Last Updated On: October 19th, 2023
With the latest NBA season right around the corner, it’s only fair that we highlight some of the sickest, flashiest, coldest basketball cards ever made.
Unlike the Buyer’s Guide we produced for the upcoming 2023-24 season, this post is neither wallet-focused nor focused only on current stars. Instead, the cards mentioned in this post share one primary quality: eye-catching appeal.
There’s a bit for everyone here – meteorologists, dunkologists, even Cavaliers fans. So get ready for some nostalgia-soaked goodness as we examine past and present legends.
Table of Contents
Overview and Ranking System
Before I get skewered in the comments, please keep in mind this list is subjective. I’ll repeat it again: this list is SUBJECTIVE. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and this beholder’s eyes might have a different lens than others. This is fine (and means less competition for me?).
Also – you won’t find many Triple Logomans or RPAs, which tend to make plenty of other lists because of their sky-high value. In fact, some of the cards that appear on this list are bargain-bin finds! No, this post isn’t value-driven. It’s aesthetically motivated.
Here are some of the factors under consideration:
Player Move and Photo
The Dirk single-footed step-back. The Kareem skyhook. The Jordan…anything. These are some of the most lethal moves of all time. And when captured in perpetuity on a card, it has the ability to leave chills (and, for those who suffered at the hands of those moves, a touch of PTSD).
The photo also matters. LeBron cheesing and holding his rookie jersey is cool, but would we call that “cold”? Perhaps not. And look, I’m no Annie Leibovitz or Ansel Adams, so take my photography criticism with a grain of salt.
I, for one, love a unique card design. Catching a player on the court, in their natural environment, is cool and all. But we should also give some of the artists at these card companies props for pushing the envelope on what we expect from a card.
In a sense, each new card set is a time capsule; when we string them all together, we can see how tremendously they’ve evolved from the beginning.
Card Brand and Value
Cards on the table: this category was considered the least of the three. Don’t worry – there are plenty of basketball guides out there chronicling the most valuable NBA cards ever produced. But that’s not our goal here.
That said, we’ll touch on a few of the cards’ values (as well as their sets) when relevant.
Coldest Basketball Cards Ranked
25° Ja Morant 2019 Chronicles #165
Judging by the portrait on this card, you might assume that “Love” is a rookie caught in the middle of a springy veteran’s nasty slam. In reality, Ja Morant is the rookie, while Kevin Love, aka Morant’s pommel horse, is an experienced veteran and champion. This card marks Morant’s debut in the Panini Chronicles’ Luminance Brand.
Spoiler alert: Morant would end up missing the thunderous dunk, which may or may not have impacted his ranking within this post.
24° Giannis Antetokounmpo 2018 Panini Kaboom! Gold #K-GA /10
Since its inception in 2013, the Kaboom insert has constantly been one of the flashiest card designs out there. The concepts are loud, extremely valuable, and feature a nostalgia-driven lettering that would make Spike Lee smile.
What better card to represent the line than the Giannis Antetokounmpo gold Kaboom? The rich color is a potent mix with the player’s dark green jersey. As for Antetokounmpo, he’s an NBA legend, one of the five best players of this century, and looks primed to punish a defender with his size in this portrait.
23° Russell Westbrook 2008 Topps Chrome Refractor #184
This one’s a personal favorite for a player who’s gone out of style since winning an MVP in 2017 and personally killing the triple-double as a stat of any significance. He was never the tallest, nor was he the most skilled, but his unbridled energy propelled him to the top.
Make no mistake – Russ is one of the most athletic players to ever step foot on the court.
And this card, caught just moments before he unleashes what will be just one of a number of his trademark dunks, captures his essence beautifully. Add in the shiny, chrome-y refractor foil in his portrait and the classic look of the 2008 Topps Chrome basketball set, and this is one of the sweetest cards you’ll find. The card itself is currently valued at $3,896.00 in PSA 10, Gem Mint condition. A Gold parallel ups the ante just a bit, adding a nice color pop that meshes nicely with the blue and yellow lettering on Russ’ card.
This set is also a special one. 2008-09 was the last year that Topps Chrome made a standalone NBA set (the following year’s Topps Chrome would be an insert in Topps’ flagship basketball product which featured the all important Stephen Curry rookie). Popular cards in this set include Kobe Bryant’s #24 that features a young LeBron guarding the Lakers legend, and the Derek Rose #181 rookie card.
22° Tim Duncan 1997 Fleer Thrill Seekers #3
The Big Fundamental may not have the flashiest highlight reel out there, but my guess is that he’d exchange the TikTok fame for five rings and two MVPs any day. But as far as pop goes, this card is up there. Set against a bright orange backdrop and trippy etched silver holofoil centering, Duncan is literally bursting out of the card’s frame, ready to put down a dunk.
Oh, and the Thrill Seekers logo itself? Sick. Straight out of Top Gun. Only ten players were commemorated in the 1997 set, and the odds of hitting one was 1/288.
21° Kevin Garnett 1995 Hoops #272
Ever catch a whiff of something and it takes you back in time? How just one sensation can transport you to an entirely different place? That’s what this Kevin Garnett card does.
It’s straight out of the ‘90s, with a seemingly spray-painted background with an assortment of sugary colors that might taste like a bag of Jolly Ranchers. The gold lettering, also a graffiti-inspired design, feels somehow royal and grunge, adding to the ’90s nostalgia. And let’s not forget Garnett’s sick T-Wolves jersey, the purple and green an eye-grabbing match with the background.
It’s also an extremely gettable card: PSA values a Mint card at around $10-$30, while a Gem Mint usually goes for less than $200.
20° Stephen Curry 2019 Panini Prizm #98 Choice Prizm Tiger Stripe
We return to the Panini brand for the next card on our list – a 2019 Prizm Choice Stephen Curry Tiger Stripe parallel. While Panini didn’t invent parallels, there’s certainly a case to be made that they perfected them, with each successive set of Prizm featuring a seemingly endless array of them.
One of the coldest of the parallels is the Tiger Stripe, which debuted in 2018. And here, the Tiger Stripe married to Stephen Curry, just a year removed from winning his third ring and sporting a throwback Warriors jersey, is perfection. It’s major King of the Jungle energy.
This set was a massive one for Panini. It came just before the recent sports card surge, and featured uber-collectible Ja Morant and Zion Williamson rookie cards.
19° Michael Jordan 1992 Stadium Club #1 Members Only
You had to wonder how long it would take until we got to His Airness, right? Let’s stop the skid here, at No. 19, with this card that embodies everything fans love about Michael Jordan. His fearlessness is on full display, leaving Patrick Ewing (who, by the way, is a Hall of Famer and listed by ESPN as one of the top-ten centers to ever play basketball) helpless as he careens toward the rim. Truly, only Jordan could make the seven-footer Ewing look miniscule.
18° Shaquille O’Neal 1998 Skybox E-X Century Dunk ‘N Go Nuts #9DG
Was there ever a marriage more perfect than Shaquille O’Neal and Dunkin’ Donuts? Probably not, and in 1998, we got as close as we probably ever will at seeing this union. Mimicking the look of the famous donut brand, the card features Shaq mid-dunk in a Lakers uniform.
Oh, and Shaq isn’t the only one to see his face gloss this card’s template. Inserted in every 38 packs, a total of 20 cards make up the Dunk ‘N Go Nuts set, which includes Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Allen Iverson, and Michael Jordan. Skybox routinely developed some of the most creative cards in the hobby during the 1990s, and this is no exception.
Unfortunately, these cards weren’t built to last. The prints often change color over time thanks to a Hulking surface issue common among ’90s chrome cards. Unlike some cards that turn green over time (hence the name “Hulking”), these Shaq cards see its clear acetate finish turn into gold. It sounds great in theory, but tanks the card’s value.
17° Kobe Bryant 1998-99 Fleer Ultra Platinum Medallion #61 /99
As a player and personality, Kobe Bryant was no stranger to the spotlight. Thank goodness he was in Los Angeles (and not Charlotte), where the glitter of Tinseltown never ceases. This card, from 1998, is just as Kobe would have liked – the entire background blurred and greyed away, his eyes laser-focused on putting the ball through the hoop.
A most deserving card for one of the coldest players ever.
16° Dirk Nowitzki 1998-99 Upper Deck Ionix Kinetix #K11
For the entirety of his 21-year career, Dirk Nowitzki feasted on opposing teams with his turn and fade away from mid-range. An iconic move from an iconic player!
Here, in a card that feels quasi-Terminator, Dirk puts that move on full display, prepping to splash a shot, his knee buffering his body from any would-be defenders. The futuristic blue tone, characteristic of the 20-card Kinetix line, is also a nice complement to Dirk’s dark blue Mavs jersey.
The Kinetix line – produced only for the 1998-99 season – was geared toward players with “lightning quick moves,” so it’s no surprise to see guys like Jordan, Bryant, and Duncan represented. It’s also no surprise for Upper Deck to be featured on this list, as they would produce some of the best cards of the ’90s — just have a look at the amazing photography captured for Jordan’s most popular Upper Deck cards.
15° Larry Nance 1983 Star and 1986 Fleer
Most fans will recognize the Fleer ‘86 line as one of the most prolific in the hobby. In addition to the Michael Jordan rookie, it also features a rookie Charles Barkley and, for our purposes, this sweet shot of Larry Nance floating on air. Literally.
The original shot was taken from the 1984 Slam Dunk contest – which he won — and was used by Star for its inaugural NBA ’83-’84 set. Interestingly, the 1983-84 Star set includes the first shots of a host of elite talent (Isiah Thomas, Clyde Drexler, Dominique Wilkins, to name a few). But these cards aren’t generally considered official RCs and are instead labeled XRCs. The Nance Star card above is one of those XRCs, while the Fleer is designated as his official RC.
14° Larry Bird, Julius Erving, Magic Johnson 1980 Topps Basketball
The Jordan/Ewing card aside, this list has so far lacked pieces that feature multiple players. That ends now, with a card that isn’t just one of the coldest basketball cards ever, but one of the most important. Widely considered both the Magic Johnson and Larry Bird rookie card, it features three Hall of Famers and legends of the game.
Everything about this card is sweet. The perforated lines hearken back to a time when the hobby was about kids, who just as quickly ripped along the edges as they did open the packs to begin with. The lettering is so late ‘70s it hurts; for the life of me I will never understand how a Sixers Hall of Famer gets a lime green lettering, while a Celtics star sees his name written in royal blue. No matter – the card is valued at $1,000 in Near-Mint condition and over half-a-million Gem Mint.
One of the biggest reasons this card is so cool is the fact that each player highlighted on the card lived up to their promise coming into the league. Erving was already a star – he’d been around since ‘72 and is championed as the Scoring Leader here. But Johnson and Bird were rookies, with as much hype as any. The fact that this card hit on three stars makes it a rare, and slightly hard to imagine, case of success. Although, in fairness to Topps, it did nail the perforated design 23 years later, with a three-headed monster of a card featuring rookies (and future Hall of Famers) LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, and Dwyane Wade.
13° Zion Williamson 2019 Panini One and One #107 /99
What a year for Panini’s One brand to make the leap over to basketball cards. Prior to the 2019 release, Panini One was limited to the NFL; apparently, the line was so successful that it decided to unveil an NBA-themed set, as well. And the company couldn’t have timed it better.
2019 was a monster year for collecting basketball cards. Fresh off the Luka Doncic-Trae Young year, 2019 featured two thrilling rookies: Zion Williamson and Ja Morant. Here, we see the top draft pick skying for a signature slam, likely in the vein of those that made him a viral high school star before heading to Duke. While many of the cards on this list are either flashy or bold, this one is hallmarked by an understated elegance that lets the player shine through and through.
12° Michael Jordan 1988 Fleer All-Star #120
1988 was a massive year for Michael Jordan. Though his first title was still three seasons away, ‘88 marked his first MVP honor and second-straight scoring title (he’d go on to win seven straight!). His scoring brilliance is memorialized in this card, taken from the iconic Slam Dunk contest in 1988 (which he also won), aka the free throw line dunk.
The card itself is pretty plain (we’re still a few years away from the funky designs of the ‘90s), but Jordan’s dunk alone is enough to buoy the entire product. Valued at $350 in Mint condition, it’s also one of the more cost-effective Jordan cards out there.
11° Vince Carter 2019 Panini One and One Timeless Moments #7 Auto
Just missing out on the top ten is this beauty featuring Air Canada preparing for touchdown. Carter’s legacy was already cemented when the 2019 Timeless One and One was released. There’s something extremely classy about the card, with its white border and darkened backdrop, the stadium lights throwing light on Carter’s slam. Add in his auto in silver sharpie, signed just so that it doesn’t distract from the card’s beauty, and it’s a worthy contender.
Side note: Carter is likely hitting the Hall of Fame next summer. At that point, the buzz for his cards will be temporarily hot. Get in on him now and beat the craze!
10° Michael Jordan 1985 Star Slam Dunk Supers 5×7 #5
Let’s kick off our top ten with a card that is foreshadowing a brilliant future to come. This ‘85 Star Slam has a bit of everything Jordan would come to be known for: an acrobatic dunk punctuated with a tongue, an iconic line of league-rule-breaking kicks, and the flashy red Bulls jersey. The Star company also made a habit of color-matching card borders with the primary color of the team jersey which made for an excellent touch.
9° Ray Allen 1997 Metal Universe #104
Just like Jordan and Shaq helped popularize the dunk, Allen was a jump-shot pioneer. And his shooting prowess is on full display in this card, a literal heater off of his palms that looks less NBA regular season and more NBA Jam.
The ‘97 Metal Universe is a Skybox iteration that featured 123 players total, along with two checklist cards. The trippy, shiny cards embody the look of ‘90s cards and serve as predecessors to some of the more unique designs we see today. The set is also anchored by one of the most valuable parallels of all time — Precious Metal Gems (or PMGs for short). The Allen base card, by the way, is highly gettable – a Mint condition card will likely set you back $20, while the Gem Mints are around a few hundred dollars (but super rare to find).
8° Zion Williamson 2019 Panini One and One #6 Downtown
Let’s bring it back to the present with one of my favorite cards from one of my favorite brands: the Zion Williamson Downtown. In 2019, the Downtown insert came under the One and One brand, with a total of 20 players represented in the 2019 line.
There’s just something super creative about the Downtown inserts. In addition to a graphic artist’s rendering of each player, the background on each Downtown card is flooded with imagery related to the player’s hometown team. Zion’s card features a Jazz band, a Mardi Gras mask, and St. Louis Cathedral.
7° Michael Jordan 1985 Nike Promo
In 1985, Nike released a set of six cards to help advertise its products. Some 40 years later, and the Jordan “Jumpman” card is by far the most popular. It’s a supremely slick card – the twilight casts a sublime silhouette on the Chicago skyline. And it’s a card with Jordan in his most famous pose, albeit one he actually performed less on the hardwood than on apparel. The card is extraordinarily valuable – coming in at $14,000 in Gem Mint condition and over $2,000 in Mint.
6° Dominique Wilkins 2019 Panini One and One Timeless Moments #16 Auto
For every Jordan, there are a dozen players who missed out on a ring (or three) because of the former’s immovable dynasty. For Dominique Wilkins, the immovable object proved twofold: the Larry Bird-led Boston Celtics and the Jordan-led Chicago Bulls.
Nonetheless, Wilkins provided a highlight reel of his own over the course of his career. A nine-time All-Star, seven-time All-NBA player, two-time Slam-Dunk champion, the list goes on. He’s also widely heralded as one of the best dunkers in NBA history, which is why this card featuring one of his trademark jams is both cold and timeless.
A funny side note about the blue parallel to this set (to which the card above belongs): only two current NBA players are represented, two-time MVP and champion Nikola Jokic and…Zach LaVine. It’s an intriguing combination, if not a fun game of “which of these doesn’t belong.”
5° Michael Jordan 1997 Skybox Metal Universe #23
The next killer Jordan card we’ll touch on is another ‘97 Metal Universe card.
Anyone who’s been on the receiving end of one of these Jordan dunks can probably attest that, yes, it does feel like a comet is falling on your head (just ask Patrick Ewing). But the iconography on this card alludes to Jordan’s other-worldly talent – he’s quite literally floating around in space by himself.
He’s a shooting star, a once-in-a-generation stud with as many rings as Jupiter. It only makes sense to put him against this shiny foil rendering of our Solar System.
4° Dennis Rodman 2019 Panini One and One Timeless Moments #20 Auto
It’s not fair for only one member of the iconic ’90s Bulls teams to get all the love, right? In this card, Rodman is doing what he does best: the dirty work. No, it’s not an illusion; he’s literally parallel to the floor, arms outstretched to protect the rock from going out of bounds. The Worm is Worming.
This card once again comes from the 2019 One and One brand, with a total of 30 players featured having autographed Timeless Moments base cards and only 16 of the red parallel (pictured above) with an auto represented.
And don’t worry – this is the last of the One and One Timeless Moments that we’ll cover here. Don’t want to oversaturate the list (even if the set is one of the coolest produced in recent memory).
3° LeBron James 2020 Panini Prizm #1 Gold Prizm /10
Imitation is the greatest form of flattery. And here, NBA legend LeBron James replicates a famous Kobe Bryant dunk and is forever immortalized on this 2020 Panini Prizm card. Given that Bryant passed away earlier that year, it’s no surprise to see Panini (and LeBron) tip its cap to an All-Timer and properly listed as the #1 card in the set.
The card’s coolness factor is embodied in its value: despite being a non-rookie card, the Silver parallel clocks in with a $80 value in raw condition (the Gold Prizm pictured above is a whole different story).
2° Michael Jordan 1993 Fleer Ultra Scoring Kings #5
We said we had a little something for everyone, including meteorologists (and, I guess, Ben Franklin fans?), and, true to our word, we have one of the coldest basketball cards on the block. Made to commemorate Jordan’s seven straight scoring titles, this card is positively electric.
1993 was also the final chapter of Jordan’s first three-peat Finals runs with the Bulls. Following the season, Jordan shocked the world by retiring. It was almost as if Jordan’s exit was as striking as his entrance, adding further intrigue to this card.
1° Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 1972-73 Topps All-Star #163
We’re now in the Antarctic Zone of this list. In the sage words of Andre 3000, what’s cooler than being cool? How about an ice cold Kareem Abdul-Jabbar skyhook over a two-way menace, the only player to score 100 points in a game, and Lakers star? That’s right – in this card, Kareem is dropping his signature move over Wilt Chamberlain.
Kareem’s skyhook is routinely considered one of the most unstoppable moves in NBA history, so it’s only fair that we finish off the article with a piece commemorating the icon’s light touch. Like some of the other cards earlier on this list, it lacks the pizzazz of a post-90s card. But the vintage stylings and legendary players featured more than makeup for missing holofoil and tiger stripes.
The plus side: given their age, these cards are available in all conditions. The downside: anything Near Mint or higher will cost you over $100.
So there you have it! I’m sure we missed plenty of cards, and on the not-so-off chance that we did, let us know in the comments. I’m always interested in hearing what cards speak to individual collectors from a coolness factor.
And while we tried to mix in a solid combination of new and old, I’ll admit the list is heavy ‘90s and, more specifically, Jordan-heavy. It speaks to a) the guard’s legacy on the game and b) the truly cutting-edge designs that came out of the 20th century’s last decade.
With any luck, we’ll look back on this era just as fondly. I have a strong feeling we will, as new companies like Fanatics look to shake up the hobby, inevitably building on the decade-plus of Panini’s designs and dominance.