Michael Rakosi, The Slam Dunk Champ of Hoop Card Collecting

If there are common threads that run between the serious collectors who amass the cards and sets the rest of us can only dream of owning, it is that they are highly intelligent and harbor a reverence for history. They also tend to be sentimentally nostalgic, a bit eccentric, and incredibly passionate with a voracious sense of curiosity.

That is most certainly the way one would describe Michael Rakosi.

Like "The Donald", "The Michael's" world is one of high power real estate and development deals that are played out on the stage of Manhattan isle, where towering edifices rest upon some of the planet's most valuable property.

Along with Rakosi's wheelings and dealings in real property, he has also carved out a legendary niche for himself within the world of card collecting by having compiled the top vintage basketball sets in existence. Along with his complete Lakers and Celtics sets, a complete set of Jerry West and Oscar Robertson offerings, and his 50 Greatest Players set, Rakosi has compiled the highest graded sets of the "Big Three" vintage basketball sets.

His 1948 Bowman Basketball set, which averages a PSA 8.26, was inducted into the PSA Set Registry Hall of Fame in 2003, and his Topps 1957-58 Basketball set is another unparalleled thing of beauty. As one of the most difficult sets to complete in PSA NM-MT 8 or better condition, the Topps 80-card set is notorious for print defects, snow, centering problems, border toning and miscuts that have plagued the majority of its offerings. Coupled with those production problems, the Nat Clifton and Dick Schnittker cards, respectfully the first and last cards in the set, are virtually impossible to find in high-grades. And then, to make it even more difficult, consider the fact that the set is brimming with major key cards such as the rookie offerings of Bob Cousy and Bill Russell. Michael's Topps set is not just complete, it has earned a GPA of 8.15, making it the only set on the Registry to reach PSA NM-MT quality with every card.

West Chamberlain Pettit Cousy Robertson
West Chamberlain Pettit Cousy Robertson

In 2004, Rakosi once again registered an incredible set – the 1961-62 Fleer Basketball set. Weighing in with a GPA of 9.28, this magnificent set surpassed the set legendary card collector John Branca registered, which ain't too shabby being as that it averages above PSA Mint 9 across the board. The '61-'62 Fleer set includes numerous key cards including the rookie offerings of Elgin Baylor, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain.

Along with his passion for the game of basketball, card collecting and cutting real estate and development deals, Rakosi also owns the rights to all of the published and unpublished material of the late sportswriter Phil Berger, and has a long history of managing professional boxers and as a fight promoter. He was born in Queens, New York to two attorneys who instilled in their son a deep love of history, government and politics. As a young man, he worked for then-New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy and even experienced an in-person brush with RFK's brother, President John F. Kennedy, who left a lasting impression on young Michael who is quick to show off his uncanny voice impression of the 35th president of the United States. "I can recite his entire inaugural speech by heart," Rakosi said in a brisk Bostonian accent that is nothing short of accurate.

As most kids, Michael had been an avid sportscard collector who just recently sold his childhood card collection for a pretty penny. "My mother was the one mother who DIDN'T throw my cards away," he said with a laugh. "My cards were in great condition. I never flipped them, and I never put rubber bands around them, so they were in really great shape."

Pollard Mikan Davies Zaslofsky Fulks
Pollar Mikan Davies Zaslofsky Fulks

After working on numerous political campaigns, and then matriculating at Queens College and the American University, Rakosi began his professional career in commercial real estate leasing, and his search for the highest graded basketball cards.

A true disciple of PSA grading and registering, Rakosi attributes the strength and popularity of the hobby directly to PSA. "The beauty of what PSA does is that it lets people collect on so many different levels. The registries have brought about competition, a far greater understanding of what exists, and the knowledge of who has these cards. It has made it a lot more fun, far more interesting, and it has helped people in the hobby to get to know one another and build better relationships with each other."

Rakosi, who has built his fabulous hoops sets by working with other major collectors, is quick to admit that collecting at his level necessitates a major resource of funds. "I collect cards that are graded at 8 or 9," he said. "I can afford to do that, and as far as I'm concerned, that is simply a function of money. I own cards that cost more than what people make in a year. But that's not where my focus is. I focus on the historical significance of the cards. I'm very involved in the history of the game of basketball. I know things that are beyond belief when it comes to the sport. I'm like the Rainman of basketball."

Baylor Attles Russell Fleming
Baylor Attles Russell Fleming

While touting the fact that basketball is hugely popular throughout the United States, Rakosi admits that the collecting of basketball cards will never reach the level of interest that collectors have with baseball cards. "Baseball cards are a part of the fabric of our country," he stated pragmatically. "But to me, the game of basketball is just as fascinating."

That fascination is evident to anyone who steps into his New York City office, which stands as a museum quality shrine to Oscar Robertson and Jerry Lucas.

For those with an appreciation for high graded basketball cards, Rakosi's collection includes rarities that are beyond belief. He owns two of the three known-to-exist Bill Russell Topps rookie cards that have been graded PSA 9. He is also in possession of a PSA 9 George Mikan rookie from the '48 Bowman set. According to Rakosi there are only four Mikan's that have graded at a 9, and while there is one that has graded a 10, he claims he has no desire to own it because he is content with his copy.

For as astute as Rakosi is on both the game of basketball and the collecting of basketball cards, he admits to being rather stupefied at the values being placed on the cards of some current day players. "I just don't understand it!" he said. "A Kobe Bryant card can cost a fortune which doesn't make sense to me because there are thousands of them out there. Whenever I see one sell I think 'this can't be!' But it is, because it's not about knowledge, it's just about popularity."

Sharman Schayes Clifton Lloyd West
Pollar Mikan Zaslofsky Beaty Robertson

A bundle of passion, excitement and high energy who talks and answers questions in a rapid fire manner, Rakosi takes a deep breath and thinks for a moment when asked what his cards mean to him. "They are a memory of youth," he said. "And of course while it's all about rarity and condition, to me it's about historical significance."

Collecting the Big Three of Hoops

Collecting basketball cards is a very different animal than collecting baseball cards. Unlike the cards that pay homage to the men who have played our national pastime, the offerings that honor hoops stars are greatly limited. Since the first set of basketball cards were produced by Bowman in 1948 there have only been two other sets that are recognized as the sport's vintage sets – the 1957 Topps Basketball set and the 1961 Fleer Basketball set.

The '48 Bowman Basketball issue was something of a sensation, being as that unlike the company's baseball and football cards of that year, the basketball cards were printed in color. To give you an idea of the set's success (or more appropriately, the lack thereof) keep in mind that another major basketball issue wouldn't be produced for nine years. In 1957, when Topps decided it was time to once again cater to hoops fans, the company produced what is considered to be a premier set.

Four years later the Fleer Company put out a 1961 basketball set. That was the same year they issued their first baseball and football sets. While the baseball and football cards did well, the basketball offerings didn't quite live up to expectations. Fleer blinked and would not put out another basketball issue for 24 more years.

This hat trick of sets from '48, '57 and '61 are today recognized as the only major vintage basketball sets in existence. Smaller manufacturers did surface with basketball cards throughout the 1950s and '60s, but none of them have gained any recognition as important sets.

While collectors unanimously agree that basketball cards will never come close in popularity to baseball cards, the future market for cards from these three vintage hoops sets will continue to grow in demand and value. According to Michael Rakosi, if you are trying to put together a '48 Bowman, a '57 Topps or a '61 Fleer set, you are off on a quixotic adventure that will be both fun and challenging. "You're not competing with everyone else in the sportscard hobby like you are with baseball," Rakosi reasoned. "But you will still have to do serious searching being as that these issues were produced in much smaller quantities than their baseball counterparts with much less adherence to quality."

This is why these three vintage basketball sets are notoriously plagued with all sorts of production and printing problems. When it comes to finding these cards in high PSA grades, your task will become even more difficult. There is an extremely small population of these cards that have been graded NM-MT 8 or better by PSA.