It’s tough to find a capable center these days. There are endless talented point guards, small forwards, and power forwards, but where have all the big men gone? Basketball is becoming a faster, more perimeter-oriented game, so it’s necessary to be able to move and react quickly across the court.
As with many traditional positions, centers aren’t as popular as they used to be, while the average player height continues to increase. How can you establish yourself as a traditional center in the land of giants?
This list features some of the top NBA centers of all-time, with info about their best rookie card attached.
The Top 5 NBA Centers of All-Time
The center is typically the five and is normally the tallest player on the team. However, players are now smaller on average, such as the Golden State Warriors who won three championships in 2015, 2017, and 2018 with a smaller and quicker group known as ‘the Death Lineup’ seen as a perfect example.
Golden State utilized 6’7″ forward Draymond Green to great effect in the center position, creating various matchup problems for larger centers with his defensive versatility, speed, ball-handling skills, and perimeter shooting.
The modern game might call for the use of smaller players, but this list of the top centers looks at some of the very best ballers to grace the court.
As with any collectible basketball card, look out for high PSA/BGS grades if you want to find the most valuable options.
1992 Shaquille O’Neal Stadium Club Beam Team Members Only RC #21 (buy on eBay)
Perhaps better known nowadays simply for being a celebrity, Shaquille O’Neal was seen as one of the best prospects in the early ‘90s. At 7’1, his stature and skills made him stand out instantly, while he eventually led the Lakers to championships in 2001, 2002, and 2003, capturing the finals MVP award each year. He was so dominant that many opponents adopted a strategy (“Hack-a-Shaq”) of intentionally fouling him, knowing that he was less likely to make free throws than to score a field goal.
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His Beam Team Insert is the one to make the list, featuring an image of Shaq leaping through the air, with his head almost touching the rim of the basket. You can tell that it’s a ‘90s card because of the crazy border design, which features angled, colored lines on deep black background.
There’s also a “Members Only” version, which is slightly more valuable than the base card.
1975 Moses Malone Topps Basketball RC #254 (buy on eBay)
Moses Malone was named the NBA MVP three times, was a 12-time All-Star, and an eight-time All-NBA Team selection. A real phenomenon, Malone set a record for offensive rebounds in 1978-79, while he still holds six of the top ten places for offensive rebounds in a season.
Despite being one of the most decorated players in NBA history, the prices of his RCs have remained relatively affordable compared to other Hall of Famers. There are only three to choose from, with one being an obvious standout.
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His 1975-76 Topps is a simple card, displaying a large action shot of Malone on the court as he dominates a desperate defender. It’s understated, with a simple Stars logo at the top, and the player name listed in red at the bottom. The dark background contrasts well with the player so he’s the main focus, while it’s one of the top picks from the 1975 Topps set.
1986 Hakeem Olajuwon Fleer Basketball RC #82
A 12-time All-Star, Hakeem Olajuwon amassed 26,946 points, and 13,748 rebounds over his legendary career. During his 18 years in the NBA, Olajuwon staked his claim as one of the greatest players in NBA history. He was the first player to be named NBA MVP, NBA Defensive Player of the Year and NBA Finals MVP in the same season, while he led the Rockets to back-to-back NBA championships in 1994 and 1995.
Related: Best Hakeem Olajuwon Rookie Cards
His best rookie is part of the ‘86 Fleer set which also saw the release of Michael Jordan’s iconic RC, and it has the same red, white and blue background. The action shot sees Olujuwon making himself busy on the court, with his eyes focused on the ball.
Olajuwon does have a Star card that was released two years earlier, but this is seen as his official rookie. Values have risen in recent years, although they’ll struggle to match the Jordan rookie from the ‘86 set.
1969 Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) Topps Basketball RC #25 (buy on eBay)
One of the most decorated players in history, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is a six-time NBA champion (1971, 1980, 1982, 1985, 1987, 1988), six-time NBA MVP, two-time NBA Finals MVP, and a 19-time All-Star, along with a host of different individual and team records that we don’t have space to mention. He retired as the games all-time scorer with 38,387 points.
His definitive RC features a large close-up of Abdul-Jabbar shown front and center, surrounded by tiny images of basketball players in each of the four corners.
You’ll also notice that it’s an oversized 2 ½” by 4 11/16″, and due to the large size, it can be more susceptible to wear compared to more traditional cards. Centering and print defects are also a common issue, which is understandable given the age.
1961 Wilt Chamberline Fleer Basketball RC #8 (buy on eBay)
Wilt Chamberlain is the only NBA player ever to score 4,000 points in a season. He also set NBA single-game records for the most points (100), the most consecutive field goals (18), and the most rebounds (55), while Chamberlain retired as the all-time leader in career points with a total of 31,419. In terms of trophies, he has two NBA championships, earned four regular-season MVP awards, the Rookie of the Year award, one NBA Finals MVP award, and was selected to 13 All-Star Games.
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The oldest card to make the list, the 1961 Fleer is also the only recognized rookie card for one of the most dominant basketball players of all-time. There’s a black and white image of Chamberlain in the bottom section, with a deep brown background. His name and position are found in the middle, while there’s a team logo (Philadelphia Warriors) at the top of the card.
It’s one of the more condition-sensitive options on the list, which is fair given that it’s almost 60 years old. It’s also worth remembering that 1961-62 Fleer Basketball is an iconic set, and this is the number one card to look out for.