House of Clippers Cards

Eric Patten, | 11/25/11

Baseball cards might get the bulk of the attention, but basketball cards have evolved over the years into valuable pieces of memorabilia.

Check out this special slide show of Clippers basketball cards throughout the years.

Check out the following slideshow, with a story continued below.

There is a sense of timelessness when it comes to sports cards. More than ever before, the economy has dictated that collectibles are merely worth what someone is willing to pay for them and the industry has adjusted by focusing its efforts on inserts, exquisites, and specialty cards like never before. Still, the images that sports cards capture are to a certain extent, priceless. They are an invaluable piece of nostalgia.

A 1989 Danny Manning rookie card, for example, is more than an object with value designated in a card shop or magazine, it’s a snapshot, a memory.

Baseball cards hold the glamour spot when it comes to this—it seems almost predetermined that one of an increasingly limited number of Honus Wagner cards somehow manage to pop up at an auction house every decade or so. Yet, basketball cards, particularly when it comes to rarity and beauty, belong in similar esteem.

According to Zack Grakal, co-owner of California Sports Cards in Beverly Hills, newer basketball packs actually exceed the popularity of baseball.

“Newer [basketball] cards, the sets are better,” Grakal said. “Autograph and jersey cards are part of it. And basketball has more flashy players that are really popular.”

And while vintage baseball cards are still sought after by collectors, there’s something to be said about rare and vintage hoops cards as well.

Topps, the leading card brand for several decades, began printing basketball cards in 1957, but stopped after one season. The ’57 set included Bill Russell (see slideshow), Bob Cousy, and Bill Sharman, among others.  Twelve years later, Topps picked back up, continuing until 1982 when they again halted basketball-card production until 1992, conveniently reentering the fray to capitalize on Shaquille O’Neal’s rookie season.

The absence of Topps opened the door for Fleer, which had been producing basketball cards since the 1960’s. Arguably, the 1986 Fleer cards are one of the most important sets of all-time due to the inclusion of the renowned Michael Jordan rookie card.

Once Upper Deck burst on the scene in 1989 with its glossy photos, thicker cardstock, foil wrappers and holograms to help prevent counterfeiting, the industry was forever changed.

“By taking it to another level it forced competitors to re-evaluate what they were doing,” said Brandon Miller, Upper Deck’s Basketball Brand Manager.

Since being introduced into the market, Upper Deck has been known as an industry leader in themes, concepts, and technologies. They printed NBA cards from 1991 to 2009, but in 2003-04, they came out with the first high-end, Exquisite basketball set, which demanded upwards of $500 per pack. Miller said the set was an “amazing success” and a “game changer.”

“The most valuable cards on the market for basketball are the Exquisite,” he added. “It introduced a high-end basketball product. [Upper Deck] became the high end.”

Despite no longer holding an NBA license, Upper Deck is now the exclusive collegiate license holder, which allows them to print cards of players in their respective college uniforms, including Manning (Kansas) and several current Clippers players.

The downside to changes in printing and photo technology in recent years has been an increase in so-called “superficial rarity,” which led to an emphasis on inserts and specialty cards.

“It’s killed the regular card market,” Grakal said of what he believes is becoming more and more of an adult business. “No one cares about the base cards. They’ll come in the shop and open a box and leave every card but the jersey and autographs.”

Miller, though, believes the upwards trend towards jersey swatches and autographs has helped add another level of collectivity to the industry.

“There are team collectors and brand collectors,” Miller said. “We had the (Michael) Jordan ‘Mr. June’ set. It was 15 or so cards and there were plenty of people that wanted to collect all of them.”

To that end, card collecting is still really about the thrill of finding the card you’ve been looking for—insert or not.

From the classic look of the 1979 Topps cards to the modern era of high-gloss inserts and photo art, here’s a peak at what a handful of Clippers players have looked like on some of the numerous basketball card brands.

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