Let me start by saying that I haven’t really collected basketball cards since 1993. I think my last major purchase of that era was a box of Upper Deck’s 93/94 Series I and I just wasn’t impressed enough to continue collecting the sport; Topps had just introduced Finest onto the scene and everything was headed towards the same mid-Nineties blah that engulfed baseball cards: too many sets, too many inserts, expensive packs, and one or two exciting rookies but mostly heaps of garbage.
And yet while I lost touch with basketball cards, I never stopped following the game. It’s exciting in a way that the other major sports aren’t: a lot of things happen over the course of a game that can shift momentum to one side or the other, but it seems like in almost half of the games—whether through bad (or brilliant) coaching, poor refereeing or parity between teams—the winner is decided by what occurs in its final seconds or minutes. You rarely find that in the other three major American sports (baseball chief among them). And yet it’s funny that that aspect of the game is not really the one the NBA’s marketing team focuses on. They focus on the spectacular dunks, the fast breaks, the hip-hop personas of the stars; in essence, the individual who excels, who owns the game. Funny, isn’t that the Topps tag line?
Topps seems to have had an inside man working for the NBA last year, because almost 95% of the base card photos feature a player skying for a rebound, slamming home a killer dunk, or in mid-flight somewhere around the basket. It’s obvious that Topps had access to a camera directly behind the backboard, though there are some other shots (Matt Harpring’s card comes to mind), where it wouldn’t surprise me if Ethan Hunt took the photos while suspended from a guy wire sixty feet above the court at the Delta Center.
But before I get too deep into my Topps/NBA double-agent, 'I’ll Scratch Your Back If You Scratch Mine' conspiracies, I think I should probably say right here that I like this set. It’s hard not to. Topps gets a lot of things right, which I’ll get to in a minute, but there seem to have been a lot of questionable decisions made in both the base set and the inserts.
As an aside, a few months back, when I was deep into the Average Sixties set renumbering project, I put in a call to Clay Luraschi, a public relations representative at Topps in New York. To my surprise, he actually called me back. I told him my theory about Topps’ merit-based numbering system used in the past for baseball set checklists and asked why Topps had discontinued doing it. I don’t remember his answer for that question, but he told me that they’re going to go back to it for the 2007 Baseball set.
Which leads me to ask, why not start with this set? 2006-07 Basketball is only 265 cards, a very manageable checklist for player merit- or popularity-based numbering. Instead, the collector is left with a set hampered by a poorly designed checklist. There are a lot of stars up at the front, then filler from cards #202 to #215, then 50 cards of rookies. The merit system would’ve worked great: stars spaced out over the entire 265-card checklist with rookies interspersed throughout. Rookies wouldn’t have been given 2nd Tier numbers (you have to earn it) or really even 3rd Tier numbers (except in a few rare instances). You’d end up with a nice, full-body set that you’re not bored with halfway through. That’s why I’ve drawn up an example of how a renumbered set might checklist. I'll post it as soon as I find a place to host it.
The next questionable decision made has to do with who got left out. After a quick scan of the checklist, I can identify five glaring omissions of guys who were on a roster last season and thus available for picture-taking: Andris Biedrins, Mark Blount, Jeff Foster, Gary Payton and Luke Walton. Biedrins is already putting up great numbers for the Warriors, Payton has re-bonded with Dwyane Wade in Miami, Luke Walton is living it up in LA, Jeff Foster is still alive and Mark Blount is the starting center for the T-Wolves (and that’s the saddest thing I’ve ever heard; Blount is just one of the worst players in the last decade, and one of the worst to suit up for the Celtics and that’s including Eric Montross). Walton and Biedrins each deserve a card, Payton and Foster should have some kind of tribute card and Blount, despite not deserving a spot in a starting lineup (or even a spot on the roster of some playoff-bound teams), deserves his own basketball card. And to make matters all the more quintessentially Topps-esque in their complexity, other guys who are in no way deserving of cards have one. Guys like Chuck Hayes (who’s claim to fame is putting Shaq on the IL), Rasual ‘Don’t Call Me Caron’ Butler, Smush Parker, Brian Cook, Etan Thomas, the list goes on. Hell, they even gave Keith Van Horn a card and he made a concerted effort to stay out of the league this season. What kind of bullshit is that? I left Van Horn out of the renumber and replaced him with a special card for #1.
So what did they get right? Lots of stuff. First, the base card design. It’s tight, crisp and clean, with not a lot of foil (which is more than I can say for the disappointing insert sets). There’s a lot of space for the photo, and team name, player name, position and uniform number (a nice touch) are all prominent. The backs complement the front with full stat block, team logo, miniature headshot and biographical data. There’s even a little blip of Did You Know fun fact copy on those cards of guys who haven’t accumulated a lot of stats yet. Just a nicely designed card.
And despite the choice of photos used on the base cards (it seems nobody passes or takes a jump shot anymore), the level of photography is outstanding. The camera angles used are outstanding. The base set has a compact, refreshing one-series approach, with stars and rookies alike included. If I had one major complaint about the bloat of the early Nineties, it was that the two-series breakdown between stars and rookies was a little much. Collectors shouldn’t have to lay out twice as much cash to complete one set. If it turns out this 265-card set is a prelude for a Series II, it will be an error on Topps’ part.
Here’s another interesting thing about this set. Topps seems to need a father-figure/hero to worship. In baseball it’s Mickey Mantle. I don’t know who it is for football or hockey. For basketball it’s Larry Bird. This set features a great Larry Bird 'Missing Years' insert set where they take each year’s baseball design from 1982 to 1991 and give Bird a card. It’s a simple, winning idea, one that I hope they do for their hero worship player next year (it could work nicely for Magic or Dominique, who were both around for all of the 1980s). This insert set may actually be the sole reason for me to continue to buy packs of this set and may end up as my insert set of the year, regardless of sport. Plus, it's a nicer baseball/Bird tie-in insert idea than Bird's weird insert from the 1994 Ted Williams Baseball card set of Larry hunched over playing shortstop in what looks like either high school or college (or an early-Eighties Celtics charity softball game).
And if that’s not enough Bird for you, there’s another subset within the base set. Card #33 has 33 variations. I think this idea is garbage. Who wants or needs 33 variations of Bird taking a jumpshot? I opened a hobby wax box and a hobby rack box and got 9 of the 33 and 6 of those 9 were of him in jumpshot pose. Maybe it was a subconscious ploy on Topps’ part to provide balance to the literally scores of photos of guys going in for blocks, rebounds and highlight dunks.
And if we step back for a minute and analyze this, is Topps talking out of both sides of its mouth with this set? Is it paying lip service to NBA corporate and its younger fans with dunks, flashy inserts and autograph chase cards while offering commentary that the whole game has strayed too far from the heart and mind of the Hero of the game? Or is it the other way around—that it feels it has to include a Hero From Another Era on the cover of its box to get twenty- and thirtysomethings to buy into the product? I like Larry Bird as much (or maybe more) than the next guy, but I don’t understand his inclusion in this set at all. If Topps needed a hero to worship, the league hasn’t had this many likable, marketable players since the late 1980s. I’m sure Upper Deck hasn’t gobbled them all up yet.
If you’re going to buy these cards by the box, I would go for wax. The collation in the rack box I purchased was horrendous—out of 432 cards I don’t think I even completed one 265-card set. Plus, in each rack pack Topps throws in 3 ‘Vintage’ cards, which means one 1979-80 card of either Robert Reid or Doug Collins, one 1992-93 card of Doug Smith and one 1993-94 card of Eric Leckner. It’s a fun idea, but I swear I ended up with at least 5 Robert Reid cards. That’s just uncalled for. If you’re going to clean out your warehouse by inserting the cards into packs, call it by its name: ‘Randomly Inserted Cold Storage Commons.’
The collation in the wax box was much better (sans vintage cards): I completed one set, missing only 2 of the Draft Day variation rookies, plus there was even a good mix of inserts, though the insert sets themselves (besides the Missing Year Birds) were crap.