No matter the era, LeBron James and Michael Jordan are two clear contenders for the official title of ‘best basketball player of all-time’. They each have endless accolades and a number of solid arguments as to why they’re truly the greatest, but that’s a debate for another day.
Whatever your stance on the GOAT argument, it’s clear that Jordan and James have some of the best rookie card options if you’re looking at long-term investments in 2020.
But which is the better long-term buy, especially when it’s so difficult to pick one over the other on the court?
The Basics: Michael Jordan and LeBron James Rookie Cards
Michael Jordan helped to bring the game to a global audience, with everything from the Air Jordan brand to his role in Space Jam turning him into a modern-day superstar. His stats are incredible, while his signature dunk was a thing of beauty.
A couple of retirements and a failed stint in baseball never dampened his star power, and he’s widely regarded as one of the greatest of all time. His rookie cards were released in 1986-87.
The modern contemporary, LeBron James is just as talented as Jordan, while everything from the rise of social media, to games being broadcast in 215 countries have further enhanced his reputation with a worldwide audience.
Jordan vs James
One way of picking which rookie card to go for is to choose your favorite player of the two. You can argue either way when it comes to determining the GOAT, but maybe it’s better to think of it as a natural progression.
Sports tend to move rapidly with the times, and it could be argued that LeBron is the more complete athlete, who also benefits from advances in everything from training techniques and dietary standards to improved recovery times and the latest footwear. While Jordan was a one-man team, James is the sort of player who manages to bring out the best from everyone on the court.
LeBron shows no signs of retiring, recently likening himself to veteran New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who is still going strong at the age of 42. James’ physical gifts will slowly diminish, (before falling rapidly in the final years) but he’s only 35, with enough time left to break or extend as many records as possible as he tries to establish a long-term legacy that matches MJ.
LeBron will have better stats when all is said and done, but there’s no clear cut winner between the two.
Perhaps the question should be, which would be your personal preference based on their career, and who’s rookie cards would you rather own for a long time?
The LeBron/Jordan RC
The sale of a LeBron/Jordan RC made international headlines recently after it went for a high six-figure fee. Any card featuring the duo will obviously interest collectors, despite the lack of an autograph.
Upper Deck’s 2003-2004 “Exquisite Collection” features both LeBron and Jordan, with patches for both players on the same card. A one of a kind, it sold for $900,000 by Ken Goldin of Goldin Auctions at a private sale in February 2020.
The LeBron-Jordan 1/1 card was only given a BGS 8.5 rating, but it’s not as though a better version is suddenly going to appear on the market. The sale makes it the most expensive piece of merchandise featuring James or Jordan, and one of only three cards to ever reach that price. It’s also the highest sale price for any basketball card, and the most expensive modern trading card of any kind.
The record was previously held by a 1969/70 Topps #25 Lew Alcindor PSA GEM MT 10, which sold at auction for $501,900.
You won’t have to look for 1 of 1 cards to find expensive options, as their rookie cards have begun to increase rapidly over the last two decades. The sale of the 1/1 also caused a minor bump in the average RC price for Jordan and LeBron, but what are the trends individually?
Rookie Card Prices: Jordan
You can’t go wrong if you’re looking at James and Jordan rookie cards, with collectors basing their preference on a variety of different factors.
At the high end, the 1986-87 Fleer Jordan rookie card is arguably the most popular basketball rookie card of the modern era, and they definitely don’t come cheap.
Prices for mint Jordans (graded 9) doubled between 2014 and 2018, and they’ve continued to rise rapidly over the past couple of years. PSA 10 Jordan Fleer rookie cards went for $20,000-$25,000 in 2018, and they’re currently selling for just under $40,000 as of March 2020. That’s a significant increase of almost 100% in a two-year span, and most investors would bite your hand off for returns of that nature.
The trend continues for the majority of Jordan’s rookie cards, although that does mean that they’re slightly inflated compared to other rare options from his era. Here are some key facts to consider;
- Cards are increasing in price rapidly, although this means that they’re also slightly inflated.
- MJ’s rookie cards were released in the Junk Wax Era, so they’re not necessarily worth anything in the first place. Take the 1991 Upper Deck Baseball edition, which is hardly worth more than a few dollars.
- Highly graded cards are the best investment option given current trends.
- There are lots of 90’s basketball fans out there who will buy MJ rookie cards for nostalgic purposes.
- PSA 10 Jordan Fleer rookie cards are up by almost 100% in a two-year span, potentially limiting returns in the future if they’ve almost reached the maximum amount that people are willing to pay.
Rookie Card Prices: LeBron
In comparison, LBJ still has a ways to go before his cards can be held in the same regard as His Airness. That’s not to say that they aren’t as valuable, with Lebron’s 2003-04 Upper Deck Exquisite Collections rookie patch selling for an incredible $192,000 in a 2016 Heritage Auction event.
Interestingly, it’s not even particularly rare, with 99 copies of the Exquisite Collections patch available. It does highlight just how expensive LeBron’s uncommon options are, while they have risen notably over the past decade as he proved he was the real deal. However, he’s still an active player, and he still performs at a high level.
James has 62 rookie cards altogether, and that’s before counting the various parallels, inserts, and special editions from 2003-04. While this hasn’t diminished the price of rarer options, it does mean that many are affordable. Upper Deck, Topps, and Fleer are the three brands to look out for.
- Widely seen as one of the greatest of all time, some collectors will favor LeBron over MJ.
- His rookie card prices are likely to increase until his retirement, while they could continue to rise as Jordan’s have.
- There are so many options to choose from, making it almost impossible to complete the set.
- The finale of his career will also have a part to play, and a couple of NBA Championship wins would help to tip the scales further.
The bubble may burst eventually, but it’ll be hard to find a more popular pair of rookie cards to invest in at the moment. Given current trends, prices are likely to keep increasing slowly, but you can never be 100% certain when it comes to investing in a volatile market.
Jordan is definitely a safer bet for now, especially as he retired for the final time back in 2003. He’s quieter than many other former athletes and doesn’t get involved in any controversies that would have the potential to cause a notable dip in his rookie card prices.
“I don’t want to get into a feud with Daryl Morey, but I believe he wasn’t educated on the situation at hand, and he spoke, so many people could have been harmed, not just financially, but physically, emotionally, spiritually.”
Predictably, many fans and the media weren’t impressed with his take. In other words, it’s easier for players to get in trouble nowadays, and that uncertainty should be factored into your decision as LeBron is going to be on the active roster for the foreseeable future.
Then there’s the fact that Jordan is still one of the most recognizable athletes in the world, a long time after his retirement. His cards are genuine classics, while LeBron represents the next generation of expensive rookies along with Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant.
The bottom line is, do you stick with the player you know in Jordan, or do you go for one of LeBron’s cards in the hopes that prices explode as they did in the decade following MJ’s retirement? If you’re cautious, look at Jordan, while LeBron’s cards would be a bigger gamble, but one that could pay off significantly