1986 Fleer Basketball Reaching New Heights, but It Didn’t Start Out That Way

By Leighton Sheldon

I was 9 years old in the autumn of 1986 when the Fleer Basketball set was released. Or at least I was 9 years old when I heard the set was out. It was one thing to know the set was out, but it took weeks to find a store that actually had them for sale.

The drug stores, toy stores and convenience stores where I bought the majority of my baseball cards did not carry ’86 Fleer Basketball packs. Some of these stores carried Topps Football, but when the 1986 Fleer Basketball set was released, the shelf space where 1986 Topps Baseball had been that summer was replaced with candy bars or an extra box of Garbage Pail Kids until the wood-bordered 1987 Topps Baseball came out in March.

It was not that stores had considered and rejected 1986 Fleer Basketball on its merits – it was that the concept of basketball cards was a foreign one. There simply was no true basketball card set between the release of the 1981-82 set produced by Topps and the release of the 1986 Fleer Basketball set. Star Basketball produced some limited-edition sets during those years, but those were not widely available. As far as retail sellers and customers were concerned, there had been no basketball cards produced in nearly five years.

JordanrookieThe release of 1986 Fleer Basketball
I was thrilled about the release of the 1986 Fleer Basketball set. I was a huge Michael Jordan and Larry Bird fan, and I had never seen them on a basketball card before. I suppose I may have seen Bird’s 1980-81 Topps rookie card before, but I was not about to count that – they only gave him one-third of a card. I don’t dispute that it was an honor to share a card with Dr. J and Magic Johnson, but I thought all three of them had done enough to deserve their own card.

I finally found a Wawa, a convenience store not too far from my house, that carried 1986 Fleer Basketball, and I bought as many packs as I could as often as I could convince my parents to drive there. I would pay the 45 cents per pack, open a few at the store while my mother shopped, open a few more in the car, and then finish off whatever packs remained when I got home. Any pack that did not contain a Jordan, Bird or another member of the Celtics was a disappointment. Pulling an Isiah Thomas or a Karl Malone or Charles Barkley was OK, but none of them were Jordan or Bird.

Unlike baseball cards, opening a pack of basketball cards was a much more self-contained experience. When I opened a pack of baseball cards, I would, of course, get excited about pulling a player that I liked, but I would also make a mental note of the cards that I would trade with my friends at lunch the next day and the commons that I would flip with them after school. But basketball was different because none of my friends collected basketball cards – every card was going to be with me for the long haul.

EwingNo respect for basketball cards
I remember going to the baseball card show at the local mall and seeing boxes of ’86 Fleer for $10. That is not the price at which they began the show. The signs read “$20” or “$15” with a strike-through and the new bottom-dollar price of $10 written hastily above or beside it. Even at $10, this was a significant investment for a 9-year-old, but I made it every time I could. I remember going home with a box, wondering if I could have made a deal to purchase two for $15 or maybe three for $20. I bet I could have – no one else was buying them.

‘My mother threw away my Mickey Mantle rookie!’
Sports card collectors like me who grew up in the 1980s heard their fathers’ refrains about the treasure trove of 1950s and 1960s cards that they lost, that their mother had thrown away, or that had been destroyed in their bicycle spokes. Collectors who grew up in the ’80s were smarter. We would not repeat the previous generations’ mistakes – we understood the importance of keeping our Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Don Mattingly and Darryl Strawberry cards safe and clean – those cards possessed real value, and we painstakingly put them into nine-pocket sheets and other plastic holders.

It is against this backdrop that the utter lack of appreciation of 1986 Fleer Basketball is so extraordinary. Certainly my generation of more educated collectors should have appreciated a set of cards that contained a Michael Jordan rookie. When the 1986 Fleer cards came out, Jordan was not yet iconic, but it was clear that he was something special. Jordan had already won Rookie of the Year and set the playoff single-game record by scoring 63 points against the Celtics, one of the greatest teams of all time. Perhaps no one could be blamed for failing to realize, at least at that time, seeing the parallels between a 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle and a Jordan rookie, but it was not a huge leap to believe that a Jordan rookie was or would soon be comparable to some of the other top 1950s and 1960s rookies that our fathers were still bemoaning throwing out.

Even for those without the prescience to see Jordan’s upcoming greatness, the ’86 Fleer Basketball set contained plenty of rookie cards of players, at least a few of whom were sure to become superstars. Rookie cards of Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Akeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, Chris Mullin, Dominique Wilkins, Isiah Thomas and Clyde Drexler peppered the set and only add to the magnificence and allure. It also contained numerous established stars, too, like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Kareem Abdul Jabbar.

BarkleyThe true greatness of 1986 Fleer Basketball
Somehow, the same collectors who months earlier were hoarding their 1986 baseball cards because they were so sure of the enduring value of a Kirby Puckett or Dwight Gooden second-year card had no inclination that there was or would be any value in 1986 basketball.

Yet, over the past 30 years, 1986 Fleer Basketball has become one of the most valuable and sought-after sets of the past three decades. This year, a PSA 10 Gem Mint Jordan sold for more than $40,000, a huge bump from even a year ago when the same Gem Mint Jordan sold for an average of $15,000. In 2013 and 2014, the card was worth approximately $10,000.

It is unfair to judge a set by a single outlier. Of course, a Michael Jordan rookie card is valuable and trending higher; that’s not a fair representation of the set’s power. Consider that in 2014 Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing PSA 10s were selling for approximately $700, now Barkley sells for approximately $2,000 and Ewing is going for about $1,500.

If you are still not convinced, in 2013, a PSA 10 Johnny Moore sold for approximately $4,500, but this year it sold for approximately $13,500! Johnny who? It is not unusual for a set’s hard-to-find high-grade commons to go for a premium, but it usually takes a lot more than 30 years to get there!

Collectors in the middle of the 1980s believed they knew better than their predecessors. They may have known more, but they misrouted that insight into stockpiling wildly overproduced Topps Baseball cards. And they missed the beauty and value of the 1986 Fleer Basketball set altogether.

Leighton Sheldon is the president of Just Collect Inc.; www.JustCollect.com.

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