Heading into the 1978-79 season, the NBA was struggling.
Bird, Magic and Jordan had yet to debut, attendance and TV ratings were sagging and some franchises were on the brink of collapse - none more so than the Buffalo Braves who became the San Diego Clippers prior to the start of the season.
"The NBA was definitely on shaky ground," noted D'Orsay Bryant, who owns the No. 1, 1978 Topps Basketball set on the PSA Set Registry.
David Robinson, who has assembled the registry's No. 9 Current Finest, 1978 Topps Basketball set, offers similar observations.
"The NBA had definitely seen better times," he said. "I think there was also a lot of bad publicity with some of the players having drug problems and things of that nature, so that tarnished the league's image."
The league's woes seem to be reflected in Topps' hoops release from that year, which is a barebones, 132-card issue with no subsets. But what it lacked in quantity of cards, it made up for with a vibrant, distinctive design and fine photography. The card fronts boast not one, but two player photos. In most cases, the main photo is an action shot, while a smaller head shot adorns the bottom right.
"One of my favorite cards is the George Gervin (#20)," noted Sean Huang, who possesses the registry's No. 2 Current Finest, 1978 Topps Basketball set.
Gervin is pictured at the peak of his jump about to shoot the ball with a Washington Bullets player looking on in the forefront. After looking for a PSA GEM-MT 10 Gervin for more than a decade, Bryant, whose set boasts an incredible 9.98 GPA, was able to purchase one of the four PSA 10 examples in July.
"That card is often off-center," noted Bryant.
Several other standout action shots, like the image on the Gervin single, are also showcased in this set.
"One of the nice features of this set is that many of these cards showcase game action shots," said Robinson. "Topps definitely did a good job on these cards. This is a much better design than the 1977 cards."
Like the 1976 and 1977 Topps Basketball sets before it, many of the action shots in the 1978 set present Washington Bullets players in the background. This would seem to indicate that the primary photographer that Topps employed was based in the nation's capital. It should also be noted, however, that two later cards - Cedric Maxwell (#128) and Ray Williams (#129) - have New Jersey Nets players in the background, so at least two of the photos were snapped in New Jersey.
If you leaf through the cards in this set, you'll also notice that the Buffalo Braves player singles were not changed to reflect the team's transition to San Diego. The production process was probably already underway before this could be done.
The fronts of the 1978 Topps Basketball cards can also be distinguished by the fact that the team city, nickname and player name run up the left side. The team nickname is in particularly big, bold lettering.
"I really like the lettering that goes up the side," said Huang. "I definitely think the design is nice."
Bryant, who owns many of the registry's top basketball sets, agrees.
"This is a very distinctive set," he added. "The cards are definitely eye-catching."
The player's position is indicated below the head shot on the bottom right, while the frame surrounding the main photo, as well as the city, team nickname and player name are color coordinated for each team member.
The vertical backs feature brown and orange text on gray stock. In the top left, the card number is highlighted in a basketball icon that's being vied for by cartoon players. The player's name and vitals (e.g., Height, Weight, School, etc.) are displayed to the right of the card number, followed by a short biographical paragraph (if there's enough room) and yearly stats. A "Star Stats" section trumpets the highest scoring NBA game of the player's career at the bottom.
If you read the bios on the backs closely, you'll notice that a few of the cards include transaction information that's not on the front. For example, Bobby Jones (#14) is portrayed as a member of the Denver Nuggets, but the final sentence of his bio indicates that he was traded to Philadelphia on June 9, 1978. Similarly, Johnny Davis (#22) is pictured as a member of the Portland Trail Blazers, but his card back reveals that he was "traded to Indiana, June 9, 1978." A similar notation exists on Dan Roundfield's single (#69). Though featured as an Indiana Pacer on the card front, his biographical information indicates that he was signed as a free agent by Atlanta on June 10, 1978.
The 1978 cards were sold in wax packs, but Topps upped the pack price from 15 to 20 cents from the previous year. Collectors, however, received 14 cards (up from 10 in 1977) in each pack. The 1978 pasteboards were also available in wax trays (three wax packs packaged together) and 500-card vending boxes. One vending box sold for $382 in a Collect.com auction in August 2013.
While researching this article, a print sheet was uncovered that showcases 66 of the set's 132 cards - six rows of 11 cards - repeated twice on a sheet. So it would be a safe bet that the second sheet, with the remaining 66 cards on it, was printed the same way.
Each of the NBA's 22 teams is represented in this set. Most teams have five or six player cards devoted to them, but the Philadelphia 76ers and New York Knicks have eight cards each.
Bernard King (#75) and Dennis Johnson (#78) are the only two Hall of Famers with rookie cards in this issue. With 23 and 24 PSA GEM-MT 10 examples respectively, both of these cards are readily available in high grade and PSA 10s generally sell in the $300-400 range.
Several other noteworthy NBAers also make their cardboard debut in this set, including Walter Davis (#10), James Edwards (#27), Quinn Buckner (#29), Norm Nixon (#63), Jack Sikma (#117) and Marques Johnson (#126).
"There are a lot of really recognizable names in this set," noted Huang.
Hall of Famer Bill Walton leads off the issue, but despite being the No. 1 card, which would position it at the top of collector piles, it has not proven to be difficult to uncover in top grade. There are 39 PSA 10 examples.
In contrast, the second-year Adrian Dantley card (#132) - the final card in the set - is much more elusive in pristine condition. Of the 91 submitted, there have been just two PSA 10s.
"Almost every [1978 Topps] Adrian Dantley card that I've seen has been very poorly centered," pointed out Bryant.
Other coveted Hall of Famers in this issue include Pete Maravich (#80), Robert Parish (#86), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (#110) and Julius Erving (#130).
The Charlie Scott single (#43) was the last card from this issue to record a PSA 10 example. Not surprisingly, this card is located on the far-right edge of one of the print sheets (end of the third and ninth rows respectively). Cards located on the edge of print sheets are generally more vulnerable to condition woes such as miscuts.
Bryant also owns one of the two PSA 10 Gail Goodridge (#95) cards. He says this card is often hampered by poor centering and print dots. Not surprisingly, the Goodridge single is also positioned on the far-right edge of the print sheet, right below the Scott card (fourth and tenth rows respectively).
There are also two uncorrected error cards in this set. The photo on the front of Hall of Famer Rick Barry's card (#60) has been reversed and the back of Hall of Famer David Thompson's single (#100) mistakenly lists his school as North Carolina, when it should be North Carolina State.
Bryant says poor top-to-bottom centering is the most prominent condition issue with cards from this set.
It's interesting to note that more hobbyists are pursuing this offering on the PSA Set Registry than the 1977 issue. This can likely be attributed to its distinctive design and the fact that it's relatively small (132 cards) and affordable.
"Much like the 1977 set, if somebody wants to collect an older, simpler set to add to their collection, I think this is a good bet because there aren't that many cards," said Robinson. "I don't believe the cards are very scarce and I think the quantity is still out there, so I would imagine that more collectors will grow interested in this set. It doesn't possess that many rookie cards, but there are still a lot of quality ballplayers to be found. So between the design of the set, its ability to still obtain high grades and the number of stars in the set, I think interest in it will continue to increase steadily."
Please feel free to contact Kevin Glew at [email protected] if you have any additional information or comments. Thanks to D'Orsay Bryant for providing the cards for this article. Please note that the Population Report figures quoted and Set Registry rankings reported are those as of September 2014.
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