Five championships for the Lakers and three for the Celtics during the 1980s meant plenty of people watching the NBA. But it wasn’t until late in the decade that basketball cards became a popular hobby. 1980s basketball card sets are an interesting mix–from the Topps” tail-off to the rogue stylings of STAR to the return of Fleer and the arrival of new companies late in the decade.
The 1979-80 Topps basketball set doesn’t have a great rookie to get the attention of collectors, although Alex English and Reggie Theus did score a lot of points on the court. There are cards of The Doctor, The Pistol and even The Chiefin his Warriors’ uniform. Collectors can find graded cards of Erving, Maravich and Parish on eBay for affordable prices, around $20 each.
For 1980-81, Topps decided to try something different. Where usually there was one card, there were now three. This led to some interesting combinations, as well as the most famous multi-player basketball card of all which has the Larry Bird and Magic Johnson rookie cards as well as a Julius Erving Team Leader card. Most of the Bird-Magic rookie cards sell for around $100, but graded cards in mint condition can sell for many times that amount. The cards were designed to be separated into three mini cards, but doing that hits the value and a recent sale on eBay of a separated, ungraded Bird-Magic card resulted in a price of $11.00.
The 1981-82 Topps set went back to the usual design, with one player per card. The cards of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson are popular, and they each had regular cards as well as Super Action cards while Bird filled up two of the three categories on the Celtics’ Team Leader card. Kevin McHale’s rookie card is something for Boston team collectors to look for, and fans of the Detroit Pistons won’t need to spend a lot to get rookie cards of Vinnie Johnson, Bill Laimbeer and Rick Mahorn although they started their NBA careers at different teams. Part of the set was nationwide while the second part was sold on a regional basis.
While the National Basketball Association was gaining popularity in 1982-83, as Moses Malone and Julius Erving led the Philadelphia 76ers to the championship and fans were also watching Bird’s Celtics and Magic’s Lakers, it was a year without basketball cards. Topps had stopped producing basketball cards, and it would be 1992-93 when they returned.
With their 1983 All-Star Game set, sold as a complete set of cards in a clear bag, STAR arrived to produce NBA cards. The major difference to the packs of cards that collectors were used to buying was that Star would produce small sets of cards that were sold as complete sets or, for their major card sets, sealed team bags.
For their 1983-84 NBA set, and their major sets for the two following seasons, Star had individual team bags for all teams. Very useful for team collectors, not only could someone get their preferred team but most players on the roster were included. Fans of the Celtics will want Bird’s expensive 1983-84 Star card and can also, at a much lower price, acquire players from the end of their bench like Carlos Clark and Greg Kite. Larry Bird also had his own set, 1984 Star Larry Bird that had 18 cards. There were also Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Erving, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan player sets released.
Fleer had previously produced NBA cards in 1961-62, and in 1986-87 they were again the only NBA card company. That set has Michael Jordan’s rookie card, as the first Star cards of players are called extended rookie cards, as well as rookie cards for Ewing, Olajuwon, Barkley, Karl Malone, Mullin, Drexler and many more. The Fleer sets of the 1980s featured great designs and comprehensive stats on the backs of the cards, and also included Fleer Stickers at a rate of one per pack that featured only the top players in the NBA.
An overlooked but interesting set from the 1980s is the 1988 Fournier NBA Estrellas. Slightly smaller than the standard size, they also had rounded corners and a huge NBA logo on the back of the card. A Spanish card set, Fournier NBA Estrellas used exciting game photos and had all the big stars. There is also a set of ten stickers that were inserted in the card packs, these go for higher prices than the cards.
The decade ended, just as a boom time for NBA card collecting was getting started, with another Fleer set and the first Hoops cards. Hoops made a big impact on basketball card collecting with their David Robinson rookie card. This card with a grade of BGS 9.5 GEM MINT sold not long ago on eBay for $139.99, and one graded BGS 10 PRISTINE went via Buy It Now for $124.99. An unopened case of 1989-90 Hoops boxes sold for $202.50, probably for the buyer to search for Robinson cards to have graded. Most Robinson rookies, however, sell for just a few dollars. There simply are too many out there which is great for collectors but not so great for long term investor growth.
There were also many team sets produced for NBA teams during the 1980s that were available from local businesses or at certain home games during the season. Michael Jordan collectors will want to look for his 1987-88 and 1988-89 Bulls Entenmann’s cards. For a lot of the 1980s, and early 1990s, Portland fans could find NBA cards in Franz bread.