The Ultimate Guide to ’90s Basketball Cards

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Sarah Jacobs/ONE37pm

Joshua Johnson is the host of Cardboard Chronicles, a YouTube channel dedicated to interviewing collectors within the hobby focusing on ’90s basketball and the creator of How to Collect Cards, a series of educational tools for helping new collectors in the hobby. We’ve tapped him as an expert resource to delve into the world of sports cards. Here’s his guide. 

I can still vividly remember thumbing through monthly Beckett magazines as a kid in the mid-'90s checking to see the latest prices of my basketball cards. I was only 8 years old, so my cards weren't valuable, but for a young man like myself, it was all about the thrill of the chase, ripping packs to find my favorite players and collecting with my friends. Often our fondest memories come from that early stage of our lives, and basketball cards from the '90s deliver the largest dose of nostalgia possible for me.

Nineties basketball cards are defined by beautiful, unique designs. The thing that really set this decade apart was the introduction of rarity. The combination of highly desirable cards and a difficulty for collectors to obtain them led to price surges. It follows the simple economic principle of supply and demand.

“Several factors have contributed to the growth of the hobby over the past few years, including broader economic growth and ease of the hobby’s accessibility via the expansion of social media like Facebook and Instagram,” says Justin Gee, a longtime hobby expert. “Additionally, millennials with disposable income and nostalgia for their hobby heroes can access the marketplace at any price point. It's a unique convergence we've never really seen before," he says.

Although counterfeits and frauds are possible, the demand for '90s basketball cards continues to rise and the supply continues to diminish. Here is our exhaustive breakdown of '90s basketball cards, defined industry terms and a thorough explanation of the effects of supply and demand on #thehobby we love.

Early 1990s: Junk Wax

Most will remember the 1990s as the tail end of the junk wax era (a period from 1987 to 1994 when sports cards were overproduced and bland) as a time when people were duped into investing their 401(k)s into Shaquille O'Neal rookie cards, only to find out that they were made in mass quantities. In 1992, Shaq brought the masses into the basketball card hobby during his rookie season. Card prices were on the rise, but the market could not sustain its peak while hundreds of prints were manufactured. The Shaq rookie card was not rare in any way; it was just the “card to have” at the time.

Most people would look back on this decade of basketball cards and assume that the bubble had burst here. Thousands left the hobby after feeling deceived. On the contrary, this mishap actually catapulted the greatest era of basketball cards.

1992: ’90s Inserts

Inserts are cards that come at a lower pack odds than regular cards, which makes them difficult to pull. Instead of being a part of the normal base set, they are part of a “subset” that has been "inserted" into the packs alongside the base cards. They look different than the base cards and usually have different names. 1992 featured the first of inserts as we know them today with the Stadium Club Beam Team.

Nineties basketball cards are often defined by their unique inserts of wild designs and striking graphics. Many collectors focus on collecting high-grade (better condition as set by the grading companies, PSA and BGS) inserts of Michael Jordan. More than 20 years old now, these cards are difficult to find in high grade, but that makes for a fun chase. As a result, the prices have skyrocketed.

Many inserts do not have serial numbers, so rarity is driven by the pack’s probability odds. The harder it is to pull from a pack, the more valuable the card becomes.

“When we started designing for Fleer in the early ’90s, trading cards were still very traditional looking,” said designers Earl Arena and Jean MacLeod of Arena Design. “We wanted to stand out from anything that was on the market as well as reflect the greatness of the athletes. We were influenced by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and other pop artists as well as hip-hop, which was exploding in popularity, skateboarding, graffiti and video games. We were working for an ad agency in Atlantic City with casino clients and wanted to utilize those printing techniques.”

1993: Refractor Parallels

In 1993, Topps introduced the first parallel refractor—a variation of the regular base card that has a reflective coating that tosses a rainbow pattern when held in the light like a prism—with their high-end product called Finest. The refractor was similar to the regular card that you could pull from a pack, except that it was rarer and harder to find. The Michael Jordan is still wildly undervalued given its historical significance. Rare parallel refractors added a whole new dynamic to the basketball card hobby. It gave collectors something more interesting to look at and something unattainable to chase. Everyone had a 1992 Upper Deck Shaq rookie, but very few had the Michael Jordan refractor card.

During this time, companies were still producing cards at a high volume. These rarer parallels were beginning to change sports cards. It gave the market an aspect of artificial scarcity that didn't previously exist, and card companies were on the cusp of even bigger innovations.

1996: Topps Chrome Refractors

In 1996, Topps released its first-ever Chrome set. The Chrome variation was similar to the original Finest product with its unique film coating over the surface of the card that also featured a refractor parallel. More important, it featured one of the best rookie classes of all time. The class included Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Ray Allen, Allen Iverson and Stephon Marbury. This important set still stands out today for its refractor parallel’s beauty and a simple design that would be copied in the future. Topps Chrome dominated the sports card industry for years in basketball.

1996: Autographed Cards

The first autographed cards, where the featured athlete physically signed the card with a marker, were released in 1996. They could be found inserted into packs and were produced by Upper Deck SPx, with megastars Michael Jordan and Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway as the athletes. Fans could now obtain the autographs of their favorite players by finding them in packs of cards that retailed for as little as $5.

The concept of autographed cards is now a mainstay, but at that time, finding one was extremely rare. Today, owning the first-ever, pack-inserted Michael Jordan autographed card is major.

1996: Serial Numbered Cards

The monumental year of 1996 also brought the first mainstream serial numbered card. Serial numbered cards include a factory-stamped or sometimes handwritten indication of the number of copies that were made, and each copy lists a unique number (for example, 146/150). This gave collectors a way to track exactly how many copies of a card were printed, explaining the inherent rarity of their item. This was huge for the trading market. Limited-edition items, and in turn, supply and demand drove up market value.

1997: 1 of 1s

Flair Showcase also introduced the first 1of 1 in 1997, which is also known as a Masterpiece. This means only one copy of the card was created for each player, creating ultimate scarcity. These special editions provide extreme chases for player collectors and the value of these cards is exponentially higher than a mass-market version. The regular numbered serial cards have a blue font on the front and the 1 of 1s have a purple font with a stamp on the back that reads "The Only 1 of 1 Masterpiece."

1997: Rare Parallels

In 1997, the Precious Metal Gems, Rubies and Credentials parallels—sets created by Fleer Skybox with extremely limited print runs—featured the best players in the NBA. These sets existed before, but they weren't serial numbered and the aesthetic wasn’t great. The most popular is the 1997 Metal Universe Precious Metal Gems parallels. The parallel set featured 100 cards in total and the first 10 in the print run had an emerald green surface. The remaining 90 had a brilliant red surface.

The 1997 Metal Universe Green PMG, as it's most commonly known, is easily the most popular card of any given player of this era. A copy of the Green PMG Michael Jordan recently sold at an open auction for $350,000 to super-collector Nat Turner. It's the ultimate chase card for any player collector of the '90s because of its combination of rarity and beauty. “The Michael Jordan Green PMG eluded me for many years but I was finally able to acquire one. This card represents everything I love about cards and why I collect '90s basketball cards,” said Turner, the aforementioned super collector.

1997: Metal Universe Championship

The 1997 Metal Universe also featured the Championship set, which included Precious Metal Gems that were numbered to 50. 

"Outside of the PMG Green, the PMG Championship numbered to 50 is the hardest PMG to locate. The better players of this set take years to locate and usually aren't available for sale," Grant Slayton states.

Metal Universe Championship came out one month after the famous Metal Universe set, which created confusion at the time. Some thought it was just a “Series 2” release, but it is a completely different set. The set, aptly named "Championship", only showcased one to three veteran players from each team and the rookie class of 1997. 

"What makes this set so visually appealing is the lenticular circle patterns Skybox used, first done that year and recently brought back by Panini," Slayton continues. "The backgrounds used landscapes and cityscapes from around the United States and Canada. It's truly a one-of-a-kind idea."

1997: Star Rubies

Skybox Premium’s Star Rubies parallel were numbered to 50 and boast similar unique surfaces and designs. There is also a Team Skybox set with a Star Rubies parallel. Many collectors find these more visually appealing than PMGs, but both are covetable in their own right. “The Star Rubies are one of the most iconic sets of the 1990s. Shiny, unique, rare and beautiful. There are few sets ever produced that rival the magic and allure of the 1990s Star Rubies," John Burleson, a hunter of rare '90s Spurs cards, proclaims.

1997: Credentials

Perhaps the most interesting parallel set came from Skybox E-X2001 in 1997: the Credentials Now and Credentials Future. The set featured 80 players and each player had a Now and Future Credentials version. When added together, the serial numbers of the two versions totaled 81. For example, Penny Hardaway has a Future numbered to 77 and a Now numbered to 4. The veterans had low numbers in the Now version and rookies had low numbers in the Future version.

The 1/1 Credentials Now features the popular Grant Hill. This card itself was basically a myth until surfacing on the internet in 2018 with rumored offers to purchase of over $70,000. The Credentials set is a huge chase for high-end collectors as only one collector can possibly own the 1/1 set, warranting the high price.

1997: Jersey Memorabilia Cards

In 1997, Upper Deck created the first jersey cards. Jersey cards include a piece of the player's jersey tucked inside. They are extremely important in the modern card landscape. The first year that jersey cards were on the market, they had a high difficulty of pulling from packs at a 1 to 2,500 odds. Michael Jordan signed and hand-numbered 23 copies of the first jersey card, and one recently sold at auction for $94,630.

Basketball Cards FAQs

What are the cards in my basement worth?

If you have '90s basketball cards in your basement thinking that you will be rich, this is probably not true. The rare cards listed in this article were extremely tough to pull, with ridiculously high pack odds. In modern card collecting, you are guaranteed a "hit", or a valuable card, in every box. In the '90s, that wasn't the case. You could open 20 boxes and only hit one parallel of a no-name player.

“A lot of us remember opening packs of cards in the mid-late '90s and remember getting nothing but base cards and non-rare inserts. The problem is that while the supply has not increased, the number of collectors looking for these cards has,” says Adam Gray, a long time '90s basketball card collector.

The cards that people are after (Jordan PMGs, Kobe Credentials, Autograph inserts) are buried in a sea of '90s junk, creating an almost mythical allure to cards. Without the internet as kids, you could hear stories of Jordan Precious Metal Gems cards, but you could never see one. 

Why have prices surged?

If you were ten years old in 1999, you’d be 30 now. Generally, adults hit an earning income peak at age 30-40. The nostalgia-reboot cycle is hitting the '90s generation hard and basketball cards are no exception.

Also, cards can be an alternative investment class. Traditional investing has no emotional attachment: you buy and sell stocks. With cards, you can invest on an emotional level. There’s also a sense of investing for the common man. Sports fans can invest, so to speak, in their favorite athletes, strengthening the connection between athlete and fan.

Prices started to surge in about 2010 and have again hit an exponential growth curve since about 2017, especially the Michael Jordan card market.

"The holy grail of all '90s basketball cards—the Michael Jordan 1997-98 Metal Universe PMG Green—sold in 2007 for $5,300.23. It last sold in 2019 for $350,100. That's an ROI 6,505.37% over a 12-year period,” says Chris McGill of the House of Jordans podcast.


How do I know if my cards are genuine?

Be careful and study up on the differences before spending big money, because counterfeits do exist in basketball cards.

Nat Turner's collection is a museum of basketball cards and his cards can be used as a reference point to validate authenticity.

“Nineties forgers can reproduce an entire card from scratch using the original photography and graphic/text elements they recreate themselves. The end result is a forgery that is frighteningly identical to the original, and it cannot be identified using traditional methods. While PSA and BGS have a great track record of spotting vintage fakes, they’ve struggled to adapt to this new generation of modern forgeries," states Brendan Bigelow, a noted '90s counterfeit expert.

What is the future of basketball cards?

The global popularity of basketball in the NBA continues to grow rapidly which will continue to bring in more interest. According to figures produced by the NBA, over 600 million people in China watched some part of its programming on television during the 2017 season and with 178 million followers across its Chinese social media channels, the NBA also boasts the highest following of any sports league in that particular market. Experts have noted that the demand for '90s basketball cards continues to go up and the supply continues to go down. Collectors are buying cards and locking them into their collections because they know it's almost impossible to get them back.

The urgency to acquire these cards is at an all-time high, so if new money comes into the hobby and wants to acquire these cards, the prices will continue to rise. Some of these cards only come up for sale once a year or less.

Gee says, “Collectors want what’s unique. While vintage is highly collectible, it’s ultimately hundreds of the exact same card of the exact same player, with the only variable being the card’s condition. Modern cards pushed the envelope in product design (PMGs, Credentials, the introduction of the first jersey cards in 1997), scarcity (low serial numbered subsets, subsets with extremely difficult odds) and price point (’93-’94 Finest basketball as the first ‘high-end’ product at $100 per box, ’03-’04 Exquisite basketball as the first ‘ultra high-end’ product at $550 per box). To me, vintage basketball is about collecting the grade, whereas modern basketball is about collecting the card.”

Basketball cards are more than just pieces of cardboard. They represent art, culture, sport and—for some of us—they define our childhood. The '90s basketball card market isn’t driven by money, but rather the passion of its collectors. And we’re passionate.

Follow @edisoncards on Twitter for more.

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