The 1968 Topps Test Basketball set is scoring a triple-double amongst PSA Set Registry enthusiasts.
With its increasing value, small size and impressive player selection, it's becoming one of the most sought-after vintage hoops issues.
It's only fitting then that the king of triple-doubles, Oscar Robertson, figures prominently in this offering. The Big O, featured on the set's last card, is the NBA's all-time leader in triple-doubles (181) and also holds the record for most triple-doubles in a season (41 in 1961-62).
"Everyone in the set is an all-star. . . . Fourteen of them (the players featured in the set) are in the top 50 of all-time (as named by the NBA in 1996)," said Michael Rakosi, whose set is honored in the PSA Set Registry Hall of Fame.
Fifteen of the players are also in the Basketball Hall of Fame, including court giants Wilt Chamberlain (#1), Bill Russell (#4), Jerry West (#19) and Robertson (#22). The first cards of Hall of Famers John Havlicek (#5), Willis Reed (#7), Bill Bradley (#8), Dave Bing (#10), Dave DeBusschere (#11) and Earl Monroe (#12) are also part of this set. Jeffrey Mullen, who owns the registry's No. 3 Current Finest set, calls these singles the "true rookie cards" of these legends.
"A 'true rookie card' is the first real appearance of a player, it's not the (first) mainstream appearance . . . The 1968 Test contains the 'true rookie cards' of a couple of players, and I think Havlicek is the most notable," he said.
Other HOF enshrinees in the set are Hal Greer (#2), Nate Thurmond (#13), Len Wilkens (#15), Elgin Baylor (#18) and Jerry Lucas (#21).
Topps' first foray into basketball since 1957-58, the 1968 Test issue featured 22 cards. The singles boast a black and white photo on the front, accompanied by the player's name, team and height. The card backs are a piece of a puzzle that showcases Chamberlain dunking.
Mullen says that the origins of this issue remain a mystery. He believes it may have been produced internally by Topps and never marketed externally.
"My understanding is that this was never distributed. This was an internal set that got out. The reason why people think that is because every major find has come from someone that has been related to an employee at Topps," he explained.
The small number of cards that have surfaced and the fact that these cards didn't appear in any sort of quantity until the early 1990s also seems to support his theory.
"There's never been any reports of them being seen at any stores. . . . There's never been any reports of anyone seeing a pack with a sticker on it that said 'test,'" pointed out Mullen.
So why would Topps produce this set without distributing it? Mullen speculates that it could've been manufactured because Topps was considering a return to the basketball card market and they wanted to see what they were capable of producing, or it could have been an exercise to obtain a card license from the NBA.
"In order to get an NBA license, my understanding is that the NBA requires a sample of the cards, so that's another reason they may have made this (set)," said Mullen.
Regardless of why they were manufactured, only a few hundred of these are circulating in the hobby.
"They were impossible to find. . . . I mean, literally, I could go a year and not find a single test issue card," said Rob Lahammer, a longtime basketball card collector, who owns a complete set.
Rakosi, who also has Hall of Fame 1957-58 Topps and 1961-62 Fleer basketball sets, agrees.
"It's painstaking (to find these cards), but that's what makes it fun. Because in all of these things, the journey is what it's all about," he said.
On top of their scarcity, these cards are also very difficult to uncover in high-grade. Of the 167 cards submitted to PSA, only one has been deemed a PSA MINT 9. Twenty-nine others have been tabbed PSA NM-MT 8s with one being an NM-MT+ 8.5. Poor centering is the most common flaw.
"I've seen cards where . . . it looks like a second player is entering the card," said Rakosi.
Mullen has also seen centering issues, but he believes general wear and tear is a larger problem.
"These cards were never really put in packs and they were handled by a lot by people (internally at Topps). Getting a (PSA) 9 is unheard of," he said.
The lowest population card is the Wilkens (#15). There are only three PSA graded copies of this card: one is a PSA 8 OC and the other two are a PSA 8 MCs.
"Not all cards are created equal, there's definitely some that are rarer than other ones," said Mullen.
Mullen has heard that for many years hobbyists were uncertain if there was a card #1 and card #4 for this set. These cards turned out to be Chamberlain and Russell respectively. There are now 13 graded examples of Chamberlain, and of those examples, there have been two PSA 8s. One of those sold for $9,182 in 2004.
Eight Russells have been evaluated, and there are two PSA 8s of these as well. No graded Russells have been sold in auctions in recent years.
"The set is just hard to find, so the numbers become humongous when a card becomes available," said Rakosi.
"The prices are absolutely through the roof now," he said.
Other graded 1968 Topps Test cards sold in auctions include a PSA 8 Havlicek, which reportedly fetched $7,350 in 2006, and a PSA NM 7 Bing that garnered $800 in 2004. A PSA 5 Jerry Sloan (#20) also fetched $500 in 2004.
And though the bidding for these cards can be fierce, these Set Registry enthusiasts tend to help each other out.
"We in the basketball collecting community are small and we are not overly competitive at all," said Rakosi, who generally gives his fellow collectors first crack at his doubles.
They may need to stick together, because Lahammer says that the popularity of this set has increased in recent years.
"The set is so rare that people didn't know what it was (until relatively recently)," he said.
"I expect that the prices will continue to rise," added Mullen.
So, with this increase in popularity and value, coupled with the rarity of the cards and its relatively small size, the 1968 Topps Test set will continue to score a triple-double amongst Set Registry enthusiasts in the foreseeable future.
Please feel free to contact Kevin Glew at [email protected] if you have any additional information or comments. Michael Rakosi provided pictures for this article. Please note that the Population Report figures quoted are those as of press time.