Modern Masterpiece: A look at the 1986-87 Fleer Basketball Set

By Joe Orlando

S

omewhere along the line, and without much warning, modern set collecting became a thing of the past. No longer were collectors interested in scouring through the 100's of cards found in each set; now they wanted to focus only on the stars. If the collectors did dabble in modern set collecting, they bought, traded and sold the sets in the original packaging.

1986-87 Fleer basketball pack
An original box of 1986-87 Fleer basketball packs

Factory sets became the new thing but collecting factory sets was nothing like the set collecting of the past. The sealed cases and sealed "bricks" of cards took all the fun out of it. I remember buying packs of baseball cards, trying desperately to find all the cards I needed to complete my set. It was a lot of fun going to the local baseball card shop or show and looking for those missing cards. By the mid-1980's, that purpose was virtually gone.

All of a sudden, factory sets, sealed in plastic, were the wave of the future. You wouldn't dare crack the seal because the market value would automatically be affected. In some cases, each set was sealed. In other cases, the sets were not sealed but the case was. So, not only could you not open the set, you couldn't even open the case that the set came in! It was like collecting unopened packs or boxes; you weren't allowed to actually enjoy the cards. You were only allowed to enjoy the thought of them.

Jordan
The key to the set, the
classic Jordan rookie card

Well, we all know that times have changed with modern card production. I can't keep up with all the sets, subsets and super subsets that enter the market each month. Today, the remaining factory sets are broken down in order to retrieve the one or two key cards in hopes of finding that Gem Mint 10. One modern set, however, has stood the test of time. This is an issue that people actually collect as a set and they do consider having all the cards graded. What set am I talking about? The modern masterpiece otherwise known as the 1986-87 Fleer basketball set.

For an assortment of reasons, the 1986-87 Fleer basketball set has been able to hold on through times of set abandonment. The combination of star power and reasonable difficulty, by modern standards, has kept collector interest strong. For years, the basketball card collector was not presented with a set that packed much power. Since the 1981 Topps Magic Johnson/Larry Bird rookie card, there wasn't even a key individual card to talk about. That streak would end with this Fleer production.

Barkley
Barkley is one of many key
rookies to inhabit the set

Let's talk about the star power. Of course, no important modern set would be complete without a key Michael Jordan card. The 1986-87 Fleer set just happens to have the most important of all the Jordan cards, his classic rookie. Much like the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle, you can almost see the signs of greatness from the image alone. Do you believe in destiny? Just take a look at this card and you will see what I mean. Jordan, at the time, wasn't even considered a top prospect but that's not the feeling you get from the card.

Jordan's rookie is not the only key of note in this wonderful basketball set. Other star rookies, including many superstar rookies, like that of Danny Ainge, Charles Barkley, Clyde Drexler, Joe Dumars, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, Chris Mullin, Hakeem Olajuwon, Isiah Thomas, Dominique Wilkins and James Worthy can also be found here. Can you name any other set, no matter what sport, that can claim to have as much rookie card power as this Fleer basketball issue has? I think not.

Olajuwon
A PSA 10 Olajuwon rookie, a desirable
card of the dominant center

In addition to the unusually strong rookie card crop is the usual assortment of modern stars like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Kareem Abdul Jabbar. Every player of importance, from the era, is included. The set is swimming in stars.

Now, let's talk about modern card difficulty. While no modern issue is really comparable to any vintage production, due to the evolution of the manufacturing process, this Fleer set is considered tough by modern standards. So what are the two main culprits? Centering and chipping.

Drexler
Clyde "The Glide" looks to be in
rare form, Gem Mint condition

The serious 1986-87 Fleer set collector knows that the centering is the key. The centered copies fetch the biggest dollar on the open market and for very good reason. Poor centering, in some cases, will affect the common players even more so than the stars, depending on where the card was located on the sheet. Unfortunately, some of the cards, are almost always off the mark.

According to Daniel Chang, Vice President of Teddy's Ballgame, collectors will pay major premiums for low population, centered examples. "The cards that seem to be affected the most were 1, 11, 22, 33, 44, 55, 66, 77, 88, 99, 111, 121 and 132 because they were at the end of the sheet," Chang explained. "They seem to always be off-center, have print problems and edge damage. It is horrible but, when you can find an extremely high-end example, the collectors will pay for it. We can't keep them in stock"

Chang claims to have sold several common and semi-star player rarities, in PSA Gem Mint 10, for thousands of dollars. That depends, of course, on how rare the particular card in question is. The demand for uniform Gem Mint sets is staggering and the interest in graded commons proves that point.

1986-87 Fleer basketball set uncut
Here's a unique item, an uncut sheet
of 1986-87 Fleer basketball cards

Besides centering, edge wear and chipping are also cause for concern if you seek the best of the best. Colored borders surround the image, on each 1986-87 Fleer card. As you might imagine, the borders are very susceptible to chipping because the slightest touch will reveal the white cardboard underneath. Some examples are actually found with natural rough-cuts, allowing some amount of white to reach the surface. The problem, associated with colored borders, is probably most responsible for cards being dropped from a Mint 9 to a NM-MT 8.

Finally, when the Michael Jordan rookie card began to surge in price, counterfeits naturally followed. They would flood the market for a time but professional grading has assisted in getting more of these fakes off the market. Collectors still need to be very careful because these Jordan counterfeits were made with more care than some of the other modern counterfeits often seen today. By modern card standards, when you consider the obstacles above, this set provides a nice challenge in Gem Mint condition.

There's no question that, of all the modern sportscards sets, this one steals the show. The 1986-87 Fleer issue offers the collector everything he or she wants in a set. It's tough, colorful, packed with stars and home to the Jordan rookie.

What more could you ask for?