Basketball Cards 101
Basketball’s popularity has soared not just in America but worldwide, and its influence continues to be felt around the globe. Perhaps this is why it feels impossible to avoid the NBA news cycle, which now lasts year-long. This ubiquity may help explain the boom of basketball trading cards. The industry has had its ups and downs since its inception near the turn of the 20th century, but fans’ obsession with collecting rare and memorable cards is at an all-time high. eBay reported that basketball card sales in 2020 were up 373% over the prior year.
The NBA has provided accessible stars and resources (basketball without borders, NBA Africa, promotional tours and tv deals overseas, WNBA, etc.) for global intrigue, while exclusive basketball card manufacturer Panini, has produced pristine playing cards for the world to enjoy. This combination contributed to Basketball Cards becoming an increasingly fun and lucrative card hobby.
How Expensive Can Basketball Cards Get?
Every collector has their own reason for getting involved. Some are hardcore basketball fans, some are casual observers of pop culture, and some are savvy investors. Collecting cards will only be as serious as you make it, and some have turned it into a business. Some cards at the lower end can be bought and sold for just a few dollars. On the other end of the spectrum, a 2009 National Treasures Steph Curry Rookie Card recently sold for $5.9 Million.
Card collecting is not a one-size-fits-all hobby. As you can see, prices vary, which means you can spend your time pursuing either expensive or more affordable card. You can buy old or new; individual, packs, or boxes; through online auctions, or straight from a retailer. You can buy as an investment, buy to collect and show off to your friends or buy just because you enjoy basketball. No matter your motivation, basketball cards can be enjoy by anyone.
History of Basketball Cards
In 1909/1910, cigarette company, Murad Tobacco, became the first company to create basketball cards. Their T51 and T6 Murad card sets of Williams College basketball are considered to be the earliest ever basketball cards. In 1932, a chocolate manufacturer called C.A. Briggs Chocolate released another promotional set.
The first NBA trading cards were developed in 1948. The league was founded in 1946, and in those two years, Bowman Gum started producing the first basketball cards. In 1958, Topps start producing NBA cards and in 1961 Fleer produced a one-year set of 66 cards. The series included one of the most coveted trading card collectibles - A 1961 Wilt Chamberlain Rookie Card.
The basketball card industry had its ups and downs in popularity and seemed to ebb and flow with the major personalities of the sport. This was the case with Wilt Chamberlain, and George Mikan before him. If the league’s overall popularity was tied to the appeal of the stars, and the card companies relied on the popularity of the league, it was clear the trading card industry was in desperate need of personalities that resonated with fans. Enter Michael Jordan, and the 1984 NBA rookie class.
Since 2009, Panini has held the exclusive rights to produce officially licensed NBA trading cards, which they have until 2026. Some of Panini's most notable products are Panini Prizm, Panini Donruss Optic, and Panini National Treasures.
What Makes Basketball Cards Valuable?
In 1986, the brand Fleer brought a new life to trading card culture by launching, arguably, the most iconic set of all time. Fans had been without new Fleer cards for several years. Since the last series was sold, the NBA took massive strides in popularity. Magic Johnson & Larry Bird each won multiple NBA titles throughout the 1980s, creating an exciting rivalry between the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics. Michael Jordan soon emerged as the most promising young rookie, who found sucess on the court and off the court with his shoe brand.
Fans were eager to feel connected to the league and its newest players, and demand for trading cards was at an all-time high. Fleer took full advantage of the hype, delivering mass quantities of cards in the late 1980s. The cards remain aesthetically pleasing, and are instantly recognizable.
Athletes like Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley helped drive demand and started featuring more prominently across media channels. Basketball cards then started becoming more popular with kids who idolized the rising stars.
While Michael Jordan's rookie year was 1984, his Fleer rookie card first came out in 1986. This is considered to be one of the most famous Michael Jordan basketball cards and has recently been sold for $720,000 at Goldin Auctions in 2021.
What Are Basketball Rookie Cards?
Usually, the most valuable card of any given player is their Rookie Card. A rookie card is typically a player’s debut into the trading card world, and therefore, their appeal is mostly unknown. These debuts vary player to player and rookie cards sometimes have lower quantities produced. For instance, a player like LeBron James, who was already considered to be a potential NBA legend while still in high school, had several versions, makes and models of his rookie card. On the contrary, Giannis Antetokounmpo, who entered the league as a relatively under the radar talent, had fewer versions of his cards produced. The scarcity of Giannis’ rookie cards, along with his unbelievable on-court success, are two factors that impact the value of his cards. Because of this, many collectors look to rookie cards as an often undervalued asset for players early in their career. And when you look at the most expensive cards ever sold, they are generally rookie cards.
Where To Buy Basketball Cards
You can buy basketball cards online directly from a card manufacturer like Panini on their website. You can also buy cards on secondary marketplaces like eBay, MySlabs, and StockX. If you prefer buying in physical retail locations, you can find basketball cards at popular retailers like Target, Walmart, and Walgreens, in addition to your local card shop.
Fanatics will be taking over the official NBA license to manufacture cards in 2026. Fanatics is a company that primarily makes its money from merchandise and memorabilia, and recently bought the card manufacturer Topps. The company also will hold the right to MLB and NFL trading cards.
How Are Basketball Cards Authenticated?
To verify a card's authenticity and its condition, collectors can send their cards to several card grading services, with PSA/DNA being the industry standard. PSA is the most popular and respected card grading company, but there are other options including Beckett and SGC. Depending on the grade your card receives, the likely resale value will also change accordingly.
Graded Cards vs. Ungraded Cards
Graded cards are the only way to ensure the value and authenticity of the card. The higher the grade, generally the higher the card's market value. Cards are graded on a 1 - 10 scale and graded cards are often priced higher than their ungraded “raw” counterpart.
If you purchase a graded card, it will look like this. The top left lists a player’s name and the brand/year of the card. The top right lists the card number, grade, and certificate number.
A card is graded on the following:
- Centering - Is the card's border equal on the left, right, top, and bottom?
- Corners - Are the card's corners bent or folded?
- Edges - Are the card's edges crisp and clear of any discoloration?
- Surface - Are there any scratches or discolorations on the card?
All of these combine to give you your score, which ranges from a high quality 'Gem Mint' grade to a low quality 'poor' grade. You can find examples here.
If you think your card is worthwhile, you can send it into any of the card grading services. Pricing and length of time to grade may vary depending on who you choose to send your card to.
- Beckett: Card grading price starts at $16 per card and can go up to $200 per card
- SGC: Card grading price ranges from $18 per card to just under $4,000 for high value cards
- PSA: Card grading price can go from $18 per card to $600 per card
We have gone through the history of basketball cards, the different brands and card types, how to buy cards and how to authenticate them. You are now equipped with the basics of basketball cards and can start doing more in-depth research into the hobby.