Everything was big in 1976. It was the year of America’s Bicentennial, marking a landmark birthday for the USA. It was an election year as America’s voters went to the polls to elect a president. It was an Olympic year, with the world’s greatest amateur athletes heading to Montreal. For the first time, the world would become familiar with names like Bruce Jenner, Sugar Ray Leonard and Nadia Comaneci.
It was also a big year for American professional basketball. The National Basketball Association would that summer expand by four teams through the admission of the New York Nets, Indiana Pacers, San Antonio Spurs, and Denver Nuggets from the now defunct American Basketball Association. Players on other ABA clubs were subject to a dispersal draft of NBA clubs. The NBA honchos ensured that no one referred to this transaction as a “merger,” as that would imply a combination of equals. The NBA made sure everyone knew who had prevailed in the war between the leagues, which had lasted nine years, by making the former ABA clubs buy their way into the established league.
Topps, which had issued basketball cards since 1969, reacted to the new NBA structure in an unexpected manner. They actually shrunk the size of their 1976-77 set. Admittedly, with two ABA franchises (St. Louis and Kentucky) no longer in existence, there were two dozen fewer men playing professional basketball. However, Topps reworked their 1975-76 set with its astounding 330 cards in two series (one for each league) down to only a single series of 144 cards, less than one-half the previous year’s size. It did so in part by eliminating all the previous year’s subsets (Team Leaders, League Leaders, etc.), with the exception of 10 All-Star cards.
Topps did make up in part for the reduction in the set size by expanding the size of those individual 144 cards to dimensions not seen since their set of “Baseball Giants” in 1964. While Topps had issued “Tall Boy” cards of NBA players in 1969-70 and 1970-71, it went beyond even those oversized cards. The 1976-77 cards were an incredible 5 1/4” by 3 1/8” in size — as large as conventional postcards.
Topps proudly and unmistakably announced the larger sized cards on the wrappers, which contained the words “Super-Size Cards” and a picture of a generic hoopster. The backs of the wrappers contained advertisements for several premiums that could be obtained from Topps by sending in a wrapper and a minimal payment. Strangely, one of the products was a wastebasket displaying the symbol of the National Hockey League (not the NBA).
Each of those oversize packs contained 10 cards and cost 15 cents. That meant a collector could either accumulate 150 cards for the meager sum of $2.25 or splurge and amass 200 cards for only $3. With some clever trading a collector would have the entire set and plenty of doubles for those few dollars.
The card fronts are extremely attractive, making them popular with autograph collectors. The player’s name and position appear at the card’s bottom, all in capital letters. His team name appears at the top of the left margin in print best described as art deco and three dimensional. At the bottom of the margin is a basket with a ball dropping in, along with a series of circles to create the image of the ball’s movement into the hoop. With so much room available, there was no need to squeeze players’ pictures into a tiny space. Each picture measures a healthy 4 3/4” by 2 3/8” with a roughly equivalent mix of posed and action shots, all in close up.
The posed pictures seem to have been taken in hallways, evidently in arenas before a game, with a brightly painted wall as the only background. The action shots are much more dramatic and eye-catching. Topps’s game photographer must have been located in the nation’s capital, since almost all of the game action shots were taken at the home games of the Washington Bullets. This led to individual Bullets appearing on the cards of opposing players, sometimes several. For example, Bullets center (and Hall-of-Famer) Wes Unseld is shown not only on his own card (#5) but also on the cards of Campy Russell (#23), Austin Carr (#53), Phil Jackson (#77), and Bob McAdoo (#140). The only noticeable exceptions are the cards of Brian Winters (#45), Sam Lacey (#67), and Nate Archibald All-Star (#129), which were shot at Madison Square Garden against the New York Knicks.
With so much room on the cards’ backs, Topps was able to give collectors some comprehensive information in five different sections. A pink and black box at the top has the card number in a basketball and much personal information, including how acquired by his team and his date and place of birth. Beneath that are his statistics for his college career. For most players, those college numbers are complete. For a handful of players who spent time at obscure colleges or junior colleges, only the school name is noted. For example, Billy Paultz (#19) is credited for the 1967-68 season only as “Attended Cameron St. Junior College, Lawton, Okla.” The lack of a three or four year record for some players is explained as “Entered Pro Basketball following junior [or sophomore] season.”
Beneath the college statistics is a write-up in pink letters in a black box. In most cases, the comments are the usual Topps hyperbole. Keith Erickson (#4) is “a fine clutch player.” Jim Price (#32) has “speed, savvy, and ballhandling expertise.” Jim Brewer (#74) has “catlike quickness for a big man.”
For some players (especially the all-time greats) a straightforward account of their honors and accomplishments is provided. We are told Julius Erving (appropriately #1) was MVP and a unanimous All-Star the previous year. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (#100) was a Rookie of the Year, a two-time scoring champion, and a four-time MVP. And Bob McAdoo (#140) had just won his third straight scoring title.
Following the write-up is presented the player’s statistics for his entire professional career (both NBA and ABA) in the same format as his college statistics. Finally, at the card’s bottom is another pink and black box labeled “basketball rules,” or “basketball terms,” or “basketball signals,” or “how to play basketball.” This is a short statement on (obviously) one of the game’s rules, terms, signals, or playing techniques, accompanied by a cartoon illustrating the point.
Overall, it is difficult to conceive of anything that Topps could add to enhance such an overwhelmingly informative card back.
All 144 cards in the 1976-77 set were printed in an equal amount, reportedly on two sheets of 72 cards each, although no uncut sheets are known to exist. This means there were no short prints or double prints. There were also no variations or corrected errors, leaving the set complete at the original 144 number. Authorities unanimously claim there are no error cards but, obviously, no one has ever done an exhaustive examination of every statistic of every player. In fact, there is definitely one error unreported to date.
Detroit Pistons guard Jimmy Walker (#92) and Bullets forward (actually swingman) Mike Riordan (#56) were college teammates at Providence from 1964 to 1967. Incredibly, the backs of their Topps cards credit them with college statistics that are totally identical, down to the last rebound. A quick internet search reveals that the Riordan card is in error, with Topps duplicating Jimmy’s numbers for Mike.
Although they are over 40 years old, the 1976-77 basketball cards are by no means hard to find. Their size, their hardy cardboard stock, and the fact that they are easy to store in four-pocket sheets in binders combine to make them resistant to wear. It is equally easy to complete the entire set. After the massive 1975-76 set and its numerous subsets, the following year collectors only had to find 133 player cards, 10 cards (#126-135) in an All-Star subset, and a single checklist card (#48).
There is only one Hall of Fame rookie in the set: David Thompson (#110). His card brings only a small premium, probably because his admission to the Hall of Fame was based primarily on his outstanding college career. Other prominent first-year cards are those of Gus Williams (#69), Alvan Adams (#75), and World B. Free (#143), who was then still known as Lloyd Bernard Free.
There are numerous Hall-of-Famers in the set, including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Erving, Pete Maravich, Rick Barry, and Elvin Hayes, all of whom also appear in the All-Star subset. Their presence, along with the small set size, means it contains one of the highest percentages of future Hall-of-Famers of any Topps set of the 1970s. There are also several future coaches, most notably Phil Jackson, and future broadcasters, such as Bill Walton.
All this combines to make the set eminently affordable. A common player card presently goes for only $2 or so in excellent or near mint condition. Stars and superstars are naturally more expensive but still only in the $10-$20 range. The entire set lists for $1,000 or less in near mint condition and roughly half of that in VG/E condition. Centering problems, especially top-to-bottom, are frequently encountered, but well-centered cards are so common that it is easy to bypass off-centered cards and search for better examples.
In the following years, Topps would return to smaller cards, making the 1976-77 set unique. Yet, the 1976-77 basketball set has so many positive features it is hard to conceive of a basketball card collector who would not desire to possess it. At this time of year, when the NBA postseason is upon us and past champions are discussed and debated, it is fitting to recall the historic 1976-77 season and the Topps cards that captured its time and place so well.
James Mercer is a contributing writer to Sports Collectors Digest.