Unlike football and baseball, we didn’t really see a full set of hoops cardboard until 1948, had only one set in the 50s and nothing again until the late 1960s. It’s a relatively new collecting genre and while identifying the best old basketball cards to buy is a little subjective, there are some cards that would be unwise to leave off any list.
The following cards are some of the best due to the players on them and the memorable careers, plays and teams with which they were associated. The cards are from the earliest days of the NBA up to 1986-87, which was one of the biggest years in basketball cards and also a time when the number of cards produced was far less than that of later seasons.
These legends all brought something unique to the NBA, played for the most famous NBA teams, or it was they who made those teams successful and famous. These cards should maintain their popularity among collectors—and hopefully their value-- for years to come. Nothing will change the numbers they put up or their impact on the game of basketball.
This isn't supposed to be a roster of the best to ever play in the NBA. You could easily add other cards like the 1961-62 Fleer Oscar Robertson, but these are among the most popular and if you can acquire some or all of these, you'll have one great basketball card collection.
Maravich was one of the premier showmen of college basketball and the NBA. A very accurate shooter and an amazing passer, his cards are still in demand today. He not only scored 44.2 points per game for LSU but led the NBA in scoring with 31.1 points per game in 1976-77 and had a career average of 24.2 points. Numerous documentaries and movies have been made about his life and basketball career.
PSA 8 graded Maravich rookie cards have been selling on eBay for around $570. PSA 6 cards have been snapped up at just under $200. Ungraded cards sell for around $75, depending on grade. The oversized Topps card shows Maravich as a rookie for Atlanta, although he would do his best work in the NBA for the Jazz when they were in New Orleans.
9. Michael Jordan 1984-85 Star Company #101
Not as old as many cards on this list but a couple of years older than another card which is considered to be his “official” rookie card. Star Company cards were official NBA cards but were only available through a mail-in offer or to dealers rather than sold in packs.
For three years, Star was the only provider of NBA cards and paid for a league license. Topps, Fleer and Donruss produced baseball cards but neither was doing basketball when MJ entered the league.
There is some debate on if the Star cards are true "rookie cards". If more collectors start to view this card in the future as more important than his Fleer rookie card it would move prices up. Right now, graded BGS 8.5 cards have been selling on eBay for around $2,400 while cards with lower grades are around $1,000.
Dr. J’s career began during the wild days of the ABA and he’s forever linked to the red, white and blue ball. After stints with Virginia (the team he represents on his rookie card) and New York, the ABA folded. Erving went to Philadelphia and instantly made them a contender, winning the 1982-83 title.
PSA 8 graded Erving rookies have been selling on eBay for around $420. Ungraded Erving rookies can be found for between $60 and $90.
7. Bill Russell 1957-58 Topps #77 Eleven NBA titles. It is safe to say that his record number is not going to be challenged by anyone. Superstar players will come and go but when a basketball fan wants to see the biggest winner in professional sports they have 1957, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1968 and 1969 when Russell and the Celtics won. He also won a gold medal in the Olympics and two NCAA titles.
As the second basketball bubble gum card set ever produced, 1957-58 Topps is famous among card collectors but it has a lot more than age going for it. Very few card sets have rookie cards of as many Hall of Famers as this one. Along with Russell's first card are rookie cards of legendary players like Bob Cousy, Bob Pettit, Tom Heinsohn, Bill Sharman, Paul Arizin, Jack Twyman and Dolph Schayes.
The card set also has a design that was amazing then and still compares well against modern cards. Centering is often an issue with the set and prices will vary greatly but expect to pay at least a several hundred dollars for a respectable example. They’re not easy to find but they are worth it. Buy the best one you can afford that’s reasonably well-centered.
Success as a player was followed by success in NBA team management and talent identification. After scoring 25,192 points for the Lakers, West moved into coaching and a general manager spot where he was responsible for the team acquiring many of the major stars it used to win several championships. His image is the NBA's familiar logo.
Fresh from West Virginia, his 1961-62 Fleer #43 rookie card is a classic but like many from the era, centering can be a problem. Highest graded West rookies will surpass $1,000. You’ll pay $350-400 for an EX/NM type example while ungraded cards can sell for $200 to $300.
5. Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) 1969-70 Topps #25
There is a big reason why Kareem is near the top of this list and that is because he sits on the very top of the NBA's career points scored. You can talk most goals in the NHL, most hits or home runs in baseball, most yards rushed or passed for in the NFL, but Kareem's 38,387 points in the NBA is just as big.
Three college championships at UCLA made him a superstar even before the Milwaukee Bucks drafted him. He won a championship with the Bucks and then after a trade to the Lakers was the superstar in the paint for the L.A. as their Showtime teams won five times in the 1980s. Kareem also keeps himself busy and in the public eye, and while in the past he appeared in movies like Airplane! and Bruce Lee's Game of Death he is more likely to appear on a Celebrity Jeopardy! game show episode now.
His oversized Topps rookie card doesn't have a lot of action on the front. He is holding the basketball and about to shoot, while the back has a lot of information. It even says "Lew came to the NBA with the most impressive set of credentials in history". Impressive graded cards are hard to find. There is only one PSA 10 card, while prices for cards which have sold recently include $500 for a PSA 7 and $232.50 for a PSA 6.
4. George Mikan 1948 Bowman #69
Mikan was so good, compared to all other players of his era, that rules were changed. He could have blocked every shot if the goaltending rule was not introduced. Basketball games may have been as boring and low-scoring as soccer if the shot clock rule had not been created, as teams thought they could just hold onto the ball and that way Mikan wouldn't have a chance to score. His Bowman rookie shows a lot of Mikan's unique basketball talent, as no other team then had a 6-10 center who could sprint up the court dribbling the basketball.
This card is about more than the NBA's first franchise center or the beginning of a famous sports league. For vintage card collectors this is the absolute pinnacle when it comes to price. It’s considered one of the top 50 sports cards of all-time. Newer Exquisite Collection Jordan and LeBron cards may go for $25,000 but a perfect Mikan Bowman once sold for around $200,000. Near mint, graded examples sell for $5,000 and up. Expect to pay around $2,000 even for a VG-EX graded Mikan rookie card.
3. Wilt Chamberlain 1961-62 Fleer #8
There are 100 reasons why Wilt is always going to be among the best in the NBA, and it isn't just his great performance in a movie with Arnold. 100 points in a game, nobody has come close to that. Wilt was actually so impressive when he played that he could own most of the records that are now considered to be impossible to break.
A player in the NBA scoring 50 points once in a season is celebrated now. In 1961-62 Chamberlain scored 50 points, or more a whopping 45 times. He averaged 50.4 points and 25.7 rebounds that year.
You’ll pay $1,000 and up for a nice one but watch the centering. Collectors will want to know there is also a second Chamberlain “In Action” card in that set, #47, and while it has a great picture of him dunking in a game and does carry some strong value, it’s the portrait card that’s worth more.
2. Larry Bird, Julius Erving Magic Johnson 1980-81 Topps #6 34 Bird, 174 Erving, 139 Johnson
Larry Bird and Magic Johnson lifted the NBA to new levels of popularity and television ratings while trading championships. Dr. J could entertain the fans as well while giving both teams a run for their money. If there is one card that is all about the NBA in the 1980s it is this one.
The design is unusual. Three players were put on each card with a perforation between them and many kids did tear them apart, another factor in why this one is hard to find in higher grades (along with inconsistent centering and print marks).
A graded ‘8’ will often cost north of $300 while a 9 is $1500 and up.
1. Michael Jordan 1986-87 Fleer #57
This is the basketball card that appears on every list, from the want-lists of collectors to the lists of most famous sports cards. When the boom period hit basketball card collecting in the late 1980s it was this card that led the surge in values and even though Jordan’s been retired for a long time now, the value of the Michael Jordan Fleer rookie card is still going up.
When the packs were first released, with a picture of Larry Bird's card on the box and the slogan "NBA basketball trading cards, photo stickers and bubble gum", they could have been bought with loose change. Not many years after that the Jordan card was valued in the thousands of dollars. Not only a card of a famous player but also a card with a great picture, of Jordan dunking in a Bulls NBA game, and a well-known design.
At present there are around 200 Jordan Fleer rookie cards graded a perfect 10 by PSA and they’ll push into four figures. Beckett graded Jordan rookies are very popular as well. Rest assured, you can own a nice MJ rookie for $1,000 but maybe not for long.