In the world of vintage basketball, there is one set that stands head and shoulders above the rest, and that set is the towering 2 ½" x 4 11/16" Topps "tall boys" of 1969. Long, strong, and down to get the bidding on, this 99-card, single issue set continues to gain popularity in the collecting community nearly fifty years after its debut. But it's much more than their formidable size and spectacular design that keeps fans coming back for more and setting new auction records each time they do, it's the sets incredible line up!
Nearly a decade had passed since Topps manufactured it's last full hardwood set, so the 1969 edition inevitably became the landing spot for every Hall of Famer and rookie superstar that began his career during that span of 1961-1969. An eye-popping crop that included: Lew Alcindor (later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), Dave Bing, Earl Monroe, Don Nelson, Nate Thurmond, Bill Bradley, John Havlicek, Willis Reed, Wes Unseld, Walt Frazier, and Dave DeBusschere. Connie Hawkins, Elvin Hayes, Billy Cunningham, Jerry Lucas.
Sure, there are other monumental sets, ones that could challenge for the title of "greatest". There's the 1948 Bowman offering, and the Jordan-led 1986-87 Fleer issue. One's a ground breaker and the other's an earth shaker, but the simple fact is that when held up against the "tall boys" they both come up, well......short. Very short. Now let's take a closer look.
The '48 Bowman had George Mikan's rookie, possibly the most sought after card in the game, but the original big man doesn't get much support beyond that. Bob Davies, Red Holzman, Andy Philip, and Arnie Risen were all outstanding talents for their time, but you'd be hard pressed to find a casual fan who would recognize any of them outside of Holzman's name, let alone name any five other cards from the set. Basketball was just in its infancy back then and the votes the set receives as "the greatest" seem to do more with rarity and the courage it took Bowman to produce such a product so early on then it does to do with the players featured within, and trying to compare the two sets in terms of the style of their layout would just be a waste of time. The extra large photos (sometimes which even extend beyond the backgrounds they were placed against), the basketball-related graphics, and the rebellious feel (no team logos were included on the cards and some players were even photographed wearing their jersey backwards due to a lack of a licensing agreement between Topps and the NBA) of the 1969 set just blows the Bowman set, who's simple design is exactly the same as their 1949 Baseball set, right out of the water.
Which brings us to the 1986-87 Fleer, the top contender for the crown. It has the style, with its patriotic red, white, and blue borders surrounding full color photos showing some of the best in-action shots to date, and it certainly has the substance; with Michael Jordan leading a class of rookies that included Danny Ainge, Charles Barkley, Clyde Drexler, Joe Dumars, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, Chris Mullin, Hakeem Olajuwon, Isiah Thomas, and James Worthy to go along with mid-career cards from Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. But does it have enough of either, let alone both, to be considered "the best"?
Style-wise, the edge still goes to the 1969 Topps set; that oversized format and retro look are second to none. Comparing the talent becomes the real challenge and it comes down to splitting the finest of hairs.
Jordan is obviously the best of both bunches, but when comparing the rest of the lot, Alcindor certainly outranks any big man from '86, whether it be Ewing, Olajuwon, and even Bowie in his prime. Willis outmuscles Barkley. Frazier hoops and swoops ahead of Dumars. Monroe trumps Thomas (though this author may be a little biased after Isiah's disgraceful run in the Knicks front office). And while Malone and Worthy may outscore "Nate The Great", he'd out-rebound the both of them combined while turning back a half dozen shots in the meantime - so we'll call that one a draw. Yes, Mullin could definitely shoot the lights out on Bradley, but Elvin Hayes definitely gets the nod over Drexler. Add to it the 1969 set's inclusion of Hall of Fame rookies from Wes Unseld, Billy Cunningham, and Dave Bing, along with singles of legends Oscar Robinson, Jerry West, and Wilt Chamberlain, and it's clear to see which set comes out on Topps.
Seasoned card collectors know though that it takes more than talent to earn those 10's, it takes quality and condition, and that's when the "tall boys" become a tall order. To start, literally, the first card in the set, which was located in the top left corner of the 9-row (11 in each) sheet, was the always-popular Wilt Chamberlain. Aside from being vulnerable to the expected rough cuts and off-centering that's rampant throughout, his card usually suffered some form of edge or corner wear. Same goes for the final card on the sheet, the checklist. That tricky, tricky checklist. A card that seems almost destined to be damaged. Seriously! Even if one was manufactured perfectly, delivered safely, unwrapped carefully, and exposed to the light of day as a "perfect 10", chances are it was marked in ink long ago by a youngster more interested in tracking his progress in hunting down his heroes, than he was preserving the cardboard they were printed on.
It's not like any of the 1969 Topps cards need help getting knicked up either. The sheer size of the cards alone make them very difficult to uncover in respectable condition. There's just too much real estate to protect and preserve. It also didn't help that proper storage pages or cases weren't even available back then to accommodate their unique specifications. In fact, to date, PSA has yet to grade a single "10" example of Wilt's #1 card, and have only come across a just one Gem Mint Lew Alcindor and Havlicek rookie. Compared to other card sets of the time, be it baseball, football, or basketball, those numbers, in terms of scarcity of star rookies, are just staggering. Recent prices have reflected these shortages with records constantly being set each time high quality examples come up for auction. To date, there have only been nine examples of Wilt Chamberlain's card to reach the PSA 9 Mint threshold, and those examples are worth between $5,000 and $6,000 each. We can't even imagine what a PSA 10 would be worth! As we just mentioned, there's only one Gem Mint examples of the Lew Alcindor rookie, and it's never sold publicy at auction. There are only eighteen PSA 9 Mint examples floating around the hobby, with each one being worth over $10,000. As for the Havlicek rookie, there are actually twenty-three examples in Mint conditon graded by PSA, and those would are worth between $2,000 and $3,000. Unlike the Alcindor rookie, the PSA 10 example of Havlicek's rookie has sold, and went for an astounding $25,273.20 back in 2013, via Mile High's auction. These impressive numbers aren't exclusive to the top players either. Elusive commons in exceptional shape, like #5 Bailey Howell and #48 Bob Kauffman #48, have fetched over $1,000 at auction!
The final collecting angle for these former inhabitants of the 10 cent, 10-card packs, is the insert which was sold along with them: the fun, brightly-colored "Rulers". These delicate 2 ½" x 9 7/8" collectibles were printed on thin paper stock and featured a cartoon drawing of one of 23 individual stars, alongside an actual ruler measuring their height. Originally intended as a set of 24, the #5 Bill Russell though, was never issued. Players that were included are John Havlicek, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Walt Frazier and Jerry Lucas. These "Rulers" have surged in popularity in recent years and their fragile nature has made premium examples few and far between, creating the challenge that collectors just can't resist...and neither can we! To date, less than fifty examples have graded out PSA 10 Gem Mint, which do not include examples from West, Frazier, or "The Big O".
Finding and buying these b-ball beauties has become our top priority, and if you're among the fortunate few holding onto an exceptional single, great group, or even a complete set, then we want to hear from you today! Contact us to discuss all of your selling options. Our experts our here to help and anxious to view your cardboard treasures.Return to See More Just Collect Sets