card calls him a "Guard-Forward", as there were times very early in his career when he would slide to that spot when the Bulls played Quintin Dailey on the floor with him.  The back of the Fleer card shows the statistics of his first two seasons, and has a very impressive Bulls logo on it too.

Prices for MJ rookies continue to soar.  Expect to pay well over $1,000 for a decent example--much higher for BGS 9.5 or PSA 9s or 10s.   Those on more of a budget will still want to look for a graded card, as there are a great number of counterfeit cards around and you can see those on this page.  Keep in mind even a '7' is a very nice near mint card to own.

This is by no means a complete list.  We could have included cards of Hakeem Olajuwon, James Worthy and a couple of other notable players but it's a representative sampling of some of the best 1980s basketball rookie cards on the market.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *