A guide on 90s Basketball Cards

Cardboard Chronicles, a YouTube channel to promote and interview collectors specializing in ’90s basketball, was created by Joshua Johnson, a New York native and expert in the hobby who also created a series of educational tools aimed at introducing new collectors to the hobby.

He has served as a resource for us to delve into the world of sports cards. This is his guide. 

The thrill of the chase convinced me in my youth that my cards weren’t valuable, and my friends and I also enjoyed the thrill of finding the best cards in the packs.

We would play with our friends and open packs to find our favorites and share our collections for years to come. The sports cards from my basketball playing days from the nineties evoke the fondest memories for me.

The beauty and uniqueness of nineties basketball cards are the things that really make this decade stand out. Due to high demand and a lack of availability, collectors’ prices have skyrocketed. This is explained by simple economics.

In the last few years, several factors have contributed to the growth of the hobby, including economic growth and marketing to people via social media outlets like Facebook and Instagram, explains Justin Gee, a long-time hobby expert.

In addition to that, you can access the marketplace at any price point for millennials with disposable income and nostalgia for their heroes. He explains, “It’s an unprecedented convergence that we have never seen before.”

There are counterfeits and fakes, but the demand for ’90s basketball cards continues to rise and the supply continues to diminish. Here we define ’90s basketball terms and discuss the effect of supply and demand.

Early 1990s: Junk Wax

As people recall, the 1990s were part of the junk wax era (from 1987 to 1994 when sports cards were overproduced and bland) when money was invested into Shaquille O’Neal rookie cards we later found out were mass-produced.

As a rookie, Shaq introduced the masses to the basketball card hobby. Card prices were rising rapidly but the market wasn’t able to support its peak with the number of cards being released. The Shaq rookie card wasn’t rare by any means; it was merely what everyone wanted.

Some would say that during this decade of basketball cards the bubble burst and thousands left the hobby. In truth, this mishap catapulted the era of great basketball cards

1992: ’90s Inserts

Occasionally, cards of a lower pack value will show up on the market, making them harder to find. Unlike cards of the “base set,” inserts are part of a “subset” that can be found together with the base set cards.

They are different from the base cards and usually have a different name. 1992 was the year of inserts with the Stadium Club Beam Team.

Basketball cards from the Nineties are often marked by creative inserts with wild graphics. Most collectors focus their attention on high-grade inserts from Michael Jordan (preferred condition as defined by the grading companies, PSA and BGS). The cards are more than 20 years old now, so it’s a challenge to find them in high quality, but that’s fun! As a result, the prices have skyrocketed.

Many inserts do not have serial numbers, so rarity is driven by the pack’s probability odds. The harder it is to pull from a pack, the more valuable the card becomes.

“When we started designing for Fleer in the early ’90s, trading cards were still very traditional looking,” said designers Earl Arena and Jean MacLeod of Arena Design. “We wanted to stand out from anything that was on the market as well as reflect the greatness of the athletes.

In the mid-1990s, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and other pop artists were influencing us, as well as hip-hop, skateboarding, graffiti, and video games. We were working in an ad agency in Atlantic City with casino clients and wanted to utilize printing techniques.”

1993: Refractor Parallels

The parallel refractor introduced by Topps in 1993 was a variation of the regular base card with a reflective coating that is used as a prism when held in the light. This was introduced with Topps’ high-end product Finest.

Michael Jordan was such a significant card that it is still undervalued due to its historical significance. Rare parallel refractors gave the NBA cards a whole new dynamic as well. Everyone had a Shaq rookie card from 1992 Upper Deck, but few had the Michael Jordan refractor card.

Companies manufactured cards at high volumes at this time. These parallel versions began to greatly alter sports cards. They added an artificial scarcity to the market that previously did not exist, and positioned card companies for even bigger innovations.

1996: Topps Chrome Refractors

1996 was the year Topps released its first Chrome set. The Chrome set was similar to the original Finest, but featuring an extra layer of film over the surface. It also featured a refractor parallel. Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Ray Allen, Allen Iverson, and Stephon Marbury all played for that class.

These basketball players still stand out today for their parallelism with refractor basketball. With its simplicity and beauty, Topps Chrome sports cards were copied for years in basketball.

1996: Autographed Cards

Since 1996, autographed cards have existed in packs and have been produced by Upper Deck SPx. The first autographed cards featured Michael Jordan and Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway as the athletes. The autographs of players could now be purchased in packs of cards for as little as $5.

It is rare to find signed cards today, but at the time, they were extremely scarce. Today, owning the first-ever Michael Jordan pack-inserted autographed card is major.

1996: Serial Numbered Cards

In 1996, there was also the first mainstream serial numbered card. Serial numbered cards are stamped with a factory-stamped number on them, or sometimes they are written by hand. Each copy has its own unique number (for example 146/150).

This allowed collectors to determine how many copies of a card had been printed, thereby showing their item’s rarity. This had a huge impact on the trading market as limited-edition items, and the supply-and-demand cycle drove up market value.

1997: 1 of 1s

Also introduced in 1997, Flair Showcase was the first to introduce the 1of 1, referred to as a Masterpiece. The card was designed so that only one copy was available for each player, making it extremely rare.

Special edition cards are extremely valuable to player collectors who know they can get their hands on them for a far higher price than mass-market versions. The 1 of 1s has a stamp on the back that reads “The Only 1 of 1 Masterpiece” in purple font.

1997: Rare Parallels

In 1997, the Precious Metal Gems, Rubies, and Credentials sets, created by Fleer Skybox with a very limited print run—included the best players in the NBA. A popular set of Metal Universe Precious Metal Gems parallels was released in 1997.

The set included 100 cards and the first 10 in the print run had an emerald green surface with the remaining 90 having a brilliant red surface.

Michael Jordan’s 1997 Metal Universe Green PMG, as it’s often called, is by far the most popular card of this era. A copy of the Green PMG was recently sold for $350,000 at an open auction to super-collector Nat Turner. It is one of the most sought-after cards by player collectors from the 90s because of its beauty and rarity.

“The Michael Jordan Green PMG eluded me for many years. Turner, the super collector cited above, said that this card represents everything that makes him love cards and why he collects ’90s basketball cards.

1997: Metal Universe Championship

Also included in Metal Universe’s 1997 release was the Championship set, which contained Precious Metal Gems limited to 50. 

The PMG Championship numbering to 50 is the most difficult to locate outside of PMG Green. The better cards of this set take years to locate and are usually not available for sale,” Grant Slayton states.

Metal Universe Championship was released one month after the first Metal Universe set, therefore causing confusion. Many thought it was simply a second Metal Universe set, but it was actually a completely different set. The set featured one or two veterans and the rookie class of 1997. 

Its highlight is the lenticular patterns Skybox used, which are unique to this set, first used that year by Panini. “The backgrounds feature landscapes and cityscapes from around the United States and Canada. This is an amazing idea.”

1997: Star Rubies

Many collectors consider Skybox Premium’s Star Rubies parallel to be more visually pleasing than PMG sets. There is also a Skybox Team set with a Star Rubies parallel. Both sets are covetable in their own right.

“The Star Rubies is one of the most iconic sets of the 1990s. Shiny, unique, and beautiful, it’s hard to find sets that offer similar magic and allure to those Star Rubies of the ’90s,” says collector John Burleson.

1997: Credentials

In 1997, Skybox E-X2001 released a parallel set, Credentials Now and Credentials Future. It featured 80 players and they each had their own set of terms.

When added together, the serial numbers of the Future version and the Now version totaled 81. For example, Penny Hardaway has an 81 86 77 and a 4 number. The veterans had low numbers and rookies had low numbers.

The 1/1 Credentials Now includes the hotly anticipated Grant Hill. This card would have previously been regarded as a myth until it emerged on the internet in 2018. With bids rumored to be close to $70,000, the 1/1 set is even more valuable.

1997: Jersey Memorabilia Cards

The first jersey cards came out in 1997. These players’ cards are very important for the modern card landscape. The first-year jersey cards were on the market, there were very few of them, and are very difficult to pull from packs at 1 to 2,500 odds. One jersey card signed by Michael Jordan and hand-numbered with the number 23 recently sold in auction for $94,630.

Basketball Cards FAQs

What are the cards in my basement worth?

I can assure you that you will not be as rich as you think if you have basketball cards from the ’90s in your basement. These rare cards are very hard to obtain, and their pack odds are ridiculously high. Modern collectors expect a hit every time they open a box. In the 1990s, this wasn’t the case. You could open 20 packs of cards and only hit a parallel of a nobody.

Despite the dearth of base cards and non-rare inserts at the time back in the ’90s, Adam Gray, a long-time basketball card collector, said the demand for these cards had increased.

In the ’90s, there were cards like the Jordan PMG, Kobe Credentials, and autographs buried in a sea of junk creating a mythical allure to cards. 

Why have prices surged?

It’s estimated that if you were ten years old in 1999, you’d be 30 now. The ’90s generation is being hit by a nostalgia-reboot cycle and basketball cards are no exception.

With cards, you can engage in investing on an emotional level that is not possible with traditional investing. Sports fans also have a sense of investing in their favorite sports stars, strengthening the bonds between star and fan.

About 2010 prices began to climb exponentially, and since 2017, especially for Michael Jordan cards, the trend has carried on.

The Michael Jordan 1997-98 Metal Universe PMG Green was the holy grail for all 1990s basketball cards. It sold in 2007 for $5,300.23. It was last sold in 2019 for $350,100. That’s quite a price.” 

A 12-year ROI of 6,505.37%,” says Chris McGill of House of Jordan podcast.

How do I know if my cards are genuine?

It is a good idea to study up the difference between basketball cards before shelling out lots of money because counterfeits exist in basketball cards.

There is nothing like Nat Turner’s collection of basketball cards to serve as a strong metric for validating authenticity.

Forgers can use original photographs and graphics and text elements to recreate entire cards from scratch in the back, and the end result is a forgery that is frighteningly similar to the original. These forgeries cannot be detected by traditional methods.

“PSA and BGS are known to spot vintage fakes, but they haven’t quite been able to incorporate the latest generation of forgeries,” states noted ’90s fake expert Brendan Bigelow.

What is the future of basketball cards?

The global popularity of basketball in the NBA continues to grow rapidly which will continue to bring in more interest. Statistics produced by the NBA indicate that more than 600 million Chinese people watched some of the league’s programming during the 2017 season and that with 178 million followers on the NBA’s Chinese social media channels, it has the highest viewership of all sports leagues in that market.

Collectors are locking in their cards and locking them into their collections because they know they will be nearly impossible to retrieve.

New money entering the hobby that wants to acquire these cards is increasing prices, so if new money wants to acquire them, prices will continue to rise. Some have only appeared on the market once or twice a year.

Gee says, “Collectors want what’s unique. While vintage is highly collectible, it’s ultimately hundreds of the exact same card of the exact same player, with the only variable being the card’s condition.

Modern cards pushed the envelope in product design (PMGs, Credentials, the introduction of the first jersey cards in 1997), scarcity (low serial numbered subsets, subsets with extremely difficult odds), and price point (’93-’94 Finest basketball as the first ‘high-end’ product at $100 per box, ’03-’04 Exquisite basketball as the first ‘ultra high-end product at $550 per box).

To me, vintage basketball is about collecting the grade, whereas modern basketball is about collecting the card.”

A basketball card is more than just cardboard. It is a piece of art, culture, sport, and for many of us a mark of our childhood. In the ’90s, basketball cards are a treasure trove of passion rather than commerce. And we have that.

Christina Mullenax

Christina is an American-Russian professional basketball coach and former player who is the head coach of the Las Vegas Aces of the Women’s National Basketball Association. She currently also serves as an assistant coach for the San Antonio Spurs of the National Basketball Association.

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