If you collected sports cards in the 1990s, you’ve probably admitted long ago that your collection is worth next to nothing. The cards were cheap and plentiful, and their value is impossible to determine unless you actually sell the things. But what if you waited until 2017 to start collecting Michael Jordans and Tim Hardaways? And what if you started with fresh, unopened packs that have just been waiting decades to see the light of day? What would those cards be worth?
Well, I bought a bunch of unopened basketball cards from the early 90s to find out. For just over 20 bucks I got a 400-count cardboard storage box from Amazon complete with a “factory seal” on it, which is hilarious for almost two dozen different packs of cards produced years apart.
In total, there were 23 packs in there, good for a total of 310 cards. There’s got to be something interesting in there, right? In any event, this is what was in the box.
Before we get started, we should probably set a baseline for what basketball cards look like these days. Here’s a pack of NBA Hoops 2016-17 I got from my local Target. It’s $2.99 for 10 cards. Nothing special in here, except maybe that NBA 2K17 Kobe Bryant card. Otherwise, these are all from the base set.
Pretty standard. OK, let’s turn the clock back now.
For the sake of trying to make this worth my money, let’s pretend that all of these cards are worth their full value. That’s absurd, of course—they’ve been in various places for the last two decades and some are nicked up or scratched. But let’s pretend the good ones are PSA 10s and the commons are worthless. Let’s see if I can even break even here.
1 Space Jam Movie Pack (8 cards)
Released in 1996, these are by far the newest cards in the group, which made me think nothing of value would be included. And I was right! Not a whole lot going on here. The cards actually stuck together here a bit, which is something that those mid-90s UD cards sometimes do these days. None of these cards are even listed in the Beckett Basketball Card Price Guide 2017 I borrowed from the library for this, so I can’t even really say what they’re worth. I also did not win a trip to Hollywood.
Total Value: 1 mediocre movie flashback
2 NBA Hoops 1989-90 (30 cards)
According to the card guide, this set is what launched the basketball card bananza in the early 90s. Nothing special to report here, though. There is one fun thing — both packs had the exact same run of six players in row: Earl Cureton, Kelly Tripucka, John Battle, Kevin McHale (1989 NBA All-Star Game), Dave Corzine, Michael Cooper. Dan Majerle’s rookie card was worth a quarter, along with the Olden Polynice. The second pack had a Karl Malone in it, which is worth 40 cents.
Total Value: $0.90
2 NBA HOOPS 1990-91 Series I (30 cards)
The Dennis Rodman All-Star card was worth 60 cents, Karl Malone was worth 25 cents and the James Worthy All-Star card was worth 15 cents. Also making an appearance: Manute Bol and Detlef Schrempf. The rest are worth somewhere between 2 and 15 cents. Let’s forget about those, shall we?
Total Value: $1.00
2 NBA Hoops 1990-91 Series II (30 cards)
The Shawn Kemp rookie card is worth $1.50, which I forgot was a somewhat important one. Tim Hardaway’s rookie card is also worth a dollar. Reggie Miller’s card was 20 cents and also calls him “Reginald Wayne Miller” on the back, which is tremendous. The Cliff Robinson rookie card is another quarter, and the other 26 are commons. Yes, even the Dell Curry STAY IN SCHOOL card.
Total Value: $2.95
2 NBA HOOPS 1991-92 (30 cards)
The second pack had the most valuable card in the set’s first series: the base Michael Jordan #30. That’s listed as a $3 card in the book but goes for more if it’s PSA graded. Pretty cool. I also got a Larry Bird Milestones card right on top of the first pack that’s worth 50 cents. Tim Hardaway’s another 40 cents, and the David Robinson LEAVE ALCOHOL OUT card is another quarter. Also of note: I got five team yearbook cards out of these two packs alone. And look at the mustache on Brad Davis! That might be a common card, but that’s rare style right there.
Total Value: $4.15
3 Upper Deck NBA Basketball Inaugural Edition (36 cards)
Released for the 1991-92 season, this is Upper Deck’s first basketball card collection and they went big with a 500-card base set. One of the first cards I grabbed was that Larry Bird vs. Chuck Person card, which I love because it’s called Bird vs. Person. Like a life or death fight between species. That’s worth a quarter. Out of these three packs I picked up a Gary Payton worth 60 cents and Charles Barkley worth 40. There were a few cards worth a quarter—a Terry Mills rookie, a Rod Strickland, a James Worthy and a Tim Hardaway.
I liked the basketball court aesthetic of this set, but what stands out to me are the team checklists. They feature really nice illustrations of a popular player on the front. Look at that Dominique Wilkins! I actually got two Utah Jazz checklists, so get at me if you want a Mark Eaton double. It’s pretty cool.
The third pack had the best find of the box—a Jordan hologram card! I actually let out a “whoaaaaaaa” when I flipped over the card. The back was a different cardboard material than the others and I sort of assumed at first it was just a fake insert card, not something worth a few bucks. The Beckett Price guide says AW1 is worth $3-8. This one is actually in good shape, so let’s go high here. There are a few on eBay if you are jealous of my new newfound fortune.
Total Value: $10.25
1 Skybox 1991-92 (15 cards)
First of all, I think it’s great that the A.J. English card had kerning issues. The “SCIENCE” card is super great. Those are just commons worth 10 cents each, though, so they don’t count. The Cedric Ceballos and Dennis Scott cards are worth a total of 40 cents. Not exactly a winning pack here.
Total Value: $0.40
1 Front Row Dream Picks (10 cards)
These college hoops cards weren’t listed in the Beckett guide, which is probably not a good sign. None of these were any good other than a Christian Laettner, which goes for about a buck on eBay. It also had two different cards for both Terrell Brandon and Todd Day. Oh well.
Total Value: 10 broken hoops dreams
1 Wild Card Collegiate Basketball Premium Edition (15 cards)
Apparently I can turn that Tim Kempton card in to get … 5 more Tim Kempton cards? Which I’m totally going to do. It will cost me five dollars and also require a time machine but that seems worth it. These were terribly designed all around, both graphically and as a concept. None of the commons were worth more than five cents, including the two Kevin Lynch cards worth a dime at most. The only one of value was Randy Brown, which is a quarter at best. What a find. There’s also a Chris Mullen card that isn’t listed in the book, so let’s assume it’s worth less than nothing. Every grab bag collection of unopened packs has series like these. Oh well.
Total Value: a Starbucks bag full of losing lottery tickets
3 Skybox 1990-91 Inaugural Edition Series I (45 cards)
I got another Michael Jordan card worth $3 here, which seems to be the standard for his base set card at this point in his career. Also great about this Jordan: it’s got photo of him golfing on the back of the card. Oh, Michael. The Larry Bird card was also worth a dollar, which is solid. Danny Ferry’s rookie card is worth 50 cents, my Cliff Robinson was listed at 40 cents and Drazen Petrovic is valued at 30 cents here.
Going through these in the price guide I discovered something pretty exciting — our first error card! This Otis Thorpe card has Michael Wiggins being defended on the front! The common card is worth a lousy quarter, at best. This one’s worth $1.50.
A whopping 17 more cards were also worth a quarter each, which was a pretty big haul when most of the commons in this set max out at 10 cents each. Lots of rookie cards here, but for the sake of fairness let’s say they’re somewhere in the middle when it comes to their condition. That adds another $1.70 in value to these packs. Good deal.
Total Value: $8.40
2 Skybox 1990-91 Inaugural Edition Series II (30 cards)
Did I mention that I really love the style of these cards? Look at the action lines! Basketball is a fast game. How do you explain that on cardboard without action lines? It’s perfect. The cards we got in these two packs weren’t all that great, though. The most valuable was the Karl Malone at bottom right. Malone is worth 40 cents but thankfully THE BACK OF THE CARD IS HIM RIDING A HORSE.
That kind of value really is incalculable.
Nick Anderson is also worth 40 cents, and Andrew Lang’s card is worth a quarter. The rest of these are commons, which is why I included the disappointed coaching trio of Rick Adelman, Richie Adubato and Bill Musselman up there. They are disappointed, and so am I.
Total Value: $1.05
1 Topps 1992-93 Series 1 (15 cards)
Karl Malone is worth a quarter and David Robinson tops out at 15 cents. A Billy Owens card had gold on it, which makes it worth two to five times its base value. The rest are worth somewhere between 2 and 10 cents. Good proof that not all of these packs are winners.
Total Value: $0.50
1 Fleer Spalding 1992-93 Special Edition (5 cards)
This is a special 5-card pack that was supposed to come with a Spalding basketball. I wonder where my basketball went. It includes Larry Johnson, Scottie Pippen, Kevin Johnson, Larry Bird, and a special title card. The full set is worth $2.50, with the Bird card going for $1.50 on its own. I plan to split the set up and reap the benefits of what I assume will be a tremendous secondary market for these bad boys.
Total Value: $2.50
1 Topps 1994-95 NBA Basketball Series 1 (12 cards)
I had a ton of the football and hockey cards in this style of Topps card growing up. Classic design. John Stockton and Clyde Drexler each have 40 cent cards here, but the best card of the group is the Dikembe Mutumbo PAINT PATROL card. That’s worth 30 cents. The rest of the commons were worth between seven and 25 cents, including the Carl Herrera I got twice in one pack. Let’s just count those first three when it comes to any actual value, I guess.
Total Value: $1.10
In total, I spent $23.27 on 310 cards. With a bit of rough math, the cards that are worth more than 10 cents add up to $33.20. Not too bad! A lot of that had to do with that hologram Jordan card, which is really cool. I got three Jordans in total, which was actually a bit more than I expected.
None of these are actually worth all that much, of course, and getting your money back in the secondary market might be more trouble than it’s worth. Still, if you’re looking to start a late retro basketball card collection, these online purchases aren’t a bad place to start. It was fun to open up some cheap cards and see what basketball looked like a few decades ago.
Just don’t expect to strike it rich on eBay anytime soon.