It lacks the dazzle of its predecessor, but there's still plenty to like about the 1977 Topps Basketball set.
After captivating collectors with colorful, super-sized singles in its 1976 hoops offering, Topps returned to standard-sized (2-1/2" by 3-1/2") cards for its follow-up. They also reduced the size of the set from 144 cards to 132 for this issue, making it the smallest 1970s Topps basketball issue to that date.
"The 1976 set was just so incredible; it had these large photos and it makes the 1977 cards appear small. So I think the 1977 set was considered somewhat of a letdown," said D'Orsay Bryant, whose No. 1, 1977 Topps Basketball set on the PSA Set Registry was recently named Best Modern Basketball Set of the Year by PSA.
The white-bordered 1977 singles boast player photos surrounded by a thin, colored frame. The photos are a mix of action and sideline shots. The Darryl Dawkins rookie (#132), for example, presents an exciting photo of the man known as "Chocolate Thunder" dunking. On the flip side, Julius Erving's single (#123) presents a drab, head-and-shoulders sideline shot of him. You'll also notice that some of the action photos have been snapped from a fair distance away, resulting in multiple players being shown in the photos.
Like the 1976 set, many of the action shots feature Washington Bullets players in the background which seems to indicate that the primary photographer that Topps employed was based in the nation's capital.
On top of the photo, the card fronts also offer the player's position inside a basketball design located on the bottom-left corner. This basketball has an extra ring around it if the player was an all-star. Below the basketball, you'll find a banner fashioning the team city name to the left of the team nickname, which is highlighted in big, bold letters. The player's name is showcased at the bottom. The color of the frame around the photo and team nickname is the same for each team member.
"The design is very ordinary. It has some really good action shots, like the Dawkins, but the design is a definite step down from the 1976 [Topps] tall boys," noted David Robinson, who owns the No. 11 Current Finest, 1977 Topps Basketball set on the registry.
The vertical, green-bordered backs flaunt predominantly black print. The card number is located in a black ball design on the top left, adjoining a cartoon illustrating a fact about the player. These cartoons share everything from the player's mundane hobbies (Scott Wedman (#17) "enjoys growing plants") to their eccentricities (Mickey Johnson (#86) "likes to knit during flights") to their superstitions (Swen Nater (#92) "wears his wedding ring tied to his shoelaces during games").
The cartoons themselves are often creative and light-hearted. For example, Marvin Webster's card (#71) indicates his college nickname was "The Human Eraser," so the corresponding cartoon presents an eraser dribbling a basketball. Another humorous example can be found on Wes Unseld's pasteboard (#75), which describes how the Bullets center "sets perhaps the best picks in basketball." The cartoon pictures him behind a picket fence with the words "Keep Out!" on it.
To the right of the cartoon on the card backs is the player's name and vitals (e.g., Height, Weight, School, etc.). Below that you'll find yearly statistics, biographical information and the copyright data.
The card backs can be found with a white background or a gray background behind the statistical and biographical data. Neither version commands a premium, although most collectors seem to prefer the white background.
"Personally, I'd rather have the white back," said Jeff Stolze, who has assembled the registry's No. 3 Current Finest, 1977 Topps Basketball set. "I just think it looks cleaner. But when the Population Report numbers are so low for some cards, I don't really have a choice [between collecting a white or gray back]."
The 1977 cards were distributed in 10-card, 15-cent wax packs. They were also available in wax trays (three wax packs packaged together) and 500-card vending boxes. One vending box sold for $628 in a Collect.com auction in August 2013.
"The number of unopened wax packs has dwindled, but they have also shot up in price," noted Ron Palacz, who has been working on his No. 7 Current Finest, 1977 Topps Basketball registry set since 2003. "When I first started opening them, they were maybe $7 or $8 a pack and maybe $300 a box. Now I believe it's $700 or maybe $800 a box."
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 are represented in this set. Most teams have five or six player cards devoted to them, but the Philadelphia 76ers and Washington Bullets have nine cards each. On the flip side, only three players from the Milwaukee Bucks are featured.
The Robert Parish card (#111) is the most coveted rookie in this issue. Inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2003, the nine-time all-star was the center on four championship-winning teams.
"The Robert Parish is, by far, the No. 1 and most desired card in the set," emphasized Bryant.
Of the 988 Parish rookies submitted, there have been nine PSA GEM-MT 10s, one of which sold for $786 on eBay in March 2013.
The only other Hall of Famer rookie in this offering is Adrian Dantley (#56). Palacz says this card is often found off-center.
Other notable rookies in this offering include John Lucas (#58), Tom McMillen (#66), Mitch Kupchak (#128) and Dawkins (#132).
On top of the allure of its great photo, the Dawkins single is also the last card of the set, which meant that it was often subjected to the additional wear and tear associated with being on the bottom of collector piles.
"The Dawkins rookie was harder for me to find than the other two [Parish and Dantley]," said Robinson.
"I'm fortunate to have a PSA 10 Dawkins rookie, but there are only four PSA 10s, so it's a tougher card to get," added Bryant.
Similar to the Dawkins single, the set's first card, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, is tougher to track down in top grade because it was on top of collector piles. One of the six PSA 10s garnered $500 on eBay in October 2013.
"That Abdul-Jabbar card is really tough to get in high grade," said Palacz. "A lot of times it has print smudges on it."
Another elusive Hall of Famer card to track down in flawless form is the Pete Maravich (#20). Of the 392 submitted, there's just one PSA 10.
"The Pete Maravich card will almost 99 times out of 100 have a little black dot on the right-hand border," noted Palacz. "I'm still searching to find one that doesn't have that little black dot."
Other notable Hall of Famers in this issue include David Thompson (#60), John Havlicek (#70), George Gervin (#73), Julius Erving (#100), Bill Walton (#120) and Moses Malone (#124).
Robinson says the Havlicek card is particularly popular.
"That card seems to continue to hold substantial value," he said. "I think that's probably because it's his last card and it's a Celtics card. There are a lot of Celtics fans, especially from that era."
A PSA 10 sold for $98.77 in a Mile High Card Company auction in December 2013.
Four cards from this set - Ricky Sobers (#42), Lucius Allen (#87), Spencer Haywood (#88) and Al Skinner (#91) - have yet to record a PSA 10 example. A review of one of the print sheets from this series revealed that three of these cards - Allen, Haywood and Skinner - are the last card on the right in a row. These types of edge-sheet positions generally make cards more susceptible to condition woes such as miscuts.
"The Lucius Allen is very difficult," said Palacz. "It's very common to see a Lucius Allen that's not the correct size."
With just eight PSA MINT 9s, the Skinner is the most difficult to find in top condition.
"That card is usually off-center and it usually has print smudges," said Palacz. "I've seen examples that just look horrible - where the focus is way off. And then I've seen cards that look pretty good that are off-center, 70-30 or worse."
Bryant has had a similar experience.
"I haven't seen an Al Skinner card that has been well centered," he said.
A PSA 9 sold for $100 on eBay in April 2014.
The last card Stolze needed to have his entire registry set in PSA 9 or better was Mike Bantom (#68). He often sees this card off-center and with print lines on it. Of the 40 submissions, there have been two PSA 10s and eight PSA 9s.
Poor centering is the most common condition issue on the 1977 cards.
"I've opened up close to two wax boxes and a vending box, and you don't see a lot of weird miscuts, but you see cards that are off-center to the point where it's noticeable," said Palacz.
In general, however, the 1977 Topps Basketball cards aren't that difficult to track down in top condition. This set also remains relatively inexpensive to assemble.
"In a way, the 1977 set is a sleeper because it's just a plain-old, 132-card set and the cards were a regular size," said Palacz. "I enjoy the set. Getting all of the cards in PSA 9 was certainly a labor of love."
And Palacz and Stolze have noticed more people collecting this set in recent years.
"I don't think it's ever going to be a marquee set of the 1970s," said Stolze. "It's not a big set. Some of the earlier 1970s sets have a lot more cards in them. It doesn't have the oddity factor of the 1976 set, but it does have a nice, clean look, it's fairly affordable and it's easy for collectors or investors to get involved with. I think it's always going to be sort of an underrated set."
Robinson shares similar thoughts.
"This set has a nice array of Hall of Famers," he said. "I think there's definitely a lot of potential for this set [to become more popular] because it's small, it's easy to collect and it has a nice cast of characters."