A Brief & Incomplete History of NBA Basketball Cards

Basketball cards are probably the hottest of the most popular sports cards today. This wasn’t always the case. MLB cards were being made over 100 years ago by a few different companies but the first NBA set wasn’t put out by Bowman until 1948. This was a 72 card set. It included George Mikan’s Rookie card. Actually, this set is unique because every card is considered a rookie card. This ended up being the only Bowman basketball set except for ones issued by Topps under the Bowman name over fifty years later.

During this time period, Baseball was considered ‘America’s Pastime. Football and Basketball were more popular as College sports.

There was then a nine-year gap that ended with the first Topps set, (80 cards) for the 1957-58 season. This set had the Bill Russell RC. Most of the other cards are also considered rookie cards. After this, there were no other cards until Fleer released some during the 1961-62 season, (66 cards). This set included Wilt Chamberlain’s, Oscar Robertson’s, and Jerry West’s Rookie Cards. Fleer did not make another set for over twenty years and the next set was the 1969-70 Topps set. Topps started to put out a set every year until 1981-82. The 1972 set included Julius Irvings Rookie card. The 1980 set included Larry Bird and Magic Johnson on the same Rookie card.

Basketball began to increase its popularity mainly because of the Bird and Johnson rivalry. Just a few years later, Jordon brought it to new heights.

For the 1985 season, three companies released baseball cards nationally. However, basketball was going thru another drought. The next basketball set (other than Star cards that were only available from hobby shops) was the 1986-87 Fleer set, (132 cards). This set is compared to the 1952 Topps Baseball set. Since this time basketball sets have been produced every year. The 1986 set has the Rookie cards of Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, and of course Michael Jordon. Fleer continued to release sets in 1987 and 1988. After this in 1989 NBA Hoops and Skybox in 1990 released sets. The Hoops set was notable because these cards were of a much higher quality and they set the bar much higher. Also, the David Robinson card was the first Rookie card that was released in a player’s first season.

This was considered the “Junk Wax Era” and there ended up being tons of sports cards produced by a plethora of different companies including the new Upper Deck company in 1991 and with Topps returning to the market. By 1992 seven companies were making cards. This was Shaquille O’Neal’s first season. The 1996 season is notable because of the Bryant Rookie cards.

In 2009 the NBA decided to only issue a single license so since then the only official NBA cards have been Panini products that come under a few different names. Panini has bought out a few other card companies so they now have NBA Hoops sets and Donruss sets in addition to their own Flawless and Immaculate sets.

Basketball has become much more popular than Baseball and Football because it has more of an international audience. This is leading to an increase in demand for basketball cards.

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