An Overview of the Top 5 Basketball Card Sets

The NBA season is winding up, so it’s time to focus a bit more on vintage basketball cards here on the blog. I thought I’d start with a quick overview of the most significant sets in the hobby. 1948 Bowman, 1957 Topps, and 1961 Fleer are usually called the ‘Big 3’, 1969 Topps is considered the mid-vintage set of choice, and then 1986 Fleer is the modern powerhouse that together makes up what collectors call the ‘Top 5’ basketball sets.

1948 Bowman

1948 Bowman George Mikan

1948 Bowman is the first of the 3 ‘vintage’ basketball sets in the Top 5. It’s a 72 card set that features 60 players and 12 basketball plays. It was printed on two 36-card sheets and was Bowman’s only basketball issue. The high numbers are scarcer, and the set has a few variations like the ‘no red ink on front’ cards, overprints, and the gray variations. George Mikan is the set’s key card.

1957 Topps

1957 Topps Bill Russell

The Topps companies first foray into basketball cards was the single series 1957 set. The 80 card set was printed as 30 single prints, 49 double prints, and a quadruple print of Bob Pettit. Bill Russell and Bob Cousy are the key cards in this classic set. However, high-grade cards are scarce due to poor centering and the presence of print dots. The cards likely didn’t sell well because Topps wouldn’t revisit basketball cards until 1968 with a test series and officially with the 1969 set.

1961 Fleer

1961 Fleer Oscar Robertson

Another of the Big 3 sets, 1961 Fleer, was released as a 66 card single series. The 66 card set has 44 regular base cards and 22 “In Action” cards. The set is loaded with star players like Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Bill Russell, and Jerry West.

1969 Topps

1969 Topps Lew Alcindor

Topps returned to a full-scale release (the 1968 Topps Test Set doesn’t count) of basketball cards in 1969 after years away (since 1957). This 99-card mid-vintage set is famous for its white borders, bright colors, and tall-boy size (the same size as 1964 Topps Hockey and 1965 Topps Football). The key cards are Wilt Chamberlain, John Havlicek, Lew Alcindor, Bill Bradley, and Walt Frazier. Interestingly, since Topps printed the 99 cards on a single sheet, the checklist in the bottom-right corner is condition sensitive and the second most expensive card in the set. 

1969 Topps Basketball Uncut Sheet

1986 Fleer

1986 Fleer Michael Jordan

1986 Fleer basketball is the modern addition to the Top 5 basketball sets. The 132 card set, while unpopular when released, is now iconic across the hobby. And while the Michael Jordan card is truly iconic, the set also features Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley, Clyde Drexler, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, and Hakeem Olajuwon.

Interestingly, the number of PSA-graded 1986 Fleer basketball cards trumps the COMBINED total of the other four sets. 1986 Fleer is a demand-driven, not a supply-constrained set.

Together, 1948 Bowman, 1957 Topps, 1961 Fleer, 1969 Topps, and 1986 Fleer make up the Top 5 basketball sets in the hobby. Between the hobby’s first major basketball set in 1948 to the iconic 1986 Fleer Michael Jordan, the many scarcities, rookies, and condition-sensitive cards challenge even the most patient collectors. So obtaining a complete run of all five is a huge accomplishment, a lifetime goal for many collectors.

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