By John McMurray
While other basketball card sets of the 1970s are more colorful and include better player photography, collectors likely recall the 1977-78 Topps Basketball card set as a solid and generally well-regarded issue.
The 132-card set is full of stars and also contains rookie cards of Adrian Dantley, Darryl Dawkins and Robert Parish, all of which remain popular. Moreover, the set is routinely available for $50-$100, making it one of the more affordable basketball card sets of the period.
In addition, the 1977-78 Topps Basketball card design is a strong one and bears at least some resemblance to the style of the popular 1977 Topps Baseball card set, albeit without the facsimile autographs. In both cases, the team name and player name are shown in similarly styled large print and small print, respectively, on a white-bordered card.
In contrast to its baseball card set, where the identifying information was at the top of each card, Topps included it all on the bottom of the card in its basketball card set. Overall, both designs are sharp and effective.
For the 1977-78 basketball release, Topps decided to return to a standard 2-1/2-by-3-1/2-inch card design, following its oversized 3-1/8-by-5-1/4-inch-sized cards issued for the 1976-77 season. Since those much larger cards were harder to store and therefore were more prone to damage, Topps surely broadened the appeal of its basketball cards to collectors by returning to the more common size. Although the backs of the 1977-78 cards are available on both white and gray card stock, the white card backs are clearly easier to read.
Considering that it contains cards of only six players per team on average, the 1977-78 Topps Basketball set places an emphasis on star players. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Earl Monroe, Paul Westphal, Rudy Tomjanovich, Pete Maravich, Austin Carr, Elvin Hayes, Bob McAdoo, Bob Lanier, George Gervin, Wes Unseld, Gail Goodrich, Dave Cowens, Julius Erving, Artis Gilmore, Bill Walton and Moses Malone are among the top players included.
Parish’s rookie card is the most expensive in the set. The 1977-78 set also contains the last regular-issue Topps card of John Havlicek, and the Malone and Dawkins cards feature popular action shots.
At the same time, the emphasis on posed shots, as were included in many sets of the period, often disappoints. It is hard to imagine why Topps decided to show Erving and Cowens – two of the league’s top players– sitting on the bench. (Topps also showed Erving sitting on the bench drinking from a cup on his 1976-77 card before more sensibly including a photo of him taking a jump shot in the 1978-79 issue). Either some exposure or lighting problems give the backgrounds of the cards of both Elvin Hayes and Bobby Jones a greenish hue, and Artis Gilmore’s card loses something by having such a bright red background.
Several cards in the set also show players standing by themselves on the court. Prolific scorer Austin Carr is pictured with his hands on his hips, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is shown from the chest up, Havlicek is pictured standing while being partially obscured by another player and Ron Lee, who was coming off of an outstanding rookie season, is shown with his hands on his knees. While some posed shots are essential in any good card set, Topps would have enhanced its overall product by including more action shots of the game’s best players.
These production issues are partially counterbalanced by some well-done cards. Whether it is Bob McAdoo driving to the basket, Bill Walton playing defense or even Randy Smith about to shoot a free throw, the 1977-78 Topps Basketball set offers some memorable images which collectors easily recognize. Even the best cards in this set, however, generally are a bit out-of-focus. In that sense, the 1977-78 Topps Basketball set plays second fiddle to the 1974-75 Topps Basketball card set, which often includes sharper photography. Further, the 1977-78 cards are nowhere near as colorful as the cards in the 1970-71 and 1971-72 basketball sets.
The descriptions on the backs of the 1977-78 cards are almost always matter-of-fact. Ron Boone’s card, for instance, cites only these basic notes about his career: “The 3rd leading scorer in ABA history, Ron has never missed a pro game, having played in 744 consecutive contests in career.” In similar fashion, the reverse of Jim Chones’ card says: “The man in the middle for the Cavaliers the past three seasons, Jim is one of the top pivotmen in the NBA. Agile for a big man, he’s become a fan favorite for his determined style of play. Was team’s MVP for 1974-75 season.” Rarely does the description for any player go beyond such fundamental background details.
Any levity or off-court highlights are contained in the cartoons in the upper-left hand corner on the reverse of each card. Therein, Tom Boswell’s card notes that “Tom is a skillful pool player.” Scott Wedman’s card says that “Scott enjoys growing plants.” The cards of Ken Charles and Brian Taylor point out each player’s desire to go to law school.
The cartoon images are often creative. Marvin Webster’s card shows a picture of an eraser with legs dribbling a basketball, along with the note that: “In college, Marvin’s nickname was ‘The Human Eraser.’” Whether it is two basketballs popping out of a toaster on the reverse of George McGinnis’ card (“George is part-owner of an appliance store”) or Gail Goodrich sitting on a stump (“Gail’s nickname is ‘Stumpy’”), the cartoons offer a lighthearted look at a particular player and are representative of the cartoons on many Topps cards from the 1950s through the 1980s.
Since the set contains so few cards, most reserve players did not have cards in the 1977-78 Topps Basketball card set. In fact, the set includes the fewest cards to date of any Topps basketball card set of the 1970s, and it contains less than half the number of cards of the 330-card 1975-76 Topps Basketball card set.
One notable omission from the 1977-78 set is George Johnson of the New Jersey Nets, who would go on to lead the NBA in blocked shots during that season. Also, if Topps had chosen to include cards of players just entering the league, which it typically did not do at that time, it might also have included rookies cards of Quinn Buckner and Dennis Johnson.
The 1977-78 Topps Basketball card set can be thought of as the first in a three-year series (along with the 1978-79 set and the 1979-80 Topps set), where each set was 132 cards in size and had similar overall presentation and quality. Only when Topps issued its three-panel cards in 1980-1981 and an outside-of-the-box design in 1981-82 did Topps basketball cards enter a new era, where more players were again included and photography was sharper.
Perhaps it is also fair to group the 1977-78 Topps Basketball card set with the 1974 Topps Baseball card set or the 1972 Topps Football card set, in that each was a solid effort that fell short of being a classic set due to shortcomings in production quality. At the least, the 1977-78 Topps Basketball set contains so many star players and is, relatively speaking, quite affordable that the cards remain fun to acquire and collect. There is certainly value in that.
John McMurray writes a monthly column on vintage cards for SCD. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.