Card Rankings

The Dandy Dozen: Vintage Basketball Cards Rankings

Tracking vintage basketball cards and then ranking them by popularity is fun! You get to learn about old school players, guys from the ABA, and old white guys who played in black and white (not really, but I like to imagine everything was black and white back then).

If you like vintage basketball cards, and rookie basketball cards in general, you can find my breakdown of the all the best rookie basketball cards from every year here.

The Dandy Dozen series is one I started about a year ago, as I decided to figure out who the 12 best players to collect cards in each era, in each sport! We’ve already done articles and videos on some of these, and some, we’ve just done videos. But we’re going to finish these out this year!

  • The Dandy Dozen Vintage Baseball Cards (1952 to 1972)
  • The Dandy Dozen Modern Baseball Cards (1973 to 1999)
  • The Dandy Dozen Millennials Baseball Cards (2000 to present)
  • The Dandy Dozen Vintage Football Cards (1955 to 1979)
  • The Dandy Dozen Modern Football Cards (1980 to 1999)
  • The Dandy Dozen Millennials Football Cards (2000 to present)
  • The Dandy Dozen Vintage Basketball Cards (1956 to 1979)
  • The Dandy Dozen Modern Basketball Cards (1980 to 1999)
  • The Dandy Dozen Millennials Basketball Cards (2000 to present)

When we talk about vintage basketball cards, we’re not delving so far back that a superstar player had just one card and it’s worth over $50,000. We’re making these articles and videos to help collectors improve their collection by obtaining cards of great players – not necessarily just their rookie cards, which are obviously valuable. But we’re talking about players whose third- and fourth-year cards are still good to own!

Since we’re not talking about rookie cards only, we are looking at players who have multiple years with multiple vintage basketball cards issued with their name. That means George Mikan didn’t land on this list, despite the fact he was unquestionably the biggest hardcourt hero in the middle of the century, when his 1948 Bowman rookie card came out. That’s pretty much his only card, though, so to tell collectors, “You should have one of his cards!” is kind of unfair.

Obviously, Bill Russell is a highly collectable player, but considering he really has just three cards, it’s tough for anyone to get in on the ground floor with a cheap late edition.

Steps For Improving Your Vintage Basketball Cards Collection

We’re talking about vintage basketball cards of stars who had several cards to collect. This way, even if you buy one of their later issue cards at a smaller price (like a 1974 Topps Wilt Chamberlain card!), you still have a share in their superstar’s cardboard legacy!

You can buy in on a player, like that Wilt card, then later on, when you’re able to upgrade, either by getting the same card in a higher grade or by buying an earlier card from his career, you can sell the one you own to offset the cost!

The Dandy Dozen: Vintage Basketball Cards

These players are ranked by overall collectability – not for any one card, but for the overall catalog of their cards. They are popular, so their cards are popular. Some players/cards are just a little more popular than others!

1. Wilt Chamberlain (Cards from 1961 Fleer, 1969 through 1974 Topps) – View Prices on eBay!

There just aren’t a ton of Wilt Chamberlain cards to collect, despite him playing 14 NBA seasons. and considering he ranks among the all-time scorers, all-time rebounders and all-time superstars, we rank him as the most collectable basketball player from the vintage basketball cards era. His last base card in 1974-75 Topps was for when he was the head coach of the San Diego Conquistadors. He’s a four-time NBA MVP and a 13-time All-Star.

While his rival, Bill Russell, came a little earlier and has very few base cards available for collecting, Wilt the Stilt’s back-end of his career came just as basketball cards got going… thankfully! I still love the 1972 Topps NBA set design more than any other, and Wilt’s doesn’t disappoint in great looks!

He was nicknamed “The Big Dipper” because his friends saw how he always had to dip his head under the doorways when he walked into rooms.

Vintage Basketball Cards

2. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar / Lew Alcindor (Cards from 1969, 1972 through 1981 Topps, 1986-88 Fleer) – View Prices on eBay!

“Two big men lead this list!?! I thought centers weren’t collectable!”

These aren’t just any big men, though.

There’s lots to talk about with Kareem, generally considered one of the five-greatest players ever, especially when you consider what he did for the center position in the NBA. You could be an athlete and play center – you didn’t just have to be a bruiser down low.

Born as Lew Alcindor, he would go on to lead his high school team to a 71-game winning streak in New York city, and he won three consecutive national championships with UCLA and head coach John Wooden. (It likely would have been four titles if they let freshmen play on varsity back then.)

Alcindor adopted the name Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1968 after he converted to Islam, but he didn’t start publicly going by that until 1971. This is why there are just three base cards with Lew Alcindor as his name, in the 1969, 1970 and 1971 sets. But there are also a handful of league leaders cards in those sets that have Alcindor’s name that can be had much cheaper than his standard base cards.

It’s nice that you can still pick up some relatively cheap cards of Abdul-Jabbar, also, in the three years after Fleer took over.

He was a six-time MVP!

Trivia Nugget: In March of 1969, the Milwaukee Bucks and the Phoenix Suns were involved in a coin flip to determine who would get the first pick in the upcoming NBA Draft. Milwaukee won, but Phoenix was that close to getting Lew Alcindor on their team!

1969 Topps Lew Alcindor / Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Vintage Basketball Cards

3. Julius Erving (Cards from 1972 through 1981 Topps, 1986 and 1987 Fleer) – View Prices on eBay!

Julius Erving didn’t go to 16 years of basketball medical school so you could just call him Mister J.

Dr. J won three professional basketball championships, including two in the ABA, and he was a 16-time All-Star! He even won the very first Slam Dunk Contest in 1976!

Here are three shocking things you didn’t know about Dr. J:

  1. The Milwaukee Bucks drafted Dr. J when he became draft-eligible in 1972, which means he almost joined a Bucks team with Oscar Robertson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar! They were just two years removed from a championship!
  2. The Atlanta Hawks had already signed Erving to a contract prior to that 1972 NBA Draft, so Erving played in three exhibition games with Pete Maravich! A judge finally decreed that Erving would have to play for the Virginia Squires, his ABA team, who held his professional rights.
  3. The Squires became the New York Nets the next season, and after the 1975-76 NBA season, the ABA and NBA merged. The Nets joined the NBA, but because they infringed on the New York Knicks territory, they had to pay $4.8 million to the Knicks. The Nets offered the Knicks Julius Erving outright instead of paying the cash, but the Knicks turned it down! Dr. J could have had his basketball medical practice at Madison Square Garden instead of Philadelphia! He grew up on Long Island! … Meanwhile, the Knicks still haven’t won an NBA championship since they passed on Dr. J.

Buy this book about the ABA and thank me later! “Loose Balls: The Short Wild Life of the ABA” — It’s the greatest basketball book ever.

1972 Topps Julius Erving

4. Jerry West (Vintage Basketball Cards from 1961 Fleer, 1969 through 1974 Topps) – View Prices on eBay!

This guy’s nickname was Mr. Clutch – and the NBA decided to make his silhouette their league’s logo for goodness’ sake!

Amazingly, West won just one NBA championship, despite being on a stellar team with Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor, but they just couldn’t get past Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics. Something you should know about West is that he played in nine NBA Finals, won one, but he also was named the Finals MVP in 1969 – despite being on the losing team! That’s the only time that has ever happened.

Jerry West was also instrumental in many of the Lakers titles in the ‘80s as the General Manager. Since he convinced Shaq to come to L.A. in free agency, and he was able to land Kobe Bryant in a trade during the 1996 NBA Draft, West is much integral to Lakers history than most people realize.

1961 Fleer Jerry West Vintage Basketball Cards

5. Oscar Robertson (Vintage Basketball Cards from 1961 Fleer, 1969 through 1974 Topps) – View Prices on eBay!

“The Big O” was a 12-time NBA All-Star, but before that, he with the Cincinnati Bearcats in college, he would lead the nation in scoring in three seasons!

Robertson was a 12-time All-Star, and he’s still the only player other than Russell Westbrook, to average a triple-double for an entire season. Westbrook did it four times, and  Robertson did it in each several of his first few seasons in the NBA with the Cincinnati Royals (previously known as the Rochester Royals, and eventually becoming the Sacramento Kings).

Actually, the Royals would move to Kansas City, where they changed their team name to the Kansas City Kings. Can you believe Kansas City nearly had two teams named the Kansas City Royals?

1970 Topps Oscar Robertson

6. Pete Maravich (Cards from 1970 through 1980 Topps) – View Prices on eBay!

“Pistol Pete” is still the all-time leading Division I college men’s basketball career scoring leader with 3,667 points – averaging an insane 44.2 points per game! While he was certainly a superstar in the NBA, he played in the ‘70s, which was a pretty low point in the NBA. Talent was diluted because they competed against the ABA, and drugs ran rampant, which muddied the game considerably.

From a collectables standpoint, Dr. J, Kareem and Maravich were the best bets for the entire ‘70s decade.

Maravich’s rookie card, unfortunately, comes from the 1970-71 Topps “Tall Boys” set, which makes finding them in great condition particularly difficult – and expensive. But his 1972-73 card is beautiful, with pink lettering, and a gold background behind the dribbling superstar.

By the way, here’s a piece I wrote on the 1972 Topps Basketball set, which is one of the greatest ever!

1972 topps pete maravich

7. John Havlicek (Cards from 1969 through 1978 Topps) – View Prices on eBay!

Sadly, “Hondo” joined the NBA in 1962, as the seventh overall pick with the Celtics, which meant he missed the 1961 Fleer set, and his vintage basketball cards catalog wouldn’t begin until 1969.

That also meant, his first two cards would be Tall Boys, which were often nicked and dinged because they were kept with other standard sized cards.

Interesting side note: If you are a Cleveland Browns fan, Havlicek’s cards are nice to pick up since he was drafted by the Browns as a wide receiver in 1962 (he competed in camp, but bailed to play in the NBA).

Since Havlicek changed what it meant to be the first man off the bench in the NBA, the league recently decided that the annual Sixth Man Award would become the John Havlicek Trophy.

Classic Celtics legends are generally great cards to collect!

1971 Topps John Havlicek Vintage Basketball Cards

8. Elgin Baylor (Cards from 1961 Fleer, 1969 through 1971 Topps) – View Prices on eBay!

Considered one of the greatest small forwards in NBA history, Baylor was the Lakers star that was a little overshadowed by two much bigger Lakers stars, in Chamberlain and West. He was like the James Worthy to Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on those early ‘80s Lakers teams.

The 11-time NBA All-Star barely makes this list, only because he has just four years in which he had base cards produced. Despite starting his NBA career in 1958, his rookie card didn’t arrive until the 1961 Fleer set came out, then he didn’t get a second card until eight years later.

Weirdly, Baylor played just two games in 1970 before rupturing his Achilles’ tendon, then he chose to retire nine games into the 1971 season because he couldn’t play at the level he wanted. The Lakers won their only championship with Chamberlain and West that year!

1969 Topps Elgin Baylor

9. Bill Walton (Cards from 1974 through 1981 Topps, and 1986 Fleer) – View Prices on eBay!

If not for nagging foot injuries, something that haunts big men even to this day (caution ahead, Chet Holmgren investors!), Walton might have climbed up to top five on this list. He was one of the greatest college basketball centers ever, and had the potential to be even greater as a pro before injuries derailed his career. He would eventually resurrect himself with the Celtics in 1986, but as a great sixth man off the bench.

Walton’s post-playing career has increased his collectability somewhat, much like Charles Barkley.

1974 Topps Bill Walton Vintage Basketball Cards

10. Walt Frazier (Vintage Basketball Cards from 1969 through 1979 Topps) – View Prices on eBay!

When you lead a New York sports team to two titles, you can pretty much guarantee your cards will be highly collectable. (If Patrick Ewing was somehow able to lead the Knicks to two titles before Michael Jordan’s Bulls took over, his ’86 Fleer rookie would be second to Jordan’s in value, as opposed to about fourth or fifth.)

Frazier only played 11 seasons, and his 1969 Topps rookie card came a couple years after his rookie season in 1967, which means there are just about 10 true base cards to collect of his.

Nicknamed “Clyde” because the stylish fella wore a fedora that looked like Warren Beatty’s in the film, “Bonnie and Clyde,” Frazier was considered the greatest Knicks player ever until Ewing broke all his team records. He’s now a color commentator for the MSG Network.

1971 Topps Walt Frazier Vintage Basketball Cards

11. George Gervin (Cards from 1974 through 1981 Topps, and 1986 Fleer) – View Prices on eBay!

Along with fellow Hall-of-Famer Bill Walton (and George Karl), Gervin’s rookie card came in 1974, which makes that set pretty important in this Dandy Dozen vintage basketball cards list. They aren’t great pictures, or a great design, but two of the most collectable players in the sport come from it, and that’s better than many of the Topps basketball sets!

Nicknamed “Ice Man” because my man was so cool on the court, Gervin was considered one of the greatest scorers in NBA history, and his finger-roll finish is legendary.

I thought it was really interesting that his professional career in America started in 1972, playing with Dr. J and the Virginia Squires, and it finished in 1986 with Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. (His final NBA game was when Jordan scored 63 against the Celtics in the playoffs!)

One of just four players in NBA history to average 30 ppg and shoot 50% from the field, along with Jordan, Stephen Curry and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

Erving and Gervin!?! Air and Ice!?! I love it.

1974 Topps George Gervin

12. Elvin Hayes (Vintage Basketball Cards from 1969 through 1981 Topps) – View Prices on eBay!

Hayes ranks among the greatest power forwards in NBA history, and his Houston Cougars helped end UCLA’s 47-game winning streak in 1968 in the first ever nationally televised college basketball game.

While Hayes played in the NBA from 1968 through 1984, he didn’t have as many cards because his career bookended the time period Topps manufactured basketball cards.

Weird stat: Hayes retired as the NBA’s all-time leader in minutes played – 50,000 exactly! He’s now seventh all-time, behind Kareem, LeBron James, Karl Malone, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Garnett, and Jason Kidd.

1971 Topps Elvin Hayes

Some great players whose vintage basketball cards just missed the cut (in alphabetical order): Nate Archibald, Rick Barry, Bill Bradley, Billy Cunningham, Gail Goodrich, Connie Hawkins, Phil Jackson, Jerry Lucas, Moses Malone, Bob McAdoo, Earl Monroe, Calvin Murphy, Willis Reed, Pat Riley, Wes Unseld and Len Wilkens.

  • The Dandy Dozen Vintage Baseball Cards (1952 to 1972)
  • The Dandy Dozen Modern Baseball Cards (1973 to 1999)
  • The Dandy Dozen Millennials Baseball Cards (2000 to present)
  • The Dandy Dozen Vintage Football Cards (1955 to 1979)
  • The Dandy Dozen Modern Football Cards (1980 to 1999)
  • The Dandy Dozen Millennials Football Cards (2000 to present)
  • The Dandy Dozen Vintage Basketball Cards (1956 to 1979)
  • The Dandy Dozen Modern Basketball Cards (1980 to 1999)
  • The Dandy Dozen Millennials Basketball Cards (2000 to present)

Stay tuned for The Dandy Dozen lists for Modern Basketball Cards and Millennials Basketball Cards to collect! For many of the collectors out there, the Modern Basketball cards, going from 1986 to 1999, are vintage, also!

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