Best Basketball Cards Of All Time: Top 5 Collectibles, According To Experts

Basketball cards and memorabilia have become a billion-dollar industry. Modern-day cards have been selling for millions. In July 2021, a 2009-10 Panini National Treasures Stephen Curry Rookie 1/1 Logoman Autograph sold for a whopping $5.9 million — the most ever paid for a basketball card. LeBron James’ 2003-04 Upper Deck Exquisite Collection Rookie Patch Autographs card also topped $5 million in an April 2021 auction. Even though collectors eye up the current superstars, that doesn’t mean they should look away from vintage basketball cards. To help high-end collectors, StudyFinds has compiled a list of the best basketball cards of all time to own.

Basketball will soon be starting not only for NBA players but for millions of children across the United States. A recent study reveals that playing basketball helps children’s bones. Indiana University researchers say youth athletes who play multidirectional sports like basketball instead of unidirectional sports like track are able to build stronger bones and decrease their risk of bone injury in adulthood.

In the case of professionals, when NBA players get traded or released, they usually have a chip on their shoulder to prove their old teams wrong. Now, a study confirms that. Researchers from HSE University finds there really may be such a thing as a “revenge” game. Their study reveals athletes’ emotions have a much greater effect on their performance when taking on their ex-teammates. Athletes performed exceptionally better at their former home stadiums against their old teams compared to newer venues. Researchers also found both NBA and NHL players took more shots against their ex-clubs. This also included those who saw little to no playing time on their former teams, with study authors saying these athletes may have felt they had something to prove.

Whether your favorite players are on the hunt for revenge or not, these collectible cards are must-haves for sports fans. Are you ready to spice up your basketball card collection? StudyFinds has scoured online experts to find the top five best basketball cards of all time. Did we miss one of your favorites? Let us know in the comments below.

Basketball card collection
Basketball card collection (Photo by Mick Haupt on Unsplash0

The List: Best Basketball Cards, According to Experts


1. 1986 Fleer Michael Jordan Rookie Card

Topping the list of best basketball cards of all time is Michael Jordan’s 1986 Fleer rookie card. Even though this wasn’t his true “rookie” year — 1984 was — collectors consider this MJ’s classic rookie card. “It may sound like a broken record to some, but Michael Jordan will never be overtaken. All players will be compared to him, and will come up short,” writes The Cardboard Connection. “His 1986-87 card is one of many significant rookie cards found in the product, but there is no comparison when it comes to the top overall basketball rookie card. ‘Air Jordan‘ is on full display in this iconic card, which showcases him with his tongue out, going up for another gravity-defying dunk. In the basketball collecting world, the Michael Jordan rookie is always going to be above the rim, while the rest remain flat-footed, watching in awe.”

Michael Jordan Rookie Card 1986-87 Fleer #57 BGS Authentic Altered
Michael Jordan Rookie Card 1986-87 Fleer #57 BGS Authentic Altered

“The 1986 Fleer Michael Jordan rookie card has earned its place as the hobby’s most important modern sports card due to Jordan’s legendary heroics,” notes Old Sports Cards. “On a per-game basis, no one averaged more points than Jordan’s 30.12 points per making him the game’s most feared offensive weapons of all-time. Watching Jordan play was really something special as you knew he could do something amazing and never seen before at any given moment. His popularity has skyrocketed the value of his rookie card but those multi-colored borders can prevent some tough wear challenges.”

PSA warns that counterfeit 1986 Fleer Michael Jordan cards have flooded the market. “Arguably the greatest basketball player in the history of the NBA, Michael Jordan was named NBA Finals MVP in each of his six NBA Finals Championship seasons. This is the most recognizable basketball card and the most important modern card from any sport in the entire hobby. This card, the most heavily counterfeited card in the hobby, is susceptible to chipping and edge wear due to the multi-colored borders.”

2. 1980 Topps Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Julius Erving

Three of the greatest basketball players on one card? Check. Two of them rookies in Larry Bird and Magic Johnson? Check. That’s why the 1980 Topps Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Julius Erving card is a must-have for every collector. “The holy grail of basketball cards, the Larry Bird Magic Johnson rookie card is a must-have card for all basketball card collectors,” writes All Vintage Cards. “Plagued by printing errors, off-cuts, and because many kids were tearing these apart, the card is very tough to find in Mint condition. PSA puts a value of $725,000 on a PSA 10 version–note the last sale of a PSA 10 was in 2021 for $800,000, so that figure is likely accurate, as the market has softened quite a bit. If you want to buy this card, shoot for a PSA 6 or PSA 7 version, as that’s still a great condition for this card; the price range would be somewhere in the $1,000 to $3,000 range.”

Larry Bird, Magic Johnson & Julius Erving 1980 Topps Scoring Leader RC Card (PSA 8 NM-MT)(F)
Larry Bird, Magic Johnson & Julius Erving 1980 Topps Scoring Leader RC Card (PSA 8 NM-MT)(F)

According to Giant Sports Cards, “Rather than featuring just one major player on a card, the 1980-81 Topps Larry Bird RC, Magic Johnson RC, and Julius Erving card completely revolutionizes the way we think about basketball cards by featuring three greats on one surface, each of which is its own mini card that can be torn off from the rest. If you’re looking to get more bang for your buck while also getting your hands on some of the top players that you might wish to add to your collection, the 1980-81 Topps Larry Bird RC, Magic Johnson RC, and Julius Erving is one of the most valuable basketball cards around that offers this type of feature.”

Cardbase says the 1980 Topps Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Julius Erving card features two players who dominated the ’80s in Bird and Magic. “Lucky for us, in 1980, Topps was still producing NBA Basketball cards. Otherwise, we could have missed out on having Larry Bird and Magic Johnson rookie cards. But we owe a massive thank you to the person at Topps who had the bright idea of putting them on the same card as ‘scoring leaders.’ The addition of the legendary Julius ‘Dr. J’ Erving, while generationally incongruous, only adds to the card’s appeal. The 1980 Topps Larry Bird / Julius Erving / Magic Johnson card depicts the two players who would dominate the entire decade. And because it was one of those throwaway inserts (or at least that is what many collectors thought), there aren’t many good copies of this item. You will also notice that the card is made up of three perforated parts. We are not really sure why, and we doubt many collectors separated the three superstars. But the perforations make keeping the card in good condition far more difficult than it would be otherwise. Indeed, there are only 23 PSA 10 versions. Because these are genuine rookie cards, unlike the 1986 Fleer Michael Jordan #57, it is the definitive card of the decade.”

3. 1996 Topps Chrome Kobe Bryant

Kobe Bryant, one of the greatest basketball players ever, tragically died in a helicopter crash with his daughter and seven others in 2020. Bryant won five championships with the Los Angeles Lakers and in his last game, put up a legendary 60 points no one will ever forget. His 1996 Topps Chrome rookie card is a favorite among collectors.

PSA Mint 9 1996 Topps Chrome Kobe Bryant Rookie Card
PSA Mint 9 1996 Topps Chrome Kobe Bryant Rookie Card

“The 1996-97 Topps Chrome Kobe Bryant rookie card is one of the most popular and valuable basketball cards of the modern era,” writes Last Word on Sports. “The card features a young Bryant in his Lakers uniform and is highly sought after by collectors due to its rarity and the immense popularity of the player. The Topps Chrome brand is also highly respected among collectors for its high-quality printing and finish. In 2020, a PSA 10 graded copy of this card sold for a record-breaking $1.795 million at auction, setting a new standard for the value and appeal of modern basketball cards. The 1996-97 Topps Chrome Kobe Bryant rookie card is truly a must-have for any serious basketball card collector.”

“Drafted out of Lower Merion High School in the 1996 NBA Draft, the late Kobe Bean Bryant is one of the greatest basketball players of all time. Kobe played his entire 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers, capturing every significant award along the way, including being an 18-time All-Star, five-time NBA champion, and posthumously named to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and the NBA’s 75th Anniversary Team,” says Public. “This distinguished 1996-97 Topps Chrome Kobe Bryant rookie card that earned a BGS 10 Black Label is the epitome of greatness. Kobe’s Refractor rookie card has a total BGS population of 295, with just two cards meriting a BGS 10 Black Label.”

Invaluable notes that the prices for Bryant’s cards have increased by 600 percent since his death. “One of only two cards in the world rated pristine, this Kobe Bryant rookie card received perfect 10s in all categories earning it the prestigious Black Label grade, making it all the more rarer and valuable. Sold for $1,795,800 in March 2021 by Goldin Auctions, the card is likely to achieve an even higher figure at auction today, as following his untimely death in early 2020, the value of his cards have increased in value by an incredible 600%.”

4. 1948 Bowman George Mikan Rookie Card

George Mikan changed the game of basketball as he was the first premiere big man to play in the NBA. That’s what makes his 1948 Bowman rookie card so valuable for collectors. “As one of the first dominant big men, he was an early star of professional basketball, but the game is so different now, it is hard to consider him on equal footing with the others,” writes The Cardboard Connection. “However, his relevance to the game is unquestioned and his rookie card is the biggest draw from the very first national basketball release. 1948 Bowman was the beginning of basketball cards and that cannot be overlooked. The simple card is nearly a square and includes a black-and-white image and colorful purple-blue background.”

George Mikan Signed 1948 Bowman 1990 Reprint Rookie Card #69
George Mikan Signed 1948 Bowman 1990 Reprint Rookie Card #69

“George Mikan’s 1948 Bowman rookie card tops our list as the ‘Holy Grail’ of all basketball cards,” says Old Sports Cards. “The legendary center was the game’s first unstoppable big man and set the bar for other big men like Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell who would soon follow. The imagery of the card is unforgettable as it features a hard-charging Mikan atop a deep blue background. Centering and edge toning are common challenges with this card. And it’s also interesting to note that you may run across some hand-cut specimens after several uncut sheets of 1948 Bowmans surfaced a while ago.”

PSA calls the 1948 Bowman George Mikan rookie card the “king of the basketball trading card hobby.” “George Mikan is more responsible than any player of his generation for making basketball a nationally recognized sport. Mikan was such a dominant influence on basketball that he forced the NCAA to outlaw goaltending (which was also adopted by the professional leagues), caused the NBA to widen the lane from 6 to 12 feet in order to limit Mikan’s presence under opponents’ baskets, and introduce the shot clock in response of the Ft. Wayne Pistons strategy of keeping the ball away from Mikan, thus preserving the lead and win. Like most 1948 Bowmans, these are often found off-center with toning along the edges, making it tough to locate in high-grade.”

5. 1957 Topps Bill Russell Rookie Card

Before Jordan came along, Bill Russell was arguably the greatest player to ever lace them up. In 13 Hall-of-Fame seasons with the Boston Celtics, Russell won an astounding 11 NBA championships, making his 1957 Topps rookie card an invaluable piece of history for collectors. “This is the only recognized rookie card of the NBA’s biggest winner,” writes PSA. “This is also the key to the 1957 Topps set, one of the toughest and most important basketball issues ever produced. In 13 seasons with the Boston Celtics, Bill Russell won 11 championships. While Russell led the league in rebounding four times, Russell’s focus on defense changed the way fans define star players, making defensive play an art.”

1957 Topps #77 Bill Russell Signed Autographed RP Rookie Card RC PSA DNA
1957 Topps #77 Bill Russell Signed Autographed RP Rookie Card RC PSA DNA

“The 1957-58 Topps Bill Russell rookie card is one of the most iconic basketball cards in history. Russell is widely regarded as one of the greatest players in NBA history, having won 11 championships with the Boston Celtics during his career,” says Last Word on Sports. “The card features a young Russell in out of the University of San Francisco. It is highly sought after by collectors due to its rarity and historical significance. In 2020, a PSA 10 graded copy of this card sold for $214,100 at auction, highlighting the immense value and appeal of this legendary basketball card.”

Since the 1957 Topps set was “rampant with print defects,” according to All Vintage Cards, it’s tough to find one in pristine condition. “Russell’s 1957 Topps rookie card is one of the cornerstone cards of the basketball card market, as the set represents the first entry for Topps into basketball cards. PSA has graded nearly 1000 Russell rookie cards, with only 3 attaining a PSA 9 (Near-Mint) rating. The set was rampant with print defects, mostly print spots; thus, finding one in pristine condition is a feat on its own. Finding a high-grade Russell is an expensive challenge, yet lower-grade versions can sometimes be found for a few thousand dollars.”

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Note: This article was not paid for nor sponsored. StudyFinds is not connected to nor partnered with any of the brands mentioned and receives no compensation for its recommendations. This post may contain affiliate links. 

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About the Author

Matt Higgins

Matt Higgins worked in national and local news for 15 years. He started out as an overnight production assistant at Fox News Radio in 2007 and ended in 2021 as the Digital Managing Editor at CBS Philadelphia. Following his news career, he spent one year in the automotive industry as a Digital Platforms Content Specialist contractor with Subaru of America and is currently a freelance writer and editor for StudyFinds. Matt believes in facts, science and Philadelphia sports teams crushing his soul.

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