The Iceman "cometh" to wax packs for the first time in the 1974 Topps Basketball set.
And so, too, did Bill Walton (#39) and future coaching greats Doug Collins (#129) and George Karl (#257).
But it's the George Gervin (#196) – nicknamed The Iceman for his on-court poise – whose cardboard debut is the most coveted.
"The Gervin rookie is much harder to obtain than the Walton rookie," noted Freddy Malamud, who owns the No. 8 Current Finest, 1974 Topps set on the PSA Set Registry.
David Glickfield, who owns the registry's top 1974 Topps Basketball set, concurs.
"I think the Gervin is harder to acquire than the Walton," he said. "I struggled to get that card more so than the Walton, but there isn't a tremendous quantity of either of them out there compared to the major 1970s rookies [from other sports], especially in PSA [MINT] 9."
Tad Ringo, who owns the registry's No. 5 Current Finest, 1974 set, adds that the Gervin in PSA 9 generally sells for double that of a PSA 9 Walton.
"The Gervin is just tougher to obtain," he said. And if acquired, "it might have some slight cut issues."
Of the 490 Gervins submitted, there have been three PSA GEM-MT 10s and 25 PSA 9s. One PSA 9 sold for $431 on eBay in February 2013.
Gervin is clearly the key rookie in this 264-card issue that features both NBA (#1 to #176) and ABA (#177 to #264) players. After employing a subdued design for their 1973 hoops offering, Topps reverted to a bold and colorful layout for their 1974 issue.
The fronts of regular cards exhibit posed or action player photos. The backgrounds of the posed photos showcase action scenes that are shaded in varying colors. The color combinations (background colors, framing around photo, etc.) on the cards are the same for each member of a team. The player's name is highlighted along the bottom beside a basketball icon that showcases their position. But it's the big, bold team nicknames in capital letters running vertically down the right side that truly distinguishes these cards.
"I like the design," said Malamud. "The 1971 set – and I guess all basketball collectors will say the same thing – is my favorite, but this one is probably my second favorite. It's got that psychedelic look – that very colorful look with the action in the background in a different color."
David Robinson, who owns the registry's No. 8 Current Finest, 1974 Topps Basketball set, agrees.
"It's a nice looking set. The all-star cards are really sharp looking, and there are a few more action photos compared to the earlier years," he said, adding that this was the first set he collected as a kid.
The horizontal card backs present the card number, player name and position across the top. Below that, the content is divided into two sections: On the left side there's a cartoon illustrating a fact about the player, followed by the player's vitals (height, weight, birth date, etc.). The right side offers a short written bio (if room permits), year-by-year statistics and copyright information.
"A nice feature of this set is that it includes college statistics on the back of the cards for the rookies," said Robinson. "I know they did that in some of the other sets as well, but I think it's a nice touch."
The 1974 Topps Basketball cards were distributed in multiple manners. Most were likely acquired in 10-card, 15-cent packs that also housed a piece of gum and a scratch-off game card. Cards were also available in wax trays (that consisted of three, 15-cent packs) and 500-count vending boxes.
For the second time during this era, separate all-star cards were not issued, but rather first and second-team all-star designations for the respective leagues were included on the fronts of the players' regular cards.
As with the 1973 Topps offering, subsets highlighting the NBA Leaders (#144 to #149), NBA Playoffs (#161 to #164), ABA Leaders (#207 to #212) and ABA Playoffs (#246 to #249) were included. But this issue also introduced Team Leaders cards that presented a small photo of each team's leader in scoring, free throws, rebounds and assists. In several instances, one player led the team in multiple categories, so their photo is featured on the Team Leaders card more than once. The Milwaukee Bucks Team Leaders pasteboard (#91), for example, features two photos of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and two photos of Oscar Robertson.
The New Orleans Jazz played their first NBA season in 1974, so a card (#92) flaunting their logo above the words "NBA's Newest Entry" was also included.
"The Jazz team card is kind of a neat card," noted Robinson. "To a certain degree, it commands a premium over the Team Leaders cards, but there are some Team Leaders cards that are scarcer."
As mentioned, the Gervin is the most coveted rookie in this issue, but the Walton in top grade can also command some pretty lofty prices.
"The Walton card is out there; all you have to do is pay for it," said Malamud.
Of the 621 Walton rookies evaluated, there have been two PSA 10s and 60 PSA 9s. One PSA 10 fetched $1,669.70 in a Memory Lane auction in May 2011.
Malamud adds that the Doug Collins rookie (#129) is evasive in pristine condition.
"You can't seem to find a [well-centered] Doug Collins rookie on eBay," he said. "Out of the four rookies [Gervin, Walton, Collins and Karl], Collins is clearly the hardest of the four, with Gervin being the second hardest."
There are just four PSA 9 Collins rookies (with nothing grading higher). A PSA 9 sold for $120 on eBay in June 2012.
Ringo points out that there are rookies of five players – Collins, Dwight Jones (#59), Ed Ratleff (#72), Mike Bantom (#124) and Jim Brewer (#134) – from the 1972 U.S. Men's Olympic Basketball team that lost in the gold medal game due to a clock controversy in the dying seconds.
The second-year Bob McAdoo (#80) and third-year Julius Erving (#200) cards are also in this offering. In total, more than 20 Hall of Famers are showcased, and many of them – thanks to the statistical and Team Leaders cards – are featured on multiple pasteboards.
The first card of the set is Abdul-Jabbar's regular issue. This card is extremely difficult to uncover in pristine condition.
"The No. 1 Jabbar card is incredibly difficult," said Glickfield. "It's very, very difficult. It's one of the toughest, if not the toughest, 1970s major star card to get in an [PSA NM-MT] 8 or better. I've put together all of the sets – football, baseball, basketball – and it's one of the toughest star cards around. It's always off-center."
Of the 201 submitted, there have been just three PSA 9s.
Other notable Hall of Famers include Pete Maravich (#10), Elvin Hayes (#30), Rick Barry (#50), Oscar Robertson (#55), Walt Bellamy (#65), John Havlicek (#100), Connie Hawkins (#104), Bill Bradley (#113), Walt Frazier (#150), Jerry West (#176), Julius Erving (#200) and Wilt Chamberlain (#250).
Both Glickfield and Robinson have had difficulty tracking down the Barry card in top grade. Poor top-to-bottom centering and angle cuts seem to plague this card. There has yet to be a PSA 10 example and there are 12 PSA 9s.
Ringo points out that a lot of players in this set went on to enjoy successful coaching careers.
"This set contains several cards of players who are now coaches," he said. "It features the George Karl and Doug Collins rookies, along with the cards of Mike D'Antoni (#138), Phil Jackson (#132), Paul Westphal (#64), Pat Riley (#31) and Rudy Tomjanovich (#28)."
Malamud says that one of the toughest common cards is the Herm Gilliam (#5). Centering woes and angle cuts tend to hamper this card.
"Herm Gilliam is impossible," said Malamud. "I've never seen one [in PSA 8 or better]."
Ringo would also like to upgrade his PSA EX-MT 6 Gilliam, which is the lowest graded card in his registry set.
With just 14 and 15 submissions each respectively, the Los Angeles Lakers Team Leaders card (#90) and the Gilliam are two of the lowest population cards from this issue.
"From the ABA cards, I think the two toughest cards are the Joe Hamilton (#217) and the Travis Grant (#259)," said Malamud.
Just three examples each of the Hamilton and Grant cards have graded PSA 9 or better.
But Malamud says the ABA cards are generally much easier to find in top condition than the NBA cards.
"There are so many more ABA cards," said Malamud. "I need about 50 cards for the set: I need around nine or 10 ABA cards in total but 40 or so NBA cards. I probably have about 30 PSA 9s in the ABA cards and only 10 or 15 in the NBA cards. The NBA has twice as many cards [in the set] and I have half as many [PSA] 9s."
Hobbyists seem to agree that this is one of the more difficult 1970s basketball sets to assemble in high-grade.
"The quality control was horrible," said Glickfield. "It was like the guys in the back were on vacation, and they had some other guys come in and take care of the printing. There are always print defects and the cards are horribly cut. They're often off-center."
Ringo, who's collecting the 1971 to 1976 Topps basketball sets on the registry, offers similar observations.
"The cards in this set have centering problems, angle cuts and print spots," he said. "There are cards that have kind of a snow print defect on the picture. In general, I think this set is probably harder to obtain in high-grade than those other early 1970s sets."
With this relative dearth of high-grade cards, the 1974 Topps Basketball set can be a challenge to put together in pristine condition. It also boasts a wealth of Hall of Famers, a decent rookie crop and a dazzling and distinctive design. All of these elements would seem to combine to make it a promising investment in the future.
"This set has a lot of tough cards and a lot of key guys. You've got the Walton and Gervin rookies, but you've also got Collins and Karl," said Malamud. "Those guys are major contributors to basketball. So you've got four major rookies and Hall of Famers everywhere."
View the set in the PSA Set Registry.
Please feel free to contact Kevin Glew at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any additional information or comments. Thanks to Heritage Auctions and Tad Ringo for providing photos to go with this article. Please note that the Population Report figures quoted and Set Registry rankings reported are those as of April 2013.
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