In the hobby of collecting sports trading cards, rookie cards are the holy grail.
Nowadays rookie card options from the NBA’s next superstars can range from inexpensive “base” cards to expensive “rookie-patch-autos (RPA’s).” That wasn’t always the case. Rookie cards were once limited print fr0m one or two licensed manufacturers, but the growth of the hobby has sparked intense hunts for basketball rookie cards of all variety.
When coming up with this list, iconic does not simply equate to the highest price tag. In certain cases, a player’s high-supply rookie card is above a rare premium card with a small print run.
Here is PART ONE of my most iconic rookie cards for every NBA Team, beginning with the Eastern Conference:
I whole-heartedly believe that Cade Cunningham may quickly work his way onto this list. Until then, it goes to Isiah Thomas and his rookie card found in the 1986–1987 Fleer set, the most iconic basketball set ever created. Joe Dumars also has a rookie card in this set and received some consideration, as well as Grant Hill’s 1994–95 Finest rookie card. There is no denying Isiah’s place in Pistons lore…even painted on cardboard.
This is the most recognizable sports card of all-time. Although Michael Jordan has a few Star brand cards from as early as the 1984–85 set that are considered “extended rookie cards,” His Airness only has one real rookie card: the 1986 Fleer.
Only 323 of the 20,000+ submissions have gotten a PSA 10 rating, and a PSA 10 version was consistently sells for over $200,000.
On the Mount Rushmore of vintage basketball cards you’ll find collegiate rivals Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. To add even more sizzle to the steak, their rookie card in the 1980–81 Topps set includes a special cameo appearance by “Dr. J,” Julius Erving.
It’s hard to deny the 1957–58 Topps rookie card for Bill Russell, but one card with three hall-of-famers is untouchable.
This is one of those times where iconic doesn’t match up with financial value. Giannis Antetokounmpo has some expensive rookie cards available, including a one-of-one “Logoman” RPA that sold for $1.812 million in 2020 auction. The Panini Prizm base card of The Greek Freak, however, has already become one of the most iconic cards released in the last 20 years.
The 2020-21 Hoops card was the first LaMelo Bell card to appear on the market after he was selected third overall in the 2020 draft. That being said, it is far from the most expensive LaMelo Ball rookie card available.
At a time when many people were returning to the hobby, this card helped a lot of young collectors enter the hobby arena. LaMelo’s flashy style on and off the court has made it the most recognizable cards from the wild year of 2020.
Dominique Wilkins is a nine-time All-Star who averaged 26.4 points per game with the Hawks over the course of his 12 seasons in Atlanta. This includes an NBA-best 30.3 points in the 1985–86 campaign, his third year in the league but the year his rookie card came out. That’s why his 1986 Fleer rookie card takes the number one spot for Atlanta.
Salute to Bob Pettit, a Hall of Famer who’s 1957-58 Topps rookie card was in close consideration for the top spot.
This one isn’t even close. When thinking of the Indiana Pacers, it’s Reggie Miller and Reggie Miller only. He only has one rookie card in the 1988-89 Fleer set, making it all the more recognizable as time bounces on.
The sharpshooter is the Pacers’ all-time leader in games played (1,389), total points (25,279), 2-pointers (5,681), 3-pointers (2,560), assists (4,141), and steals (1,505).
An image of LeBron James shooting over Hall of Fame Pistons big man Ben Wallace is the only image that comes to mind when I think of LeBron rookie cards.
Another rookie card found in the 2003–2004 Exquisite Collection set was a revolutionary product in the industry and laid the groundwork for the ultra–premium market, but the Topps Chrome card will forever remain on top.
Honorable Mention: Lebron Darko Melo
If Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh was pictured in the center, would this card become the most significant basketball card ever created? As a lifelong Pistons fan, all I can do is wonder…
…as I clean up the puddle of tears on the ground.
PART II COMING SOON
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