It seems fitting that World B. Free's rookie card is in the 1976 Topps Basketball set.
Like the flamboyant, charismatic free shooting guard, who brought his playground style to NBA hard courts, this 144-card issue is far from conventional.
Flaunting colorful photos of fashionable players, these super-sized singles - at 3-1/8" by 5-1/4" each - are the largest mainstream hoops cards that Topps has ever produced.
"More than anything, I like the set for the size of the cards," said George Porteous, who owns the No. 3 Current Finest, 1976 Topps Basketball set on the PSA Set Registry. "The players are big and the style of the cards just seems to suit them. I like the eye appeal of the cards and the time period they are depicting."
D'Orsay Bryant, whose No. 1 registry set boasts an incredible 9.88 GPA, savors this set for similar reasons.
"In high school, I grew up with these players. In fact, 1976 was when I finished high school, so I grew up emulating these players in my backyard. I'd practice two to three hours of basketball every day in high school and pretended that I was Julius 'Dr. J' Erving," he said. "That was when Dr. J had the big Afro. So this set not only has some impressive players that played in 1976, but it marked a time in the culture and the fabric of the United States of America. The pictures of the guys with the big Afros and the funky mustaches, coupled with the tall boy configuration of the cards, made them more exciting."
These super-sized singles followed five standard-sized Topps basketball releases, and the 1976 pasteboards are even larger than the popular tall boys (2-1/2" by 4-11/16") unveiled in 1969 and 1970.
Due to their expanded size, the 1976 cards also feature larger photos.
"There's a good mix of photos," said Mike Knezevic, who has assembled the registry's No. 10 Current Finest set. "There are a lot of action shots, but you've also got the portrait poses, which feature close-ups of the player's faces. You've also got the staged shots where the players are dribbling the ball."
Many of the action shots feature Washington Bullets players in the background. This seems to indicate that the photographer was based in the nation's capital.
The white bordered card fronts also exhibit the team name running vertically up the side in unmistakably 1970s lettering, along with several circles that mimic a ball falling into a basket. The player's name and position are indicated across the bottom.
The top of the backs showcase the card number, vital stats (e.g., height, weight, date of birth, etc.) and college statistics. Biographical information, pro stats, a cartoon illustrating a basketball rule and copyright information are also included.
These cards were originally distributed in 10-card packs with gum for 15 cents. A two-pack lot sold for $47.77 on eBay in December 2012.
These pasteboards were also disseminated in 500-card vending boxes. One vending box fetched $1,221.48 in a Collect Auctions sale in August 2012.
Given the size of the cards, noted Porteous, you have to wonder how difficult it must have been to put these boxes into vending machines. As a result, "you wouldn't think there would be a large number of vending boxes."
The 144 cards in this issue were reportedly printed on two, 72-card sheets (eight rows of nine cards).
The ABA merged with the NBA prior to the 1976-77 campaign, but just four ABA franchises - the Denver Nuggets, New York Nets, Indiana Pacers and San Antonio Spurs - joined the NBA. As a result, this set is much smaller than the previous five Topps hoops offerings which included at least 233 cards each. At 330 cards, the 1975 Topps set was more than double the size of this issue.
"It's a small set and it's loaded with Hall of Famers," said Knezevic of the 1976 Topps issue. "That was another reason why I chose to build it: it was the first reasonably sized set of that era."
Bryant marvels at this set's player selection.
"There are very few players in the set that people know nothing about," he said. "In many of the other sets, they have mundane players, but not in the 1976 set. There are just so many Hall of Famers."
Artis Gilmore (#25), Dave Cowens (#30), Rick Barry (#50), Bill Walton (#57), Walt Frazier (#64), Phil Jackson (#77), Billy Cunningham (#93) and Elvin Hayes (#120) are among the Hall of Famers that are part of this offering. But it's the Julius Erving single - which is also card No. 1 - that's the most talked about.
"The Dr. J No. 1 card is notoriously off-center," noted Bryant. "I was fortunate to get one of the two PSA [GEM-MT] 10s. Virtually all of the other examples that are graded PSA [MINT] 9 are predominantly graded that way due to the centering issues."
Porteous points out that the Erving is also subjected to additional wear and tear because it was traditionally stacked on top of collector piles.
One PSA 10 Erving sold for $1,976 on eBay in May 2008.
The regular Pete Maravich single (#60) is also highly sought-after.
"The Maravich cards are very important to me," said Bryant, noting that there is also a Maravich all-star card (#130). "The house I grew up in is one mile from the Pete Maravich Assembly Centre in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. So he's a big hero of mine."
Knezevic says there's always strong competition for the Maravich cards. Seven PSA 10s exist of the regular issue Maravich and one sold for $450 on eBay in September 2012.
The two Kareem Abdul-Jabbar cards - his regular issue (#100) and all-star single (#126) - are also desirable. Of the 428 regular issue Kareem singles evaluated, there have been six PSA 10s, one of which fetched $533.33 on eBay in December 2011.
This set also boasts rookie cards of Gus Williams (#69), Alvan Adams (#75), David Thompson (#110) and the aforementioned Free (#143).
"The Thompson card is one of the principal cards in the set," said Bryant. "He was a tremendous player and he was invited by Michael Jordan to introduce him when he went into the Hall of Fame."
There has yet to be a PSA 10 example of the Thompson card. During the research for this article, a partial sheet was uncovered and it appears that the Thompson was the last card on the right in the fifth row. Cards positioned on the edges of sheets are generally more vulnerable to miscuts and centering issues.
A PSA 9 Thompson sold for $209.57 on eBay in November 2012.
Collectors seem to agree, however, that the Free (#143) is the most difficult rookie to track down in pristine condition. Free didn't legally change his name to "World B." until 1981, so his name is still "Lloyd" on his card.
"It's the second-to-last card in the set and it's usually off center," explained Knezevic.
Like the Thompson single, the Free card also appears to be located on the edge of the sheet (last card on the right in the second-to-last row). Bryant owns the sole PSA 10 copy and there are just eight PSA 9s.
With just 76 submissions, the Mike Newlin (#139) is the least submitted card from this issue. Bryant possesses the only PSA 10. In reviewing the partial sheet from this issue, it appears that the Newlin is the first card on the left in the bottom row. So like the Thompson and Free cards, it's in a vulnerable, edge sheet position.
Knezevic points out that the Billy Knight single (#124) is the most difficult card to uncover in top condition. His card appears to be on the right edge in the row above Newlin. There are eight PSA 9s, but no PSA 10s.
Although the ABA may have folded prior to the 1976-77 campaign, remnants of the renegade circuit can be seen on some of the cards in this set. Ralph Simpson (#22), Len Elmore (#71) and Knight (#124) are featured holding the trademark red, white and blue ABA ball.
The size of these cards also made them hard to maintain in pristine condition.
"They were very difficult to store and that's one of the reasons why a lot of these are PSA 9s and not PSA 10s," explained Bryant. "The raw examples tend to be dinged to the max."
Knezevic also sees cards with horizontal print lines across them.
"One thing with these [tall boys] that I haven't seen on normal sized cards is a lot of them come with a line through the middle that's almost like a very slight surface imperfection," he said. "I always attribute it to the way they were packaged. Maybe the wrapping equipment wasn't set right on some of them, so they put a little bit too much pressure on them when they went through the rollers."
These condition woes have made competition for high-grade cards more heated in recent years.
"This set seems to be becoming more popular," said Porteous. "They seem to be trading a lot. The number of people collecting it on the registry has gone up quite a bit."
Knezevic expects more collectors to jump on board in the future.
"This set is loaded with Hall of Fame members, and if you're at a show and walking by a display case, these cards stand out because they're bigger," he said. For someone just starting out in the hobby, this set "might catch their eye and get them into the hobby sooner than a 1975 or a 1977 set would," says Knezevic.
Bryant also believes this set has a bright future.
"It's just a fun set to collect because the players have a great history behind them and the pictures are virtually unlike any of the pictures found in other sets," he said. "First of all, there is the facial hair and the Afros, and secondly, they were tall boys."
Please feel free to contact Kevin Glew at [email protected] if you have any additional information or comments. Thanks to D'Orsay Bryant for supplying photos for this article. Please note that the Population Report figures quoted and Set Registry rankings reported are those as of January 2014.
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