Although basketball may be America’s most popular export, basketball cards have historically had the fewest years of card production. At the dawn of the NBA, Bowman released its’ historic 1948 series with rookie cards of eight Hall of Famers including George Mikan and Red Holzman.
With two notable exceptions, basketball cards were dormant for the next 21 years. Fortunately, those two releases are the two most important basketball sets of all. The 1957-58 Topps set featured the rookies of 20 Hall of Famers including Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, Tom Heinsohn and Bob Pettit. Then in 1961-62, Fleer issued its’ only basketball set until 1986-87. That set included the rookies of the next generation of NBA legends including Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor.
In 1969-70, Topps returned to basketball cards with its oversized release which again was loaded with great rookies; Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for those of you born after 1971), Walt Frazier, Willis Reed, Dave DeBusschere, Bill Bradley and John Havlicek.
The prominence of basketball cards didn’t really begin until late in the Larry Bird/Magic Johnson era. In 1980-81 the Topps three-player card of Bird, Magic and Julius Erving became an instant smash but even the landmark 1986-87 Fleer set with Michael Jordan’s rookie card took a few years to capture the imagination. As late as the summer of 1988, American Legends’ Mark Rubin recalls purchasing dozens of the 1986-87 Fleer sets for $50 each.
That wouldn’t last long. Hoops joined Fleer in basketball card production the following year and just three years later a center from LSU named Shaquille O’Neal turned the hobby on its’ head. Shaq Mania led to years of overproduction which thankfully concluded by the decade’s end.
Lightning struck again in 2003-04 with the emergence of three rookie superstars: Lebron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade. At the end of that season, Upper Deck produced its’ first Exquisite Collection series which smashed records for prices asked and paid for current rookie and insert cards.
Here we are in 2012, with the emergence of Jeremy Lin single-handedly reviving a sport which was almost decimated by a lockout. Lin's autographed rookie cards from National Treasures surged to over $4,000 in one week. With the sport again on the ascendency, the future of basketball cards and memorabilia looks very bright.