Last Updated On: September 16th, 2023
Collecting basketball cards can sometimes feel like walking into a candy store as a kid. Each card is color-coated deliciousness on a 6.4 x 8.9 cm piece of cardstock. The excitement builds and builds as you take a pack off the shelf (or, more likely bid on eBay or Goldin Auctions), tear it open, and sink your teeth (metaphorically, of course!) into an ultra rare rookie card.
But there’s a secondary feeling that often accompanies basketball card collecting: a sense of anxiety. Because as exciting as it is to hit the candy shop, the myriad options can feel overwhelming. Prizms or Rated Rookie? What’s an RPA? Pop count?
And can I really treat this as an investment, despite the eye-roll I get from my significant other when I dare make such an argument?
We get it. And more importantly, we’ve got your back. It’s a wide, wide world of basketball card collecting, but to make things a little simpler, we’ve put together this basketball card collecting bible. In this complete guide, you’ll learn:
- How collecting basketball cards can be fun and profitable
- How to define goals and a budget to buy basketball cards
- How to buy, sell, trade, and flip cards to build a strong collection
- Strategies to avoid risks and buy cards with future upside
- How scarcity and rarity play a huge role in pricing and valuation
- What is trending: popular cards, sets, and players to buy
- How to grade your cards by reputable grading companies
- Resources to track and value your collection
- How to network with collectors online and at card shows
So take a deep breath while we inject some fun back into your hobby.
Table of Contents
Introduction to Collecting Basketball Cards
While it might make the most sense to begin this section with a history of collecting basketball cards, we’re going to actually go in reverse-chronological order. Bear with us a moment as we begin, not in 1921, but 2021.
Overview of the Hobby
That’s because a new record was set in sports card collecting on July 6, 2021. On that day, Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry’s National Treasures RPA Logoman 1 of 1 rookie card sold for $5.8 million in a private sale. Why are we starting here? Because rather than tell you abstractions about the hobby – “it’s doing really well!, basketball cards are just as valuable as traditional baseball cards!,” etc. – the Curry sale perfectly encapsulates the entire purpose of this article.
It was recent, a sign of basketball card collecting’s sudden dominance in the market. The sale featured a rare card, which is an extremely important factor to consider when identifying the right card to invest in. And it had been graded (it was a PSA 8), which is another important element that goes into properly gauging a card’s value. And then there’s the bottom line: a $5.8 million payday is tantalizing to anyone who views collecting basketball cards as more than just a fun pastime.
As the Curry card might suggest, the basketball card market is booming. The hobby had been on the rise since 2015-16, but the covid-19 shutdown created a renewed interest in basketball card collecting. This rise also coincided with the release of the nostalgia-fueled “Last Dance” documentary that chronicled the 1997 Chicago Bulls and further injected interest in the hobby. It seemed that without live basketball to watch (and the season was shut down right before March Madness and a few months before the NBA Playoffs), folks would have to settle with 2D versions of their heroes.
But how did we get to the point of basketball cards rivaling baseball cards for collecting supremacy?
Brief History of Basketball Cards
In a bit of a twist, the first “basketball sports cards” didn’t feature pros at all.
That’s because in 1910, when the first set of basketball cards came out, the NBA was still some 30-plus years away. Instead, the “College Athlete Felts B-33” are generally considered the first “basketball cards” on the market. Released in 1910, the cards aren’t really “cards” in the traditional sense: they are flannel-based, with 300 cards showcasing ten different sports at various college programs. That same year, the cigarette company Murad produced its inaugural T51 College Series: a set of seven cards from four schools featuring nondescript basketball players mid-move.
The first NBA cards were released by Bowman in 1948, just in time for future Hall of Famer George Mikan’s rookie season. Over the next 60 years, various companies jockeyed for prominence in an industry that still played a distant second fiddle to baseball cards. One of the more noteworthy sets came in time for the 1986 season. The Fleer set featured rookie cards from both Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley. The design was even later replicated on a series of throwback cards during the 2007 season (most notably featuring a rookie Kevin Durant).
In 2009, Panini won the exclusive licensing right to NBA cards. In short order, Panini became the king of basketball card collecting, producing various lines like Prizm, Donruss, National Treasures, Flawless, Mosaic, and many more. Panini couldn’t have jumped in at a better time. Just a decade after claiming the exclusive rights, the hobby experienced an interest inversion. As one collector explained in 2020:
“Basketball cards were never number one in the hobby. It was always baseball, then football, then basketball, then hockey. Now, all of a sudden, basketball is the number one sports card with the highest sales.”
The proof was in the sales. Including Curry, 11 of the 15 most expensive sports card sales of all time were a) basketball cards and b) occurred in 2021 and 2022.
Since the end of the pandemic, card prices have cooled a bit. So should you jump out of the hobby? Not so fast.
Reasons for Collecting Basketball Cards
There are several reasons to collect basketball cards.
- The Great Equalizer: Anyone, regardless of athletic prowess, can get involved in professional athletics. This reason may not be the most salient, but for the 5’8 writer with two left hands, holding a Michael Jordan rookie card is about as close to the hardwood as I’ll ever get.
- Money Matters: Another reason to get involved: the investment factor. The basketball card hobby may not feature the wildly increasing prices of the pandemic, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t worthwhile investments. That the cards are stabilizing is a sign that “trading cards are further establishing themselves as a viable asset class. We want to see this space behaving in ways you would expect any other alternative investment to act,” an auction-house executive told The Athletic in 2022. Perhaps it shouldn’t be one’s only plan for retirement, but like all things investment, diversifying is a must.
- Happiness: But the most important reason to get involved in collecting basketball cards is the fun factor. Simple joy. This hobby will break your heart if you’re only in it for the money. But there is an undeniable dimension of fun involved: the thrill of hunting for one specific card to round out a set, the excitement of securing one’s favorite player, and the pleasure of passing down a hobby from generation to generation. There is a special level of connectedness one feels to history when holding an ‘86 Barkley rookie card (or any card, for that matter) – an appreciation for the player and those who have held that card before you.
Some factors – grading, rarity, aesthetic – go into a specific card’s value. But there is an esoteric element that is difficult to quantify. A key component of this element is the level of excitement and hype behind a given card. It’s all about the fun, baby.
Keep in mind: basketball cards are collectibles. They are not stocks (i.e. designed to make one money through fractional ownership of a corporation) and they are not real estate (i.e. designed to gain in value over time).
Let’s say you’re at square one when it comes to collecting basketball cards. Worried about the endless information out there? Not sure where to begin?
Like most things, the first step in a new journey isn’t jumping right in. You have to plan, first! Think about it: you don’t just hop in your car for a cross-country road trip, do you? No, you pack a bag, find potential stops along the way, and budget out the money you’ll need for food, gas, lodging, etc.
Card collecting is no different. Before you hit eBay, you have to make a plan.
Setting Goals for Your Collection
The first step in this planning phase involves setting goals. As we’ll see, it helps to understand your motivation, budget, themes, and diversifying long-term goals from short-term ones. Here’s how that plays out when collecting basketball cards:
Understanding Your Motivation
A moment ago, we discussed the various reasons why one might get involved in the basketball card hobby. If any of those rang true for you, then those might be your individual motivation. This motivation should help dictate the specific types of cards you hunt for and prioritize.
This isn’t all that different from any other sort of investment. In fact, the folks at Investopedia claim the “first step” in filling out one’s portfolio is determining its purpose. The same goes for collecting basketball cards.
Maybe you’re interested in turning your basketball card interest into a profitable side hustle. If that’s your motivation, you might target Hall of Fame (or burgeoning Hall of Fame) RPA cards, as those tend to be the most valuable over time.
Or maybe you’re a (long suffering) Philadelphia 76ers fan, like me! Your motivation might be developing the most impressive personal collection of Sixers cards out there. Again, this will help you sort the noise from the treasure – why worry about a Jordan rookie card when, in the case of your specific motivation, a 1975 Topps #254 Moses Malone might be more important? A personal collection isn’t limited to a particular team, either. Your personal collection could focus on a player, an era, or a particular set, just to name a few. The point is, a personal collection is for you.
At first blush, it might not make much sense to build your strategy entirely based on filling out a personal collection. After all, what’s the point of spending money on something (especially something valuable) if you can’t flip it for more money? This goes back to another factor we discussed above: fun. At the end of the day, this is a hobby, meant to be enjoyed by anyone and everyone. Plus, a personal collection is timeless and, to some extent, the purest version of the hobby.
In sum, the purpose of a motivation is to help one narrow down their focus. Remember the overwhelming feeling we started this article with? By honing in on a specific motivation, you’ve already narrowed down the scope of cards you’re interested in.
And there are practical reasons for this, as well. During the pandemic surge, it wasn’t uncommon for folks to overextend themselves by shelling out hundreds or thousands of dollars on any over-hyped card they could find. To avoid this endless cycle of chasing, set a motivation early. That way, you will be less likely to find yourself sidetracked by flashy cards with excessive present hype, but little long-term value.
Creating a Collection Budget
This might be the most important part of the planning phase of collecting basketball cards. Unfortunately, it’s not the most exciting.
We get it, budgeting is boring. Spreadsheets? Bleh. But creating a budget before you start will save you significant headaches down the line. A key part of creating a budget is making sure that it’s realistic. For instance, if you make $3,000 a month and have roughly $2,400 in monthly expenses, do not set aside $1,500 for collecting basketball cards.
Just like one’s motivation, a budget is entirely personal. But there are several strategies one can employ when determining how much money to allocate into a potential basketball card budget.
NerdWallet recommends setting aside 50% of one’s income for “needs” – groceries, housing, utilities, etc. The site also suggests 20% go to paying off debt or building out a savings fund. The last 30% thus goes to things called “wants” – eating out, movies, even collecting basketball cards.
Ultimately, it helps to know what your entire budget is for every expense you have, that way you can get an accurate idea of how much spare money you have left to dedicate to the hobby. Do not burn your entire grocery budget on a Shai Gilgeous-Alexander 2018 Silver Prizm card, no matter how tempting.
A budget will also help you further winnow down your search criteria, making the hobby even easier to manage.
Establishing Collection Themes
Another part of the planning phase of collecting basketball cards involves establishing your collection’s theme. This is fairly closely tied to determining your motivation behind diving into the hobby altogether, but can range from the abstract to super-concentrated.
Maybe you were born in 1999. The theme of your collection might include obtaining every Jordan basketball card from the Upper Deck ‘90s sets, or even getting your hands on as many high-end MJ Gold inserts as humanly possible. Like we said above, your theme could be a particular player, rookies, team, even slightly more esoteric cards, and so on.
But your theme could also be based less on a personal interest and more about market forces. Perhaps the theme of your collection involves buying into players with potential upside, a practice known as prospecting.
It’s also fine to go with a bit of a hybrid strategy: you may wish to set aside part of your budget for personal-interest cards and part of it for cards you intend to flip down the line. Lakers fans, that means biting the bullet on a Larry Bird card with the hopes of reselling it, even if it wouldn’t ever get close to your collection theme of 1980s Showtime legends.
For more ideas, PSA has put together a great primer on potential collection themes, with a focus on baseball. The same logic can be easily applied to basketball cards, however.
Setting Short-term and Long-term Goals
Finally, it’s important to be adaptive when it comes to collecting basketball cards. When you start out in the hobby, try and imagine where you want to be in five, 10, 15 years. What does your best-case scenario look like? And how will you get there?
This sort of planning happens all the time in other fields. For instance, employers often ask this question to prospective job-seekers to gauge their aspirations and fit at a particular company.
In a similar vein, you may want to ask the same of yourself; the answer will help dictate where you take your collection. And if something changes along the way, that’s perfectly okay. Maybe you get a promotion at work and can add more money to your basketball card budget. Wonderful! But if a setback means you have to cut from the budget, that’s perfectly okay, too. It also helps to stay in touch with the market and current events.
The value behind a given player’s card is in no small part dictated by their performance on the court. Think Curry’s card would sell for $5.8 million if he wasn’t a four-time champion and two-time MVP? Probably not.
Likewise, if you begin a collection by focusing on a promising young player, it’s important to follow that player’s career-trajectory closely and adapt based on how they perform.
Along these lines, you’ll want to keep an eye out for “holy grail” cards, sometimes just referred as “grail” cards. This doesn’t refer to any specific brand; rather, a grail card is an extremely rare, expensive, or highly sought-after card that tends to be the crown jewel of an individual’s collection.
Defining your long-term and short-term goals will help you determine what you wish to get out of the hobby. And by extension, this helps determine what success looks like to you.
Helpful Tools and Resources for Collectors
With the planning almost done, it’s worth mentioning a few other aspects of the hobby you may want to start planning for. This includes the best way to store basketball cards, best ways to ship basketball cards, places to get basketball cards graded, as well as a dictionary of terms used in the hobby.
Don’t worry, we’ll get into the nitty gritty of each as we move along!
Two last pieces before we move on: CardLadder and MySlabs. These are must-knows for the hobby. CardLadder is an excellent resource for those starting out and those who have been in the hobby long enough to know how hectic it can be without some uniformity. CardLadder helps solve that problem.
In essence, CardLadder treats the hobby like a stock exchange, applying values to various cards based on how they’re doing in the market at any given time. With up-to-date records on sales and a database with pertinent information for many cards, it’s a huge boost to any collector’s tool belt.
MySlabs, on the other hand, is an excellent resource for those looking to buy and sell cards. In essence, it’s a listing marketplace primarily for graded sports cards. It keeps things nice and organized, cutting through the chaos of some online auction houses (with far more reasonable fees).
Building Your Collection
Woohoo! You’ve done the hard, not-so-fun part by setting out a specific plan of attack for fleshing out your collection. With a motivation, budget, theme, and goal in mind, you’re ready to get out there and find some cards!
But…how exactly? And where do you even begin? How do you translate all that planning and prep-work into cards?
Identifying Hot Players, Sets, and Market Trends
We’re going to get into the hallmarks of a “hot card” in a moment, but first, it’s important that anyone serious about the hobby learns how to perform independent market research. The market can be nebulous and more slippery than an eel.
Fortunately, there are several ways to keep tabs on the market. First is by taking advantage of CardLadder’s “Index” feature. CardLadder keeps tabs on the cards with the greatest change in value (based on recent sales) and compiles them into a “Basketball Index.” The index will also let you know how the general basketball collecting hobby is doing relative to other sports or trading card categories.
By doing a little market research beforehand, one can strike the right balance between budget and acquisition.
Choosing Hall of Fame and Vintage Players
The best-bet cards in terms of value are players whose resumes are already cemented because their careers are over, such that any additional accomplishments only boost a card’s value. Think Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Shaquille O’Neal, Larry Bird, etc.
Take, for example, Michael Jordan’s most popular ’90s Fleer inserts; they can range from $10,000 up to almost $100,000. While that’s certainly impressive, the most valuable Jordan cards go for the price of a condo, while others like Credentials still go for the price of your next car.
Hall of Famers tend to see their cards retain value simply because there’s nothing else that a player can do to either embellish or diminish their professional legacy. In short: these players are legends of the game.
On the downside, these cards will be extremely expensive. But on a positive note, they retain their value very well. And though their careers might be over, they can still be subject to temporary boosts in value.
For instance, when Michael Jordan’s “Last Dance” documentary came out in 2020, valuations of his cards doubled, with sales quadrupling. It’s a perfect example of the importance of paying attention to the market and current events when getting involved in the hobby. Though a player might be retired for over a decade, there are still ways for their card to see a surge in value.
Another factor to consider with these cards is the general scarcity. Remember that we’re discussing a massive stretch of NBA history, especially eras where basketball cards weren’t considered particularly valuable or meaningful. As a result, many of these cards have been discarded or lost over time. Thus it’s a rare occasion when one hits the market, and even lower-graded cards, like a 1948 George Mikan Bowman rookie card, can fetch a decent price.
The next tier of players worth considering when collecting basketball cards are those whose legacies are either mostly cemented or there’s a strong expectation that they will deliver on their sky-high expectations, despite the fact that they’re still in the league. These current stars include the likes of LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Nikola Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic, and Kevin Durant.
With these cards, there’s a strong expectation (and in the case of Curry and James, a guarantee) that these players will make the Hall of Fame one day and enter the tier above. In addition, they are united by a worldwide fanbase and high demand. In some cases, these cards can be even more expensive than the Hall of Famers – out of the top-10 most expensive sales of all time, eight have involved players in this category.
These cards have a middling level of availability. Obviously, the numbered cards are the rarest, but many of these players came into the league either right before or around the time Panini’s hold on the basketball card industry was complete. As a result, there’s a bit of a legacy connection between the high-end Prizms (more on the Prizm brand in a bit) in this tier and those of the next, adding to their marketability.
Rising Stars and Rookies
Finally, we get to the highest risk category: young players. It’s a tricky wicket here – young players tend to be some of the more inexpensive cards precisely because there’s no guarantee that they’ll become a league icon. Getting in on the ground floor could see an investment increase exponentially if the player has a great career. Or, it could see the entire investment flop if a player fails to have the type of career many expect.
Cards in this tier are either rookies (players with no prior NBA experience) and young stars, usually those who might have an All-Star nod under their belt early in their careers. These include the likes of Anthony Edwards, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Cade Cunningham, Victor Wembanyama, and Scoot Henderson.
But when it comes to collecting basketball cards in this category, buyers beware.
Take this as a case study: Ja Morant and Zion Williamson. These were the first two picks in the 2019 NBA draft and entered with a ton of buzz. And early on, they seemed to make good on that hype – both were two-time All-Stars by the end of their fourth seasons. And the prices for their cards reflected this excitement: in 2021, Ja Morant’s Silver Prizm rookie in PSA 10 was valued at over $4,000. But a series of off-court controversies has derailed the bright start to his career and is reflected in the card’s present value: roughly $500.
The same is true for Williamson, a gifted big man whose PSA 10 Silver Prizm card topped out at $6,000 in 2020. But after constant injury woes have limited his on-court availability, that same card is now valued by CardLadder at a few hundred dollars.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t also mention that this process can work in the reverse. Sometimes, an under-hyped rookie bursts onto the scene in their first or second season, which catapults their card’s value. To illustrate this point, let’s look at a guy who actually belongs in the tier above, two-time MVP and 2023 Finals champion Nikola Jokic. The 41st pick in the 2014 draft, Jokic’s Silver Prizm in PSA 10 was valued at a few hundred dollars in 2017, reflecting his status as a talented, but lower-hyped big man prospect. But by 2021, that same card was valued at nearly $6,000. Even today, with the market having cooled since the pandemic, his Silver Prizm PSA 10 card is worth over $3,000.
Jokic, Morant, and Williamson all serve as a reminder that a player’s performance matters. Initial buzz might superficially drive up the price, but if others come and replace them on the court, their card’s value could fade.
By picking card’s in this tier, a buyer is taking a gamble. But if you’re in a place to take on such risk (something you should evaluate during the planning phase), it could certainly pay off.
Popular Vintage and Pre-Panini Cards and Sets
Prior to 2009, those collecting basketball cards had their pick of brand. Topps, Upper Deck, Fleer, and Hoops (among others) all proliferated the market, producing some iconic sets and cards.
Generally, the best sets are those that contain multiple Hall of Famers. Here’s a list of some of those legendary pre-2000s sets:
- 1948 Bowman – Though not included on several “iconic set” lists, the 1948 Bowman gets a shoutout as the first NBA basketball card set. These are ultra-rare cards in any version. The best of the best is Hall of Famer George Mikan’s #69 card.
- 1961 Fleer – 66 total cards in this set: 44 base cards and 22 “In Action” inserts. This set includes rookies of Hall of Famers Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, and Elgin Baylor. Though plain-looking to the modern eye, these cards have a timeless quality, much like the legends that grace its frames.
- 1980 Topps – Cards featuring one legendary player are already cool. What about three? In 1980 Topps set out to do just that, producing one of the most famous cards out there: the Larry Bird, Julius Erving, and Magic Johnson triplicate. A few things worth mentioning here: this is Bird and Johnson’s rookie card. It also came with a perforated edge that meant each could be separated into individual “cards.” Which is precisely what many excited kids did in the ‘80s (what Lakers fan wanted to see Bird’s mug, anyway?). As a result, the pop count on these cards is limited in high-quality condition, making them extremely valuable.
- 1986 Fleer – This set is so iconic that it’s been replicated as a parallel to modern cards. And for good reason: this set includes the generally accepted rookie cards for a host of NBA legends, including Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon, and John Stockton. These players helped catapult basketball to a new stratosphere of popularity in the ‘80s and ‘90s, giving these cards additional value. There’s an argument to be made that these cards actually helped launch modern interest in collecting basketball cards as a hobby.
- 1984 Star – For those who value history, the 1984 Star is an important set. That’s because, in 1984, Star held the exclusive licensing right to produce NBA cards. As a result, the 1984 Star set features rookies Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, and Hakeem Olajuwon for the first time, a full two years before Fleer (which is generally considered Jordan’s rookie card). History aficionados who appreciate the true “first” time a player appeared on a card will appreciate collecting basketball cards from Star’s 1984 set.
The 1990s helped popularize the chrome and refractor cards that collectors continue to admire today. In 1993, Topps Finest launched base and refractor cards, which inadvertently launched the “premium card” era of collecting basketball cards. This set was more expensive than traditional sets, adding to their allure and intrigue in the hobby.
Ditto for the 1996 Topps Chrome set, which includes Kobe Bryant’s generally accepted rookie card. Despite the 1996 set being Topps’ Chrome’s NBA debut, it became the highest grossing card series of the entire 1990s. The ‘90s also saw a host of fascinating inserts, including Star Rubies, Credentials, and Precious Metal Gems (PMGs) from SkyBox, and RPA cards (more below on that front!).
Finally, we get to the “LeBron Era,” hallmarked by the 2003 Topps Chrome set, which includes fellow rookies Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, and Chris Bosh. In addition, this set includes serially numbered Black Refractors and X-Fractors.
2003 also saw the debut of the Upper Deck Exquisite set, which sold for a whopping $500 at the time. These cards, which featured an autograph and, occasionally, a patch, were kept to extremely limited print runs, paving the way for Panini’s National Treasures and Flawless brands, which we’ll discuss in detail below.
Finally, we get to the 2008 Topps and its Topps Chrome counterpart. It’s one of the last sets produced by Topps before Panini took over the hobby (2009-10 was the last year Topps produced a basketball card set which so happens to include Stephen Curry’s rookie card).
There’s just something cool about these cards. Maybe it’s because it’s one of the last sets produced before Panini took over the hobby. Maybe it’s because of cards like Kobe Bryant’s, which sees the Black Mamba guarded by LeBron James. Whatever the reason, this set has achieved icon status, despite its only recent production.
Popular Panini and Modern Day Cards and Sets
By this point, you’ve no doubt noticed a trend when we’ve used rookie cards as examples: many of them have been Panini Prizms. That’s because Prizm is arguably the most identifiable and popular brand of modern basketball cards. Why did these cards in particular become so beloved?
According to Beckett, Panini’s granting of exclusive rights to produce NBA cards left a hole in the production of shiny chromium cards. These types had been around for some time – Topps Chrome, Bowman Chrome, and Topps Finest, for example – but those disappeared after 2009. And in 2012, Panini launched the heir apparent to those lines: the Panini Prizm. And in over 10 years since its debut, the Prizm brand has paved the way when collecting basketball sports cards.
In addition to a base card, Prizms come in several parallels. The most notable of these parallels are the Silver Prizms, typically considered one of the most popular cards of the most popular brand. In the sets up to 2015, Panini didn’t make specific silver parallels. Instead, the set included a “Prizm” parallel that is generally considered the same as a silver. This distinction was removed in 2015, when the “Prizm” became the base and Panini produced specific “Silver Prizm” parallels.
The number of parallels has only grown since. That 2012 debut set included three: a Prizm, Green Prizm, and Gold Prizm (numbered to /10). Ten years later, the 2022 set includes over 50 parallels, including a 1/1 Black Prizm and 1/1 Nebula Choice Prizm.
The 2012 Prizm debut set is an epic one, including rookies Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard, Kawhi Leonard, and Klay Thompson, and even NBA legends Larry Bird, Bill Russell, and Magic Johnson.
In addition to the Prizm line, Panini has produced a series of RPA cards under its National Treasures and Flawless brand. RPA stands for “rookie, patch, autograph,” and tends to be some of the most valuable basketball cards on the market. These are cards that are a) a player’s rookie card, b) contains an autograph, and c) includes a jersey patch.
Keep in mind one thing about these RPAs: National Treasures are generally considered the apex of RPA cards, but the jerseys featured on the cards are not guaranteed to have been worn by the player. Flawless, on the other hand, includes language on the card’s back that the player depicted on the card wore the jersey belonging to that patch.
But how does one collecting basketball cards differentiate between the different RPA cards? Are they all made equal? Not quite. Generally, the more colors featured on the patch, the more valuable. The most valuable (and rarest) is what’s called a “Logoman” RPA, which features a patch of the jersey’s NBA logo (the “logoman”). The reason this RPA is the most valuable is because it’s essentially a 1/1: there is only one logoman per jersey, so by necessity there aren’t any other cards quite like it on the market.
Then there are the inserts. An insert is a card randomly inserted into packs that differ from the base versions one generally expects to see.
Panini has several different lines of inserts, but arguably one of the most famous (and valuable) is the Kaboom insert, which debuted in 2013. We’ve done a full deep dive on Kaboom Inserts here at OnlyGreats, so we won’t repeat ourselves, but these cards are flashy, fun, and are on super short print runs, making them very rare and, by extension, very valuable. Now how do you start adding these cards to your collection? First, budget matters. Many of these cards are just too expensive for the everyday hobbyist. But there are still ways to properly time a purchase to get the best bang for your buck.
Keep in mind what cards move the fastest: these are the low-pop count, high-upside cards. Naturally, when a new set is released, there will be a lag behind the rookies in that set getting discovered and getting graded. So if you can even get a good-looking raw rookie early on while the graded pop-count is low, there’s a chance one might get it graded quickly and flipped before that count swells.
And never forget the basics here: rookies are great; Panini Prizm is usually the most stable line, with Silver Prizms considered an affordable(ish) option. Numbered cards are even better – a guaranteed print run ensures scarcity against the non-numbered parallels in the set.
Buying and Trading to Build Your Collection
Alright, now that your mouth is watering after exploring those key sets and cards, it’s time to explore how you’ll get your hands on some of them. When collecting basketball cards, it helps to know where to go!
Where to Buy Basketball Cards
Once upon a time, the only way to buy basketball cards was in a store specializing in sports cards or a spot like Target or Walmart (though Target did stop selling sports cards during the pandemic after a few violent exchanges between customers).
But now, we have eBay. eBay is a buyer’s best friend and, at times, its worst enemy. Yes, eBay has just about any card you could possibly want. But remember the tons of parallels we just discussed? It can get confusing keeping your search terms correct when hunting for a specific card. For instance, if you type in “LaMelo Ball rookie card” in eBay’s search bar, you’re bound to get hundreds of results (just kidding — trying the search now yielded 61,000 results!).
To get a specific type of LaMelo Ball rookie card, though, it helps to whittle down your search to specifics. For instance, if you’re interested in his Silver Prizm card in PSA condition, put each of those in the search bar.
To get even more precise, you can actually subtract certain results from your search with different syntax. Say, for instance, you don’t want to see results for Ball’s red prizm. You can search “LaMelo Ball PSA 10 Prizm card -red” and eBay will filter out results that feature the word “red,” quite literally subtracting them from the search. You can include as many filters as you’d like with this approach.
But what if you want an entire box? What you’re looking for is something called “wax.” Wax refers to the plastic waxy wrap that encases boxes of basketball cards. In 2022-23, Panini Prizm was produced in four different wax boxes: a Hobby Box, 1st Off the Line Box, Choice Box, and Fast Break Box. These boxes tend to be quite expensive, going for hundreds of dollars unopened.
There are definitely pitfalls to purchasing wax. In theory, spending $450 on a wax box might be less than paying for, say, a PSA 10 star rookie Prizm card. But the odds you’ll actually get one of those cards in the box is minimal. For instance, each Panini Hobby Box came with 22 Prizm Parallels. Sounds pretty good, right? But keep in mind there are over 50 parallels in this set, with only a few of those being numbered and even precious fewer belonging to a rookie.
Those collecting basketball cards might also come across things like “box breaks” on social media. This refers to a process where collectors share the cost of opening a sealed box or case of sports cards, and the contents are distributed among the group based on the order or slot a given collector received when buying into the break. While it can be tempting to enter box breaks given the fractional cost versus buying an entire hobby box yourself, it’s still a costly way to acquire cards based on pure luck and randomness.
Nevertheless, if you’re entering a box break make sure you do your research. That includes investigating the individual’s reputation who is performing the box break. Never buy into box breaks that aren’t shown live and that you yourself can’t see in real time.
When buying basketball cards, one can also consult places like CardLadder, which comes with links to purchase a specific type of card on eBay. This will help cut down on accidentally buying the wrong card.
And finally, be wise to the fact that fake cards are out there. If someone is selling a card for a price that feels too good to be true and you can’t find any information about them (like positive reviews on eBay), then it probably is too good to be true. Collectors can also use PSA’s certification verification tool to view high-resolution images when buying graded cards, or take advantage of eBay’s authenticity guarantee for extra security.
How to Trade for Basketball Cards
It’s a little antiquated now, but these are still “trading cards” for a reason. Another way to go about building a collection of basketball cards is by trading for the ones you want with cards you have.
There are several steps to pulling off a trade. First, you have to do your homework. Develop a realistic value for your card (emphasis on realistic). Just because a certain card has sentimental value to you does not mean that value will carry over to someone you’re seeking to trade with. Collectors value their cards based on the factors we’ve discussed already: rarity, condition, rookie vs non-rookie, autograph, patch, etc.
Second, find reputable traders and collectors. The famous Gordon Korman children’s book “Swindle” features a trader who convinces a group of kids to way undersell a Mickey Mantle baseball card. Don’t be like those kids – make sure the person you’re working with has a positive reputation.
Third, negotiate a fair trade. “Fair” might mean several different things at any one time. Sometimes, you might get the chance to trade up, exchanging your card for a more materially valuable one, depending on the aims of the person you’re trading with. Other times, you might need to trade down, especially if you’re trading for a card with more sentimental value to yourself.
Say, for instance, you’re one card away from completing your 2009 Topps Chrome set. That card might have more value for the fact that it would complete your set, a value that goes beyond simply dollars and cents. As a result, you may have to trade a more monetarily valuable card for the last card to complete your collection, which is a sacrifice you as the trader must determine worthy or not.
Finally, unless you’re trading in person, you’ll have to properly pack and ship the card. But don’t worry, we’ll get to that process in more detail momentarily.
Keep in mind that your reputation matters just as much as the person you’re trading with. No doubt they will perform the same process here, so take care to ensure each person you trade with has a reliable experience. That includes communicating effectively and in a timely manner, being direct, and courteous.
Understanding Card Flipping
If you’re trying to use collecting basketball cards as a way to make some cash, you might be interested in a process known as “card flipping.” Flipping is when a buyer purchases a card when the value is low, speculating that it will increase in value, and then sells said card for more than they purchased it. It’s a way to expand your budget through the hobby, but is far from a guarantee to work.
Here are some tips to successfully flip cards:
Successful Strategies for Card Flipping
If you’re getting into card flipping, raw cards have the potential to be your best friend. That’s because raw, or ungraded, cards tend to be worth less than their graded equivalents. So buying a high quality raw card for less money could see a nice return on your investment if it comes back with a high grade.
This process can be a bit tricky, especially online, when photographs can be misleading or blurry. The best you can do is investigate to the best of your ability — including zooming in on card photos, contacting the seller with additional questions, and reading the seller’s feedback history — and make a decision off of that.
It also helps to properly time your purchases. Typical lulls occur when the NBA season ends, making the summer an excellent time to buy cards low and then resell in the heat of the NBA season and playoffs. The same goes for when a player is injured and misses time – their card price will likely dip a bit, with the opportunity to sell high when they come back.
And don’t forget about eBay’s auctions. These tend to yield lower prices for cards than cards listed under “Buy It Now.” You’re playing against a bigger field, but there’s a chance that a card might go for less at auction, letting a buyer get a deal for a card they can flip for more down the line.
How to Manage Risk when Buying Cards
Flipping cards isn’t without its risks. Just like with attempting to buy low and sell high on stocks, it’s part art and part science. But we’ve developed five ways to reduce and manage risk when buying and collecting basketball cards.
Card Preservation and Maintenance
Thus far, we’ve only covered how to go about acquiring cards. But purchasing (or trading for) a card is only half the battle. Because once it’s in your collection, it’s on you to maintain, which can be tricky, especially in the case of raw cards.
Best Practices for Storing and Protecting Cards
The best way to keep your product safe when collecting basketball cards is to put them in some plastic, namely a case such as a top loader. But not all cases are created equally. Thankfully, we’ve got you covered with our guide to Best Practices for Storing and Protecting Cards. You’ll find a checklist of different cases, along with prices and discussions on effectiveness.
Handling, Cleaning, and Displaying Cards
And how about showing off your cards and keeping them like new? And why would you want to clean a card anyway?
While a graded card will be enclosed in plastic that will keep it in its graded form for eternity, raw cards should be cleaned before getting sent in for grading. And even if one doesn’t plan on sending a card in to be graded, keeping a card clean from dirt and dust will ensure that it’s quality doesn’t diminish. The folks at Kurt’s Card Care have you covered with an array of card-cleaning supplies and in-depth how-to videos.
Typically, a microfiber brush or towel is about as abrasive as a collector will want to go to wipe dirt and dust off of a card. Alternatives can include a tissue or gentle paper towel. Be sure to go easy on the card – you don’t want to wipe too hard and risk damaging it.
Additionally, using latex gloves will help keep the skin’s natural oils from getting on the card. They’ll also keep from smudged fingerprints appearing on cards, as well.
Practically, keeping raw cards in the best visual condition will keep your collection looking professional. And if you’re trying to sell a raw card, the better the visuals, the better the price you’ll get from a sale.
And what about other presentation factors, like display cases? There are many different varieties to choose from depending on your aim. If you’re selling cards, you’ll want to go for a show display case. But if you’re simply hoping to show off a card at your home or privately, you may want a glitzy mounted case with backlighting.
We’ve put together an analysis of five different card display cases along with best fits for your collection’s goals. Like everything we’ve discussed, giving some thought to the purpose of your collection will help you identify which display case is ideal.
Understanding Card Values
So far, we’ve been talking quite a bit about valuable cards in the abstract. But what exactly makes a card “valuable”? And is it possible to add more value to a card after buying it? The answer, like most things, is complicated.
How Condition and Grade Impact Value
One of the biggest indicators of a card’s potential value is its condition and grading. Importantly, every single card ever produced is in a certain condition. But only a small portion of cards have been graded. That’s because the condition a card is in is simply how it looks out of the packaging or, if it’s been awhile, after years in a card sleeve or shoebox. But a graded card is one that’s condition has been professionally assessed and prescribed a number, traditionally on a scale from 1 to 10.
Generally speaking, the two premier grading companies are PSA and Beckett (BGS). Beckett grades on a .5 scale (meaning it’s possible to have cards graded at 8.5, 9.5, 9, etc.). When assessing condition, the overall eye-appeal for a given card is assessed by measuring the card’s centering in relation to its borders, analyzing the surface for any scratches or dings, ensuring all corners are clean without any fraying, and that the edges are flawless with no dents or nicks.
Pro tip: signed cards are often assigned a grade specifically for the autograph. While a 10 auto is nice, it does not mean that the card itself has earned that grade. Generally, the label will state “Auto (grade)” if the grading is only meant for the autograph.
It goes without saying, but the closer a card is to a 10 grade (Gem Mint), the more valuable it is. And generally speaking, graded cards sell for more than ungraded or “raw” cards.
Take, for example, Kevin Durant’s 2007 Topps Base rookie card (Black Border version). Ungraded, it’s valued by CardLadder under $15. But when we start getting grades involved, that price skyrockets – a PSA 10 (otherwise known as “Gem Mint”) is valued at over $1,100.
This all goes back to another key element in assessing a card’s value: scarcity.
Scarcity or Lack Thereof
As any high school economics student will tell you, the scarcer something is, the more valuable it becomes. And card collecting, like avocados and Jordans, are beholden to supply and demand.
The reason a PSA 10 card is more valuable is because cards in such a condition tend to be much rarer than normal.
This comes with a caveat: when everyone knows/believes a certain card will one day be worth big bucks, it tends to have a ripple effect on scarcity. Collectors take better care of cards right out of the packaging; rather than rip a pack open, they might tear gently so as to preserve a card’s quality. In addition, collectors might be more likely to send a card off to grading, which, when taken in the aggregate, can cause massive population counts for certain cards.
The last time this happened was actually in the late 1980s and early 1990s in a period known as the “Junk Wax Era.” Essentially, baseball card companies knew they had a hot commodity after the 1980s card surge and began printing endless runs of cards. At the same time, hobbyists, believing the cards would be worth millions one day, kept the cards jailed in their boxes (sealed in a waxy plastic, hence the name “Junk Wax”). Those two forces combined to crush the scarcity of cards from that era, making them, junk.
Thankfully, it’s easy to see population counts for graded cards. On CardLadder, there’s a feature located by every graded card that tells you the total number of cards with a given grade (click the “open book” icon). PSA and Beckett both make pop-counts easy to find, as well.
Since the Junk Wax Era, card companies have gotten wiser about unlimited print runs. Nonetheless, the true count of non-numbered cards is sacrosanct to each card manufacturer. Thus, the only way to truly know a card’s rarity is by securing a numbered card. Which makes those numbered cards all the more valuable.
Seasonality, Player, and Market Trends
Finally, keep in mind that basketball is a fall, winter, and spring sport. Thus, prices are going to wane in the summer months when there’s no ball to be played. Likewise, when players hit the hardwood again during the season, prices tend to rise.
Prices also tend to rise and fall given a player’s performance on the court. This is why it pays to actually follow professional basketball if you’re getting into the hobby. For instance, if a player makes an All-Star Game for the first time (as Anthony Edwards did in 2023), the value of their card is likely to temporarily increase (as Anthony Edwards’ Silver Prizm did). Ditto for other career achievements such as earning an All-NBA honor, securing an individual award like MVP, or getting inducted into the Hall of Fame.
And market trends may dictate a card’s value, as well. For now, the market loves Panini Prizms, especially Silvers and Golds. But is it possible that the market begins to view Mosaic or Donruss Rated Rookie as the go-to collector’s card? Sure! But that’s something the market will dictate, necessitating a finger on the pulse of broader trends within the hobby.
Advanced Collecting Techniques
So far, we’ve been discussing Collecting Basketball Cards 101. Next up, we’ll touch on some advanced techniques for those seriously considering getting involved in the hobby.
How to Sell Basketball Cards
Selling basketball cards (in addition to collecting basketball cards) is a worthwhile endeavor. There are several practical benefits to selling basketball cards, including the opportunity to turn a profit during certain surges (like the early 2020s, for instance).
Collecting and selling basketball cards also helps keep your basketball card collection where you want it. By that, I mean you have the ability to offload cards you no longer want, or no longer fit your collection’s specific aims. Say, for instance, you’re working on amassing a collection of 1948 Bowman cards. First, good luck. Second, maybe that 2008 Kobe Bryant Topps Chrome card no longer serves the same purpose it did when your focus was on creating the best Kobe Bryant card collection. At that point, it might be time to part ways with the Kobe card by selling it.
Selling cards can also expand your budget, especially if you’re able to turn a profit on cards. This is why planning out your long-term goals in advance is wise: if you play your cards right (ha!) you may slowly find ways to expand your budget and take on more valuable cards.
In short, selling cards isn’t all about diminishing your collection. As we’ve seen, there are several ways to expand your collection through subtraction.
Preparing Your Cards for Sale
To prepare your cards for sale, you’ll want to begin by identifying which cards you wish to sell. Then, ensure you have high-quality photographs of the cards. If your photos are blurry or appear to be deceiving, then you’ll likely see little interest in your cards. Finally, you’ll want to correctly label the card. While graded cards come with descriptions, raw cards can be tricky to properly label. The best technique is to triple check the card with descriptions online, such as finding similar listings of the same card on eBay depicting consistent titles and descriptions.
When in doubt, imagine that you are in the buyer’s shoes when going about preparing your cards for sale. Would you trust a blurry photo of a raw card in supposed “mint condition”? Or an incomplete card description? Or a sloppily made card description? Putting yourself in the buyer’s shoes will ensure that you’re putting your best foot forward.
Choosing the Right Selling Platform
Next up, you’ll want to decide which platform to sell your card on. Again, this is case-by-case specific and depends largely on the individual aims of the seller. Here’s a quick guide of some popular platforms:
|eBay||eBay takes a 13.25% commission on sales; 200 listings are free, $0.30 for each additional listing||Individual card sales with a buyer not on any sale or payment time crunch|
|Beckett||$6.99 monthly subscription||Anyone looking for a low-cost way to sell cards|
|MySlabs||1-3% depending on card type (e.g. graded, raw, etc.)||Individual card sales of any type|
|Auction Houses (PWCC, Goldin, etc.)||Varies; 20% “Buyer’s Premium” applied to sales with Goldin, and Goldin takes between 5-10% of some sales, for instance||Expensive, graded cards and a seller looking for an established platform with proven high-end sales and huge exposure|
|Social Media (Instagram, Facebook)||Free||Sellers with a trusted social media following|
|Brick and Mortar Card or Pawn Shops||Free (traditionally)||Sellers who want instant payment|
Understanding Selling Fees and Negotiation
For some sellers, fees can be a tough pill to swallow. Unfortunately, that’s usually the cost of admission. But sometimes, it’s possible to negotiate a lower fee. Keep in mind, though, that this is at the sole discretion of the auction house and is often reserved for truly exceptional cards.
That said, it never hurts to ask! The worst thing they can do is decline your negotiation. But if you do decide to negotiate, make sure you come prepared with the minimum starting price of your card and an idea for how much it could sell for (considering the fees, as well). It’s possible that, in the case of the 20% buyer’s fee at Goldin, for instance, some of that money could be negotiated to go to the seller.
Lastly, also be aware that selling basketball cards can result in a taxable gain.
Selling on eBay
By and large, though, most sales take place through eBay. It’s the largest platform and has the most eyeballs.
Selling on eBay is relatively breezy. Make sure you include high-res photos of your card (front, back, corners, and any visible defects), along with the proper card name, and a brief description.
You can then either set a “Buy It Now” price for the card or put it up for auction, which will allow buyers to bid on the card based on a starting minimum price and during a set duration (in days). Once sold, a seller has up to 30 days (or the amount of time specified on the listing description) to ship the card. At the time of listing, you can determine whether the shipping cost is covered by you, the seller, or have the buyer pay for shipping.
Grading Basketball Cards
Having your basketball cards graded is an excellent way to boost its value. Here’s how you go about that process:
Picking the Right Grading Company
First, you’ll want to pick the right grading company. We won’t spend much time on this, because there are two grading companies that stand above the rest: Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA) and Beckett (BGS).
Much like the various platforms, PSA and BGS won’t grade your card for free. Getting your card graded by PSA will cost between $25 and $600 (with the varied pricing the result of turnaround time and stated value of the card). For instance, $25 will get you a grading within 65 days and is allowed if the card’s stated value is less than $499. But for $600, PSA will grade your card in three days, so long as its stated value is less than $9,999.
BGS’ prices are fairly comparable, ranging between $18 and $500, though the $500 has a same-day turnaround guarantee.
Why spend so much money for a quick turnaround time? It all goes back to scarcity. If you can be one of the first to have a super-high end, recently produced card get graded, you can charge more since the card’s population count will still be low.
There are other grading companies out there, such as CSG and SGC that are generally cheaper alternatives to PSA and BGS. But those grading companies do not normally carry the same grandeur as BGS and PSA.
It pays to go with the trusted names when getting your card graded, even if it’s more expensive.
Packing and Shipping Tips
In order to get your card graded, you’ll need to carefully pack and ship each card based on PSA and BGS’ specified requirements. Rather than list out each and every step, we suggest checking out this video:
Tracking Your Collection
As your collection expands, it can become easy to lose track of each and every card. There are two ways to keep track of your collection of basketball cards: one free and one paid.
The free version is simply to create a collection on Google Sheets or Microsoft Excel. At a minimum, you’ll want to record the card’s name and set, how much you paid for it, and the date you acquired the card. Here is an example of how to organize columns in a spreadsheet to track your collection.
The paid version is through CardLadder. Subscribers to CardLadder Plus have access to a “Collection” feature, which allows one to input the cards in their collection and the amount they paid for it. CardLadder will keep track of each card’s value, along with the collection’s overall value.They’ll even send you a daily email of the total value of your collection as it changes day to day.
Connecting with the Community
Just like with buying cards, it’s never been easier to become a member of the basketball card community. Maybe you once had to wait around for a card show to come to your neighborhood, but with the internet, there are dozens of communities at your fingertips.
Joining Collector Forums and Groups
These communities include social media pages like Reddit’s r/BasketballCards, Facebook groups like Basketball Cards – Buy, Sell, Trade, and online forums like BlowoutForums. These are excellent ways to meet other folks in the hobby, buy and sell cards, or even find prospective traders.
Social Media Engagement
We noted a moment ago that social media is one of several platforms to sell your cards. This is because, since it’s through your social media profile, you don’t have to pay any fees.
But keeping a social media profile is a smart move even if you aren’t selling. You can use your profile to show off your collection, build a following, and widen your network of fellow collectors. And social media allows one to engage directly with others, with sites like Instagram optimal for sharing high-quality photos of your latest break or purchase.
Attending Card Shows
Finally, there’s still something magical about attending a card show. The largest one in the United States is The National Sports Cards Collectors Convention, otherwise known as The National. The National is held in the late summer, usually July or August, and was held in Rosemont, Illinois (a suburb of Chicago) in 2023, with Cleveland playing host in 2024 (Rosemont will repeat again in 2025). Of course there are other, smaller card shows that travel across the country.
We recommend Card Show Map, which identifies card shows across the country and when they’ll be in town.
Collecting basketball cards is equal parts exciting and overwhelming. But whether you’re looking to build out a personal collection or flip cards for a profit, there’s room for everyone in the hobby as long as they never forget that this is, first and foremost, a hobby.
Ultimately, you’ll get out of this experience what you put in. As you continue collecting basketball cards, don’t forget that the community is a tight-knit one. Lead with kindness and curiosity, and you’ll find a community that is eager to welcome you with open arms.