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13 Alternative Vintage Basketball Cards That Could Be “True” Rookies

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Before we jump into our list of alternative “true” rookie card candidates, it is important to first clearly define some terms to tee up a proper debate. The first being the definition of a rookie card itself.

Beckett’s official definition of the rookie card (“RC”) states that a “rookie card” must come from a fully-licensed, nationally distributed set that is primarily focused on current professional players. It must be a base card and cannot be an insert, parallel or redemption card, and players can only have one RC per set.

While this generally applies to the modern sports card market, in the vintage days, such rules were far from being clearly established.

Wikipedia’s more generalized definition states “‘a ‘rookie card’ is a trading card that is the first to feature an athlete after that athlete has participated in the highest level of competition within his or her sport.” They also go on to note, like Beckett, that “it is generally agreed that to be a ‘true’ rookie card, the card must be counted as part of a product's base set. Thus, limited quantity insert cards of any type are generally not considered to be true rookie cards.”

Pulling out the two key components that can most aptly still apply to the more fractured, inconsistent vintage era—“first to feature an athlete in their sport’s highest level of competition” and “part of a product’s base set (vs. inserts)”—there are several instances (13 that we outline here) among Hall of Fame basketball players where their technical “true” rookie card may or may not be the card many in the Hobby currently assume. Each of them carries with them their own lore and backstories, much of which took us quite far down the alternative vintage basketball rabbit hole.

Our list goes in chronological order and features 13 all-time, iconic players, and we hope you enjoy reading it as much as we enjoyed creating it. Comments, debate, and other “true” rookie cases all encouraged to be shared.

1. 1960 Kahn's Wieners Oscar Robertson

robertson
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  • Total PSA Pop: 18 
  • Highest PSA Grade: 8.5 (1 reported)
     
  • Current Consensus Rookie: 1961 Fleer #36
  • Total PSA Pop for Consensus Rookie: 1,044
  • Highest PSA Grade for Consensus Rookie: 10 (1)
     

Given they were only obtainable in packs of hot dogs in the Ohio area, it should come as no surprise that the 1960-61, dozen card, Kahn's Wieners basketball set is extremely rare and nearly impossible to find in good condition. A regional set, 11 of the cards featured members of Kahn’s local team, the Cincinnati Royals, including the very first Oscar “Big O” Robertson card. Many have come to view this card as being Oscar’s “true” rookie vs. his (also iconic) 1961 Fleer rookie card. As such, unlike the hot dogs it came with, this card continues to age gracefully and grow in popularity.

Learn More: Old Sports Cards

    2. 1960 Kahn's Wieners Jerry West

    west
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    • Total PSA Pop: 25
    • Highest PSA Grade: 8 (1)
       
    • Current Consensus Rookie: 1961 Fleer #43
    • Total PSA Pop for Consensus Rookie: 1,346
    • Highest PSA Grade for Consensus Rookie: 10 (3)
       

    The only card in the 1960 Kahn’s set not featuring a player on the Cincinnati Royals? L.A. Laker, Jerry “The Logo” West. Just like Oscar’s, Jerry’s 1961 Fleer is more commonly known as his rookie card, with his Kahn’s 1960 picking up steam as West’s “true” rookie card. Also similar to Big O’s card, you will be hard-pressed to track this one down, particularly one in good condition.

    Learn More: PSA

    3. 1968 Topps Test John Havlicek ("Havilcek") #5

    havlicek
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    • Total PSA Pop: 8
    • Highest PSA Grade: 8 (3)
       
    • Current Consensus Rookie: 1969 Topps #20
    • Total PSA Pop for Consensus Rookie: 1,558
    • Highest PSA Grade for Consensus Rookie: 10 (2)
       

    The misspelling only adds to the greatness of this card, as does the lore behind the insanely rare set it comes from. The 1968 Topps Test set is one of the most desired sets in the market by hardcore vintage collectors, and not only for its Havlicek “true” rookie card that predates his 1969 Topps rookie. For reasons unconfirmed, the set was barely ever even distributed.

    Cards in this set are called “impossible to find” and continue to elude even the most dedicated collectors on the hunt. Along with its singular scarcity (only 183 graded cards in existence across the entire 22 card set!), the set’s featured players are also quite special. A staggering 15 of the featured players are in the Basketball Hall of Fame, including legends like Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Bill Russell, and of course, Havlicek himself.

    Many of the Hobby’s deepest vintage collectors consider this card Havlicek’s true rookie—and for Celtics fanatics, something even grander. After all, Havlicek won eight rings with the Cs, four during his first four seasons on the team. If that doesn’t sound like a legendary rookie, we don’t know what does.

    Learn More: Old Sports Cards

    4. 1968 Topps Test Willis Reed #7

    reed
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    • Total PSA Pop: 7
    • Highest PSA Grade: 8.5 (1)
       
    • Current Consensus Rookie: 1969 Topps #60
    • Total PSA Pop for Current Consensus Rookie: 837
    • Highest PSA Grade for Consensus Rookie: 10 (1)
       

    If you weren’t already enthralled by the 1968 Topps Test set, this should do it. Havlicek was not the only HOFer with a “true” rookie in the set—legendary Knicks Center Willis Reed’s is in there as well. With a total graded population of only 7(!), it is the rarest of rare. The cleanest known Reed clocked in at an 8.5 NM-MT; we can’t help but wonder if an untouched 9 or above is hiding out somewhere, waiting to be found. 

    Learn More: PSA

    5. 1968 Jack in the Box San Diego Rockets Elvin Hayes

    hayes
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    • Total PSA Pop: 247
    • Highest PSA Grade: 10 (80)
       
    • Current Consensus Rookie: 1969 Topps #75 
    • Total PSA Pop for Consensus Rookie: 915
    • Highest PSA Grade for Consensus Rookie: 9 (32)
       

    Drawing inspiration from Kahn’s Wieners perhaps, in 1968, San Diego-headquartered fast-food chain Jack in the Box introduced a limited run set of 12 cards featuring the local San Diego Rockets roster. And you guessed it: individual cards could only be obtained by purchasing a meal. At some point likely in 1969, two new Rockets were added, replacing two others, putting the technical complete set count at 14.

    The promotion was designed around a Rockets home game free ticket giveaway to anyone who was able to collect all 12 cards and bring them to their local Jack in the Box. To keep prize-winning rare, they deployed an age-old trick of short-printing two of the cards (Harry Barnes and Henry Finkel for those who are curious), which is a bummer, both for kids in 1968 and set collectors in 2020.

    Thankfully, 1968 Rockets recruit Elvin Hayes received a full printing of what has come to be viewed by some in the Hobby as his “true” rookie, preceding his 1969 Topps #75.

    Learn More: BeckettHeritage Auctions

    6. 1982 Lakers BASF James Worthy

    worthy
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    • Total PSA Pop: 14
    • Highest PSA Grade: 9.5 (1)
       
    • Current Consensus Rookie: 1986 Fleer #131
    • Total PSA Pop for Consensus Rookie: 2,806
    • Highest PSA Grade for Consensus Rookie: 10 (125)
       

    As part of a promotional tie-in with the Los Angeles Lakers, BASF audio and videotapes produced this 13 5” x 7” large card set in 1982, distributed through Big Ben’s and the Wherehouse (two-chain record and tapes stores in southern California). The cards were distributed slowly—only one player per week—one of which being rookie Laker and future HOFer James Worthy’s first appearance on a card, constituting his potential “true” rookie. Worthy’s a seven-time NBA All-Star, three-time NBA champion and considered one of the 50 Greatest Basketball Players In NBA History. This card is large and in charge, with super low population numbers and growing interest.

    Learn More: Beckett

    7. 1983 Trailblazers Police Clyde Drexler #22

    drexler 0
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    • Total PSA Pop: 23
    • Highest PSA Grade: 10 (6)
       
    • Current Consensus Rookie: 1986 Fleer #26
    • Total PSA Pop for Consensus Rookie: 5,260
    • Highest PSA Grade for Consensus Rookie: 10 (310)
       

    The Portland Police Department, the Trailblazers and the NBA came together in this good-natured 16 card set to dole out community safety advice (“Blazer Tips”) from the area’s beloved basketball team stars. In 1983, long before his 1986 Fleer debut, rookie Clyde Drexler was one such feature (and in 1984, as well). On the front of the card, we see young Clyde mid-dunk, and upon flipping to the back, can read his advice to the area’s youths. In addition to preceding his Fleer rookie by multiple years, the population on the card and the set is astonishingly low, with an early 80s nostalgia look and appeal that’s had Clyde fans and “true” rookie collectors in love for years. 

    Learn More: Beckett

    8. 1985 Interlake Bulls Michael Jordan

    jordan interlake 1
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    • Total PSA Pop: 155
    • Highest PSA Grade: 10 (8)
       
    • Current Consensus Rookie: 1986 Fleer #57
    • Total PSA Pop for Consensus Rookie: 19,463
    • Highest PSA Grade for Consensus Rookie: 10 (313)
       

    There are several early Jordan gems (more to come on that shortly), but the 1985 Interlake Bulls is particularly unique in both its size (5” x 7”, similar to the 1982 James Worthy BASF) and its scarcity—a 155 total population with only 8 PSA 10s currently in existence. As an oversized card, it’s more given to wear and tear, which makes finding one of these cards raw and in good condition exceedingly rare. And as a blank-back, limited, regional release, counterfeits are not uncommon, so be careful with this one.

    These were issued by the Boy Scouts of America through the Interlake Youth Incentive Program in the Chicago area, with only Jordan and Orlando Woolridge as the featured Bulls. They certainly had an eye for card design, too—Jordan’s signature “tongue-out” expression and dynamic, mid-crossover capture, coupled with its scarcity, make this pre-1986 Fleer “true” rookie a serious collector’s item.

    Learn More: Old Sports CardsCardboard ConnectionGoldin Auctions

    9. 1985 Nike Michael Jordan Promotional

    jordan nikepromo 1
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    • Total PSA Pop: 2,496
    • Highest PSA Grade: 10 (162)
       
    • Current Consensus Rookie: 1986 Fleer #57
    • Total PSA Pop for Consensus Rookie: 19,463
    • Highest PSA Grade for Consensus Rookie: 10 (313)
       

    We’re far from done with pre-1986 MJ rookies…

    The second oversized 1985 on our list: the Nike Promotional. If the pose looks familiar, it should—this is one of the images from which the Nike Jordan “Jumpman” brand logo was based, making it as much a piece of Nike history as a Jordan “true” rookie card candidate.

    It was part of a six-card, multi-sport promo set that featured other 90s Nike athletes such as John McEnroe and Dwight Gooden. All cards in this set are oversized, measuring a little more than 3″ x 5″ (no Interlake, but still a nice, hefty slab). Lucky for MJ enthusiasts, his card was not an overly rare release, though prices have taken off in recent years particularly for the far smaller pool of 162 Gem Mint PSA 10s. No doubt a certain recent documentary may have helped. 

    The classic Jumpman pose, true rookie potential, relatively high-grade scarcity and extra size make this card quite appetizing for collectors new and old. In cards, as it was in ‘90s hoops, if you bet on MJ, you don’t often lose.

    Learn More: Beckett

    10. 1985 Prism/Jewel Stickers Michael Jordan

    jordan prism jewel 0
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    • Total PSA Pop: 76
    • Highest PSA Grade: 10 (1)
       
    • Current Consensus Rookie: 1986 Fleer #57
    • Total PSA Pop for Consensus Rookie: 19,463
    • Highest PSA Grade for Consensus Rookie: 10 (313)

       

    Last but certainly not least is our final 1985 Jordan of the bunch: his Prism/Jewel Sticker. Fanatics of this super rare sticker set would be quick to tell you that we’ve saved the best for last. While some hate on its design (“amateurish”, “ugly”, “so shiny you’ll burn your eyes out”), no one can deny that they’re essentially impossible to find in any condition, period. The current total PSA population clocks in double digits (76), including a lone, glorious 10.

    Where could one grab the 14 card Prism/Jewel stickers back in the day? In vending machines of course (‘80s kids will remember the brief explosion of sticker-stuffed vending machines). These stickers proved quite tricky, however, receiving only limited distribution and inconsistent sticker selection across vending machines. Most machines sold out quickly and then sat idle, never to be restocked. To make matters worse, those lucky enough to snatch a card from a machine often ended up slapping them onto trapper keepers, notebooks, and the like.

    Consider yourself quite lucky if you find one that’s survived in top or even decent shape. Though if you do find one, you’ll likely be looking at a sky-high price tag. Learn

    More: Sportscard InfoOld Sports Cards

    11. 1985 J.M.S. Game Charles Barkley Perforated #4

    barkley
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    • Total PSA Pop: 43
    • Highest PSA Grade: 9 (33)
       
    • Current Consensus Rookie: 1986 Fleer #7
    • Total PSA Pop for Consensus Rookie: 6,419
    • Highest PSA Grade for Consensus Rookie: 10 (225)
       

    Hunting around in 1985, another “true” rookie candidate emerges for yet another HOFer: the J.M.S. Game Perforated Charles Barkley #4.

    His card, one of 27 in the set, was issued by J.M.S. and sold in uncut team sheets as part of a tabletop game featuring nine players from the Philadelphia 76ers (1-9), Boston Celtics (10-18), and Los Angeles Lakers (19-27). The game never really took off, but the card has in recent years, generating intrigue from vintage collectors given its precedence over Barkley’s 1986 Fleer rookie and super low graded population.

    Learn More: Beckett

    12. 1987 Entenmann's Bulls Scottie Pippen (One Arm Up-Blank Back) #33

    pippen
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    • Total PSA Pop: 70
    • Highest PSA Grade: 10 (19)
       
    • Current Consensus Rookie: 1988 Fleer #20
    • Total PSA Pop for Consensus Rookie: 7,015
    • Highest PSA Grade for Consensus Rookie: 10 (225)
       

    Always playing second fiddle to Michael, Scottie only receives one shout-out in our list vs. MJ’s three. At least it’s the most delicious—the set was produced by Entenmann's bakery in 1987, a year before Pippen’s Fleer #20 rookie hit the market. It’s part of the 11-card Bulls team set that was given out to fans during Bulls home games that year. As such, its population is limited and high-grade cards in short supply.

    The card features Pippen at the rim against Rolando Blackman and Sam Perkins of the Dallas Mavericks, with Jordan looking up in the background. It marked the first time Pippen was ever featured on a card and is a must-have for any “true” rookie collector.

    Learn More: Old Sports Cards

    13. 1988 Spurs Police Diamond Shamrock David Robinson (With Tab)

    robinson
    Jason Koeppel/ONE37pm

    • Total PSA Pop: 141
    • Highest PSA Grade: 10 (31)
       
    • Current Consensus Rookie: 1989 Hoops #138[1]
    • Total PSA Pop for Consensus Rookie: 5,970
    • Highest PSA Grade for Consensus Rookie: 10 (684)
       

    Closing out our list is David “The Admiral” Robinson’s Spurs Police/Diamond Shamrock card. A regional set sponsored by Diamond Shamrock, an oil retailer and convenience store chain headquartered in San Antonio, this card was key to a promotion that included weekly drawings for pairs of tickets and a final Grand Prize drawing to "Win A Road Trip With The Spurs".

    It should be noted that this set may have had multiple additional printings in order to capitalize on the popularity of the David Robinson card specifically. Regardless, it hit the market a year before his 1989-90 Hoops Rookie Card and has become a favorite among 80s/90s collectors, particularly those graded perfect 10s.


    Learn More: Beckett

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