When you think of the 1990’s basketball, it’s no surprise if the likes of Michael Jordan and his Chicago Bulls team come to mind. They dominated the court for almost a decade, but do their rookie cards make the list of the top five RC options from the 1990s?
The ’90s saw the collectible hobby hit new heights, as the number of basketball card manufacturers and sets increased to unprecedented levels.
We’ve come up with a list of 5 top rookie cards from the 1990s, with some of the biggest names in the game making the cut. We’ll take you through each one below, with information about the player and exactly how their RC managed to make the list.
Top 5 Basketball Rookie Cards from the 1990s
Any 1990’s card article should take the time to discuss ‘the junk wax era’. Between the late ’80s and the mid-’90s, cards were overproduced at a ridiculous rate, as supply increased to meet demand from a legion of new hobbyists.
However, the market was eventually oversaturated with too many options, while most cards had massive production numbers. This caused their value to fall until the bubble burst, leaving many cards from the era worthless.
It’s great if you’re hoping to pick up a cheap set or two from the ’90s, but it’s not great news for potential investors.
Thankfully, card companies began to experiment with limited print runs and serial numbers for a number of top players, allowing for some rare options if you know where to look.
1996 Kobe Bryant Topps Chrome Refractor Rookie Card #138 (buy on eBay)
Five-time NBA champion Kobe is always going to make any list of the top basketball RC’s from the ’90s. Bryant was already seen as a star when he made his debut for the LA Lakers, and he ended as the all-time leading scorer in franchise history after 20 seasons with the team.
1996 saw the first release of the Topps Chrome set, which is best known for its refractor parallel cards that are typically rarer versions of the base and insert cards. As such, the refractor version of Kobe’s 1996 Topps Chrome is the one to look out for, as it regularly sells for multiple times the amount of the base card.
It’s part of a legendary set that also includes rookie cards for the likes of Allen Iverson and Ray Allen, adding further value. Some sellers will try to pass off the normal version of the Topps Chrome as the rare refractor, so you’ll have to be careful if you’re thinking of putting a bid in at auction.
The card features an image of Kobe preparing to go for a layup, with his Lakers kit shining with a gold finish. His untimely death in a helicopter crash in January 2020 was a tragic event and saw his RC prices increase as people wanted to pay their respects.
1992 Shaquille O’Neal Topps Gold Rookie Card #362 (buy on eBay)
Shaq was already a bonafide star when his first rookie cards were released in 1992. His stature was always going to make him stand out from the crowd, but he had the talent to back up the hype, ending his career as a four-time NBA champ in 2011.
The 1992 Topps Gold notes that he’s a ‘92 draft pick, with an image of O’Neal dominating as he calls for a pass. His hand reaches up outside of the frame of the card, which is a nice touch, while it’s one of his few RC options that actually features his face, rather than an image of the player dunking due to his height.
The Gold version is similar to the base 1992 Topps in most respects, aside from the text at the bottom of the card which notes the player name and his team in blue and grey. The parallel has gold text with a black background, so you’ll be able to tell the difference straight away.
Shaq has a number of interesting rookie cards, but we’d recommend keeping an eye out for the Gold ‘92 Topps above all.
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1986 Michael Jordan Fleer Rookie Card #57 (buy on eBay)
Okay. The 1986 Fleer clearly isn’t a “90’s rookie”, but it is one of the best basketball RCs in the history of the hobby. Michael Jordan needs no real introduction, but we’ll list a couple of his major accolades below:
- 6x NBA Finals Most Valuable Player (MVP) Awards
- 6x NBA champion
- 10x NBA scoring leader
A transcendent talent that has yet to be matched in terms of star power, even a stint in pro baseball wasn’t enough to dampen the price of his rookie cards. The Last Dance docuseries looking at Jordan’s career has also had an impact on his RC values, causing interest to grow to unprecedented levels.
His RC has literally skyrocketed in recent months, as a PSA 10 copy sold on March 21 for $48,600. What’s the big deal, you might ask? Well, the very same card sold for $99,630 just two months later in May 2020, giving some indication of why Jordan’s rookie is seen as one of the most popular in the sport.
It’s no real surprise that good copies of Jordan’s Fleer card regularly make the news when they sell at auction. (There’s also an abundance of fakes on the market, which is another reason why it’s better to get a graded version if possible.)
Meanwhile, data analysts at eBay noted that they’ve sold over 360 Jordan rookie cards in April 2020, which is an increase of 150% over the previous month. On the other hand, it does mean that prices are currently inflated, as lapsed fans are taking the opportunity to own a real piece of 90’s nostalgia at any price.
The card features a large action shot of Jordan primed to dunk, soaring through the air with his number (23) clearly displayed on his jersey. It’s an iconic image to match an iconic player, but it’ll take big money to add a copy to your personal collection.
1986 Hakeem Olajuwon Fleer Rookie Card #82 (buy on eBay)
Hakeem Olajuwon is widely regarded as one of the best ballers of all time. He won back-to-back NBA championships in 1994 and 1995 with the Houston Rockets, and was the first overall pick in the 1984 NBA Draft, ahead of Charles Barkley, John Stockton, and even Michael Jordan himself.
Part of the same set that features the MJ card listed above, Olajuwon’s ‘86 Fleer is seen as his definitive RC. Despite this, low to mid-grades are relatively inexpensive, so it’s better to be on the lookout for Gem Mint copies which normally retain their value.
The Fleer has an image of Olajuwon holding a defensive position as he anticipates where the ball is going to be, and it shows his impressive height despite leaning forward.
His rookie card is never going to match Jordan’s in terms of the price or the attention it gets from collectors, but it’s a sleeper in comparison to many of the other big stars from the 1990s.
1986 Karl Malone Fleer Rookie Card #68 (buy on eBay)
Last but by no means least, Karl Malone was another player who was one of the biggest stars in basketball during the 1990s. His rivalry with Jordan helped to bring new fans to the sport, even if he fell at the final hurdle whenever they faced off in the finals.
Malone led his Utah Jazz team into the NBA finals in 1998 and 1999, losing to Jordan and the Chicago Bulls both times. However, The Mailman was a two-time NBA MVP and won a couple of gold medals with Team USA. He’s also currently in second in the all-time list of career scoring leaders, just behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
His rookie card is also from the ‘86 Fleer set, with the same red, white and blue border design. Malone is dribbling in the image, but the ball is almost out of shot so it looks like he’s lost his mind, as his hand is stretched into nothing while his eyes are focused on the floor.
Despite the slightly unfortunate photo choice, it’s still Malone’s definitive rookie card, and it’s given the respect it deserves by collectors and investors alike. He might have never won a championship, but his RC is worth keeping an eye on.
Top 5 Basketball Rookie Cards from the 1990s – Investment Outlook
Where better to look than one of the best eras in basketball for five top rookie options? As it turns out, the mid-’80s is the answer, especially if you’re looking for the top stars who played alongside Jordan.
A trio of Fleer cards from the ’80s should give some indication of just how strong the decade was in terms of rookie talent. That’s not to say that the likes of Kobe and Shaq haven’t matched the old guard in terms of popular appeal, but those Fleer options are just too good to miss out on in comparison.
However, the red, white, and blue borders found with the Fleer cards are very susceptible to chipping, as the strong color won’t hide any flaws. (In fact, the red makes it easier to see any issues at first glance.) It’s another reason why it’s better to go for cards that have achieved a high grade, even if they are exponentially more valuable.
The majority of the cards on the list are at least 30 years old, so there’s always going to issues with centering and the condition, so pay close attention.
A lack of signed cards and patches is to be expected when looking at the 1980s and the ’90s. Card companies may have overproduced with their massive runs, but there’s often little variation or extra rarity in the form of parallels or refractors. With that in mind, it’s often best to go for the most popular RC option or the card that is widely accepted to be their ‘true’ rookie.
Take the Jordan RC and the ridiculous gains seen in the past year. In 2015, a PSA 10 would sell for just $15,000, while the card was worth approximately $10,000 between 2014 and 2014. While the majority of cards haven’t risen to that extent, profit margins are still healthy if you bought a set five years ago.
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