The 1980s is arguably basketball’s Golden Age. Names like Bird, Jordan, Julius, Magic, Barkley, and Ewing all competed in prime or near-prime condition.
As such, there was an abundance of valuable basketball cards printed in the 1980s.
Though the 80s was not the Golden Age of trading cards, the abundance of superstars makes up for a lack of notable sets.
Notable Players from the 1980s:
- Michael Jordan
- Larry Bird
- Hakeem Olajuwon
- John Stockton
- Karl Malone
- Magic Johnson
One manufacturer in particular, Fleer, made the most of basketball’s glory days of the 1980s.
The art of trading cards has a measure of subjectivity. In our humble opinion, these are 10 of the most notable basketball cards from the 1980s.
Note that we included only one card for each player featured on this list.
1986 Michael Jordan Fleer RC #57
No list of must-have cards from the 1980s would be complete without MJ’s top rookie card. The card transcends the sport of basketball in terms of popularity and iconography.
Though Jordan really made his bones in the 90s, hindsight makes the 1986 Michael Jordan Fleer RC #57 the top card from the 80s.
The card features Air Jordan in his trademark pose, arm extended with the ball in palm. Though his legs aren’t spread as wide as the Jordan logo, his tongue wags aggressively in a manner that only Jordan could pull off.
The popular Fleer basketball set from 1986 has a classic design. Jordan’s image is surrounded by a red, white, and blue border. A rounded yellow sub-border frames his image.
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A baby blue nameplate and Fleer Premier emblem round out the frontal design.
Jordan’s is one of several 1986 Fleer rookie cards to make this list. Jordan is who he is, it’s the crown jewel of the 1986 Fleer rookie class.
Had we not enacted a one-card-per-player rule for this list, several other Jordan cards would have made the cut.
1980 Larry Bird/Julius Erving/Magic Johnson Topps Scoring Leader
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It’s a top-shelf card that comes with a top-shelf price tag. The fact that it is a rookie card for both Bird and Magic heightens its appeal.
The card splits a horizontal canvas evenly between each player. Bird, Erving, and Johnson are ordered from left to right, with respective blue, green, and pink borders around their images.
Each player’s team name is written in vibrant cursive lettering. Bird and Johnson have their names and positions listed below the team name in plain font.
Erving is the scoring leader, so he has a “26.9” printed where Bird and Johnson’s positions are. He also earned a “Scoring Leader” emblem on his centered image.
Perforations separate each player image, reminding you of all the poor chaps who tore this iconic card into individual player cards without thinking twice.
Gem Mint copies of this card are the ones to target. They have shown accelerating price increases and are among the priciest basketball cards on the market.
Even lower-grade copies of this card can be an eye-catching addition to any collection.
1986 Charles Barkley Fleer RC #7
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The 1986 Fleer basketball set makes its second (but not its last) appearance on this list with the 1986 Charles Barkley Fleer RC #7.
Perhaps no other basketball player of his era has made himself more relevant post-retirement than Barkley. He is the centerpiece of TNT’s Inside the NBA and remains an influential pop culture figure.
Barkley’s ongoing relevance is good news for those who own his 1986 Fleer RC. On it, a svelte Sir Charles delivers a two-handed slam in his red #34 Sixers jersey.
Barkley’s look of focus and camera-ready teeth remain recognizable. Those muscles and hops, though, will be unrecognizable for fans who are only familiar with Barkley the commentator.
The card’s design mirrors that of the Fleer Jordan RC from the same set. Barkley’s image is surrounded by a thin yellow border with rounded corners.
The red, white, and blue outer border meshes perfectly with Barkley’s Sixers jersey. This card is significantly more affordable than Jordan’s Fleer RC, so you’ll want to target a Gem Mint copy.
1986 Patrick Ewing Fleer RC #32
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Did we mention that the 1986 Fleer basketball set was loaded with icons? You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more impressive set of rookie cards in a single year, let alone a single set.
Patrick Ewing carved out an impressive career across 17 NBA seasons with the Knicks. This card commemorates the first of those 17 seasons. His rookie performance earned him an All-Rookie nod and the Rookie of the Year trophy.
Like the other 1986 Fleer basketball cards, Ewing’s image is centered within a blue, red, and white border.
The hulking Knicks center dons a 1980s-era Knicks jersey with “New York” in broad letters and short shorts containing a Yankees-style “NY” logo.
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The card encapsulates Ewing’s dominant physical presence perfectly. It’s yet another iconic card within a legendary set.
With Jordan’s rookie card pacing the market, Ewing’s looks far more budget-friendly by comparison. By no means is it a budget card, but it is more accessible to a broader spectrum of investors.
1988 John Stockton Fleer RC #115
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If you’re looking to invest in Stockton—to buy some stock in Stock, if you will—then this 1988 John Stockton Fleer RC #115 is the equivalent of a preferred share.
True to Fleer’s (and Stockton’s) fashion, it’s not a gaudy card. It shows Stock in a tight-fitting #12 Utah Jazz jersey. He flexes his jaw, eyes focused downward as he handles the ball confidently.
The card’s outer border features a black-to-white color gradient. A rounded inner border is split between green and purple. The green, upper portion reads “John Stockton” and “Fleer”.
The purple, lower portion reads “Jazz” and “Guard”. It’s a seminal card from one of the legends of the 1980s-90s NBA, but it won’t break your bank.
As one of the great point guards in NBA history, expect Stockton’s Fleer RC to produce steady returns. The key word being steady.
Stockton is not as flashy as players like Magic Johnson. There’s nothing sexy about his play. So, while you shouldn’t expect a precipitous rise in his card’s value, Stockon dominates the NBA record books when it comes to assists.
You can’t knock Stockton’s resume, and that makes his Fleer rookie card an asset worth owning. It may have special appeal to collectors who can appreciate a crisp, accurate chest pass.
1986 Karl Malone Fleer RC #68
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It wouldn’t be right to include Stockton on this list without Karl Malone, the peanut butter to Stockton’s jelly.
This Karl Malone rookie card is part of the legendary 1986 Fleer basketball set. It features a lanky Malone striding down the court in his dark purple Jazz #32 jersey.
It features the standard blue, white, and red border and yellow sub-border of all 1986 Fleer basketball cards. A standout feature is Malone’s socks, which you might also catch in a Jazzercise video from the same era.
The Mailman ranks among the greatest players in NBA history. As his prime rookie card, the 1986 Fleer RC #68 is attractive to anyone looking to add an iconic 1980s NBA rookie card to their portfolio.
Every other card in the set plays second fiddle to Michael Jordan’s 1986 Fleer rookie card. Therefore, you can secure this Malone rookie card in prime condition for a palatable price.
1986 Isiah Thomas Fleer RC #109
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Collectors could basically reach into a box of 1986 Fleer basketball cards and hope to pull out a Hall of Famer’s rookie card. The class really is that deep.
Add Isiah Thomas’ 1986 Fleer RC to the list of iconic 80s basketball cards to own. With the standard Fleer ’86 design as the backdrop, it shows Thomas palming the ball, shoulders cocked back as he surveys the court.
Calf-high socks and thigh-low shorts make Thomas’ image quintessentially 1980s. The blue and red of the Pistons jersey is ready-made for the multi-colored Fleer border.
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All the elements combine to make one beautiful card. In high-graded condition, it is a classic 1980s gem at a reasonable price point.
Because Thomas is an NBA Champion and Naismith Hall of Famer, you’re guaranteed a strong value floor with this rookie card.
1986 Clyde Drexler Fleer RC #26
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Clyde “The Glide” Drexler sometimes gets lost in the shuffle of legendary 1980s ballers. He shouldn’t and this 1986 Clyde Drexler Fleer RC #26 should be on your radar.
We’ll spare you the description of the card’s border—you’ve already heard it. The photograph of Drexler stands out, though.
Clyde’s pitch-black Portland jersey is a stark contrast from the card’s colorful border. His vibrant red sneakers pop off of the cardboard, while his low defensive dribble-crouch indicates Drexler’s otherworldly athleticism.
Though Clyde was an outstanding player, his Fleer RC #26 leaves room for growth. That is to say, you won’t have to pay a ton to acquire it.
1988 Reggie Miller Fleer RC #57
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One of the most lethal shooters in NBA history, Reggie Miller is a Hall of Famer whose rookie card has significant value.
The 1988 Reggie Miller Fleer RC #57 features Miller, who could pass as a pre-teen at the time, presumably eyeing the basket prior to a free throw attempt.
He rocks the retro blue Pacers uniform, a jersey that has been re-adopted by the franchise in the 2000s. The card’s split-color border features Indiana’s blue and yellow team colors.
Something about Miller’s photograph leaves an impression on you. It feels important, and the card takes on an air of significance as a consequence.
And, remember, this is a Reggie Miller rookie card. The fact that Miller was not part of the 1986 Fleer set actually helps him. There are far fewer legendary cards in this set to dilute the value of Miller’s RC.
This Miller rookie card’s historical performance suggests that it may be in for some serious price appreciation.
1986 Dominique Wilkins Fleer RC #121
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One of the premier dunkers of his generation, Dominique Wilkins embodies cool. His cards, including the 1986 Dominique Wilkins Fleer RC #121, are an extension of his aura.
Is Wilkins flying through the air on this card? No, he’s squaring up to shoot a free throw. Even The Human Highlight Film has to shoot his free throws, and this is the rookie card we were given.
With the trademark red, white, and blue border and the distinction that comes with the 1986 Fleer set, this is a card that you should consider.
This ranks among the second-most valuable cards in the 1986 Fleer set. If you’re not going to spring for the Jordan, consider Dominique.
Best 10 Basketball Cards of the 1980s: Buyers Rating and Investment Outlook
If you’re looking for a rules-free list of the most expensive basketball cards from the 1980s, we’ve got that for you.
1980s Basketball Cards Investment Rating: Buy (5 out of 5)
Ownership Disclosure: None
Best Basketball Card From 1980s (Top ROI): 1986 Michael Jordan Fleer RC #57 (BUY ON EBAY)
Risk/Return Analysis: Low Risk/High Return
With this list, we wanted to give players not named Michael Jordan a fair shake. The result is an eclectic list of Fleer cards featuring many of the legends of the game. Did any of them catch your eye?
From Stockton to Barkley and Wilkins, there’s a legendary card for every collector on this list of NBA icons.