As with many other sports trading cards, basketball cards can trace their origin back to the 1933 Goudey Sport Kings set, which featured cards of four popular players of the day: Eddie Burke, Nat Holman, Joe Lapchick, and Ed Wachter. Basketball cards essentially disappeared until after the Second World War, reappearing in 1948 with a set produced by the Bowman gum company.
The 1948 Bowman set is unique for two reasons. It is the first dedicated basketball card set ever produced and it’s the only set ever produced by Bowman. These two factors make it by far the most scarce basketball card set of all time. The key card of the set is the George Mikan rookie card, generally regarded as one of the greatest basketball cards of all time. Bowman withdrew from the basketball card business after this set, and the next major basketball card set wasn’t produced until nearly ten years later. The sport simply wasn’t that popular, even with Mikan and there weren’t that many NBA teams beyond the east coast. An unopened pack of 1948 Bowman basketball cards recently sold at auction for $16,795.
Card giant Topps produced its first basketball set in 1957, and this set is also incredibly collectible due both to its rarity, and to the presence of a Bill Russell rookie card. As with Bowman in 1948, Topps’ ’57-58 set was a one-year wonder. The company withdrew from producing basketball cards until the 1969-70 season when the modern basketball card industry can really said to have been born.
Fleer jumped into the game in 1961, producing the lone set of NBA cards issued on a national level between 1958 and 1969. The set thus includes what are considered rookie cards for players like Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson. The set included 'In Action' cards as well, meaning more stars to collect but the cards are notoriously off-center and high grade examples are scarce.
The first modern era Topps set included one of the hobby’s most iconic cards—the ’69-70 Topps Lew Alcindor rookie. Printed in a rectangular style, the “tall boys” are certainly unique.
Topps dominated the basketball card industry until the early 1980’s, when the industry took a decided downturn and Topps withdrew from the business again until 1992.
The emergence of Fleer in the mid 1980’s re-energized the basketball card business. Fleer’s 1986-87 basketball set really didn’t catch on for awhile. Boxes were available at around $10 until the market exploded thanks to the boom created by the success and high-flying wizardry of Michael Jordan and the ongoing Lakers-Celtics rivalry that featured Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.
Until the mid-2000s, the basketball card industry was dominated by Topps and Upper Deck, both producing a variety of brands including the ultra-popular, high-end Upper Deck Exquisite line that retails for $300-400 per pack when new. The early Exquisite cards feature LeBron James’ rookie autographed patch cards that are true hobby treasures.
Panini America is now the exclusive licensee for NBA trading cards. Having purchased Donruss in 2009, Panini produces numerous sets each year, ranging from around $1.50 per pack to its Flawless brand, sold in a briefcase for around $1,500 and including thick cards, many of which are autographed and serial numbered to less than 100. The company’s spokesman Kobe Bryant of the Lakers, was once a collector of basketball cards.
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