Where’s the love for vintage basketball?

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By Chris Olds | Beckett Basketball Editor | Commentary

Picture in your mind the typical sports card shop, or maybe just the one you visited last.

If you’re lucky, the shop will have row after row of vintage cards to peruse, legends of the past to be found with the flick of a finger in a top-loader- or Card-Saver-filled box or maybe with the flip of a page.

Most often times, you’ll find plenty of baseball cards — often a good helping of football, too.

But how often do you see vintage basketball?

If you do find past legends of the hardwood on cardboard — or even commons — it’s often in much-lower quantities than those other major sports. Of course, the number of major baseball releases — and baseball cards in each set — dwarfs that of the NBA in the years before 1980. You can count on one hand the number of major releases for the league from before 1970.

There are far fewer cards to find and far less available — and yet vintage basketball is easily among the least-expensive options out there when it comes to quality of cardboard for the price.

Why is that? Do Baby Boomers just love their Mickey Mantles and Nolan Ryans more than their Bill Russells and Lew Alcindors? Or does the current crop of collectors not appreciate as much before the David Stern-led NBA?

I hope not, but I often wonder.

For basketball, the Topps years essentially begin in 1969-70 and run until 1981-82 — little more than a single page in the Beckett Basketball magazine’s price guide. In that page or so, you can find many of the greats’ Rookie Cards — some quite affordable, a few a bit pricey. However, none of them compare to the values held for some of the biggest cards from the same years for other, admittedly more popular (in terms of collector volume) sports.

But, again, why is that? Let’s look at some Rookie Cards — the most-popular cards to collect that don’t have autograph ink or game-used memorabilia attached — from that era:

Alcindor — aka Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — 1969-70 Topps. Value? $125-$250.

John Havlicek, same set, $30-60.

Walt “Clyde” Frazier,  same set, $20-$50.

“Pistol” Pete Maravich, 1970-71 Topps, $150-$300.

Nate “Tiny” Archibald, 1971-72 Topps, $6-$15.

“Dr. J” Julius Erving, 1972-73 Topps, $100-$200.

Bill Walton, 1974-75 Topps, $25-$50.

I could offer plenty of other examples where a key player’s Rookie Card — his best during his playing days — just doesn’t draw dollars. And they should.

The seven players above? They were all members of the NBA at 50 squad — all are Hall of Famers. There’s no disputing their place in the game, their stories, no matter what the stat sheets say — heck, a few of them even have catchy nicknames for younger fans to remember easily as they learn who’s who and, hopefully, pick up their cards.

Move on to their second-year cards and it’s even more drool-worthy. A guy like Maravich? That card (up top) can be found for as little as $10 or as much as $25 — a substantial drop from before.

Compare their places in the game to the values and places in the game for stars of MLB, for example. It’s a bit of a shame — but it’s also a bit of an opportunity if you ask me.

Not all vintage cards go without attention — the initial Topps set from 1957-58 has its share of money cards (a dozen at $100 or more), but only one Rookie Card in that set typically sells for substantially more. That’s Bill Russell’s Rookie Card. That card is one of only two, along with George Mikan‘s 1948 Bowman RC, vintage regular-issue basketball cards to top the $1,000 mark. That’s it.

In fact, from 1948, one has to go all the way to 1984 to find another standard-issue card that commands $1,000 or more (ungraded). That marks the arrival of one Michael Jordan in the 1984-85 Star set, which nearly tops them both.

So, if I could start the collection all over for basketball I’m not so sure I, myself, would be chasing some of those uber-hot rookies or inserts of the recent past that many love.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but I just need to know from you guys who are out there doing all the buying … where’s the love for vintage?

Chris Olds is the editor of Beckett Basketball magazine. Have a comment, question or idea? Send an email to him at colds@beckett.com. Follow him on Twitter by clicking here.

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  1. Kevin 8 October, 2012 at 18:55

    That’s a really good question. The ’70s Topps sets have some great design and the crazy ABA uniforms and balls make for some very memorable photos.

    Also don’t forget Wilt Chamberlin, he rivaled anyone in his day in any sport and his rookie just barely touches 4 figures.

  2. Richard 8 October, 2012 at 19:05

    In order for cards to rise in price there needs to be demand.
    The fact that there are a number of gaps in the years that the cards were produced shows that
    demand has often been somewhat tepid.

    Demand, and price, grow when kids grow older and can suddenly afford the nice things they once
    could not. Plus you have things like an older family member passing on a collection, and so forth.
    Give a kid a reason to care now and he will become a collector in the future.

  3. Matt 9 October, 2012 at 01:32

    As a big basketball collector I’m glad to see this pointed out in an article. Of all the card shows in the northeast I rarely run into vintage basketball at shows. The last time I did was at the Harrisburg show in at Capital City Mall in PA. A guy had a few 86-87 fleer on the table ( Magic and Dr J singles) I asked if he had anything older. He did…and what a shame…A whole bunch of Tall boy 70’s topps cards all bunched together some in the dreaded rubber bands. I only could pick 2 that were in very good shape, 2Jabbar and Dr. J 76-77 Topps singles. It doesnt even seem like dealers care about them a lot of times. I collect basketball for the exact reason mentioned in this article..Because of the lower production numbers and because of my love for the sport. Take a look at the prices for current basketball in Auction results sections of SCM …….BASKETBALL almost always tops the other 3 major sports in winning bids, granted it is usally a game used auto of MJ but still, you cant argue with the prices of Exquisite basketball either, which is rarely mentioned anywhere in magazines unless its a monster card that went for big bucks. I guess my point here is basketball as a whole in collecting terms is not as popular as the others, which makes the competition stiff when pursuing big cards and maybe causing less popularity among collectors as a whole.

  4. David Johnson 9 October, 2012 at 09:22

    Shhhhh be quiet I have been buying the vintage basketball cards for years now and want to keep buying more before they go up in price. I agree that they are definitely undervalued and are well overdue for price increases.

  5. Steve 9 October, 2012 at 16:41

    I agree with the difficulty in finding vintage basketball. I think baseball wins in vintage collecting because it was the dominant sport in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. I wasn’t around then, but I have to imagine that baseball and football were on TV regularly, while basketball was not (there is no footage of Wilt’s 100 point game and I am old enough to remember tape delayed PLAYOFF basketball games as recently as the 80’s). Since it wasn’t a popular TV sport it was likely not a widely collected sport for young collectors then. As another poster mentioned without that childhood collecting connection there is no nostalgic need for those growing up in that era to collect basketball as adults now. Hence, the lower prices relative to baseball (the king of collecting nostalgia presently–with the boomer generation). Perhaps with the popularity of basketball in the 80’s and 90’s we will see a bump in vintage basketball when kids of that generation become adults–of course they may be more likely to collect players of their generation (MJ, Shaq, Kobe, Lebron, etc.) than the pre-Stern stars of the past.

  6. Steve 9 October, 2012 at 16:45

    I love basketball and am concentrating my collecting efforts on two basketball sets: 1986 Fleer and 1961 Fleer. It is hard to find 1961 Fleer cards especially in good condition. Forget about card shops or shows it is pretty much only online auctions like Ebay where you can find these cards. The smaller set size makes basketball sets relatively (to baseball or football) easier sest to build–especially if you are trying to get them all graded.

  7. J.R. Lebert 10 October, 2012 at 01:45

    One of the major issues is that they just aren’t THAT rare. The lack of major releases pre-1970 means that those who collect have few choices. The vintage cards also just don’t have that “classic” look like a lot of the vintage baseball sets (1952, 1953, 1956, and 1965 topps) or football sets (1962 topps) do either. Looking at 1958 topps basketball, many of the photos are blurry and the cards just don’t pass most people’s eye test.

    Also, because there are very few MEGA STARS from 1948 Bowman-1969-1970 Topps (Mikan, Chamberlain, West, Russell, Baylor, Cousy, Roberston, Havlicek, Alcindor) with very few cards to collect, you are able to whet your appetite quite easily in just a few cards, in any condition. It’s tough when your hobby’s most iconic card is from 1986, or even 1980-81, and not something like a 52 Mantle, or 1909 Wagner, or even a 1958 Jim Brown.

  8. Frank 11 October, 2012 at 06:42

    I think a big reason for the overall lack of popularity in 70s basketball cards is the relative lack of popularity of the sport itself at the time. It really wasn’t until the late 70s-early 80s that the NBA surpassed both the NHL and NCAA in popularity. Baseball and football go back generations, while the NBA has only been “big” for 25-30 years. If there’s no mystique to any of the players, there’s not going to be that big a demand.

  9. Frank 12 October, 2012 at 20:14

    This is the exact reason that I am focusing on collecting vintage NBA cards. I love basketball and it’s unbelievably cheap compared to baseball. I just bought a PSA/DNA 1969-70 John Havlicek RC auto for $130! What’s not to like?!

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