Chasing Paper: Basketball Cards In The 90s and Their Future

Basketball cards were a quintessential element of ‘90s basketball fandom. But, where did they come from … and where did they go? Jimmy Ness scans the Ultra Pro binder pockets to discover the hazy origins and surprising future of NBA trading cards.

Before you could serve Pau Gasol $200 for a shout-out, ‘90s kids stockpiled pictures of basketball players made from cardboard, plastic and ink. Tear open a dazzling foil packet, inhale the fresh scent of chemical print, and you’d possess juvenile hard currency. You could score a “rare” holographic Michael Jordan card. You might also get jumped for being too showy with the loot. Pre-internet, b-ball collectibles were the youth stock market, and teen investors were all in.

Sports cards were devised way back in the 1900s. Cigarettes came with collectible inserts to forge brand loyalty (as if nicotine wasn’t enough). Cards often had facts about the player on the back, which perhaps birthed the modern day stat-head. In an era when people couldn’t afford books and the internet sounded like an abstract fishing device, trading cards were dubbed “The Working Man’s Encyclopedia.” 

After World War 2 caused a paper shortage, cigarette collectibles faded out. The next wave was bubble gum cards. The most valuable ever is a Bowman 1948 George Mikan, which will reportedly run you over a mil. Not bad for a dude who shot underhand and wore spectacles in game.

Around this time, Topps entered the game. If you collected ‘90s ball cards, these guys are the OGs. Topps have printed everything from barbershop quartets to Spongebob pictorials, but sports is their hallmark. Together with competitors Upper Deck and Fleer, the hoop card Hydra breached pop culture.  

Some liked the bedazzled style of Fleer’s Metal series with their esoteric designs and embossed laser-print. Think: A photo of Clyde “The Glide” Drexler dunking, seen through the eyes of peak acid trip. Others liked the minimal, high-quality aesthetic of Upper Deck, where you might spot a College-aged Shaq profile complete with personal quote. Then we had Skybox.   

While other brands cruelly offered a one in 20 (or even in 30) chance of a rare collectible, Skybox awarded a special card in almost every pack.This was the end of cheap cereal box knock-offs, or collections with a dozen Mookie Blaylock pictorials. No more getting teased by older siblings for our weak-ass sets. Finally, those of us who survived on pocket money could join the hoarding elite. You didn’t need to worry about your third weekend mowing lawns for another failed purchase. Skybox offered QUALITY, fam. Even Gunna knows.

At its zenith, trading cards were a billion-dollar industry. Every city had a specialized shop. They’d sell rarities to the hoarding upper crust, and stock a bargain for the layman. Magazines like Card Crazy printed price databases, and amateur book-keepers argued their collection’s value in playgrounds worldwide. Oh, and if your parents owned a newsagent or general store and could hook you up with freebies? You were a G-O-D. 

Cards with limited runs like gold surfaces, rookie profiles or hyper-nineties phrases like “net-tastic!” could be worth hundreds. This was Elon Musk money to a kid. Everyone had a friend, who’s brother knew someone, who had a cousin that swore they had the rarest Dennis Rodman card of all time. You know… the one with the leopard-print dyed hair, rather than the pink or green.

As cards reached max cultural currency, the hobby was democratized. Various companies infiltrated the market, printing presses went into overdrive and suddenly everyone was a prospective pack-rat. People whose income didn’t consist of their dad’s coins were now trading boxes at a time. 

In a thrilling (or not) power exchange, Marvel comics acquired Fleer and merged it with God-brand Skybox. Some say the designs suffered in the process, either way the bubble burst. 

The mighty 3-inch print went from almost-legal tender to worthless papyrus. Basketball cards officially peaked. Plus it was hard for pre-teen brains to keep up with Tazos, Odd Bodz, Pokemon, Garbage Pail Kids, rocks, marbles, coins and whatever other form of collective over-consumption was trending.

In 2009, the NBA awarded licensing of official player cards to Panini. The Italian company avoids dispensing grilled sandwiches, but does monopolize the diminished market. Modern fads include packaging cards with pieces of game-worn uniform, ball fragments or ticket stubs. The Flawless series runs with jersey swatches from Larry Bird or Steph Curry, and several are going for thousands of dollars on Ebay. 

Some suppliers “break cards” for buyers on YouTube before shipping them out. Like a live lottery, fans pledge a certain amount to receive anything with their chosen team and the mystery case is cracked on-screen. 

There’s recent chatter of the hobby making a comeback. IG entrepreneur Gary V uses phrases such as “enormous growth” and “white-hot” to describe a card-based future. He believes sneaker collectors might jump ship, and cites the power of good ol’ nostalgia. Forbes reports legit investors spending leftover dime.

Whether crystal ball insights ring true or not, don’t get knee-deep in attic dust just yet. Outside of specific runs, retro cards haven’t regained value due to the aforementioned oversaturation. Newer items generally sell for more, and the 2020 strategy is stashing rookies before players become full-fledged superstars. Essentially, buy more Giannis.

Maybe that 3D Muggsy Bogues isn’t worth more than a tenner. But surely some of those eye-bleed retro graphics will shape art history.