By John McMurray
The 1988-89 Fleer Basketball set was issued just prior to a new era in basketball cards taking hold. The last of Fleer’s ‘small’ basketball card sets, containing only 132 cards, 1988-89 Fleer was also one of the final basketball card sets to be printed on non-glossy card stock and to be packaged with a piece of gum.
One year later, NBA Hoops would produce its first basketball card set, offering better player selection, higher production quality, and numerous action poses. Shortly thereafter, the popular Skybox cards of the early 1990s would include action shots to such an extent that basketball card manufacturers would never again make use of as many non-action poses as they had in years prior.
The 1988-89 Fleer Basketball cards, perhaps, get lost in the proliferation of basketball card sets produced in the years to follow. If 1988-89 Fleer Basketball is not a classic set, it is a solid effort that serves as sort of a bridge between the old style of basketball cards and the new. Many collectors like the many unique player poses in the set; that the design highlights team colors; and that the overall presentation stands apart from virtually every other contemporary basketball card set.
After a 25 season absence, Fleer re-entered the basketball card market for the 1986-87 season, having last produced basketball cards in 1961-62. The 1986-87 Fleer set remains an all-time collector favorite because of its extraordinary collection of rookie cards, including Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, and Hakeem Olajuwon, among others.
Demand for the second-year cards of all these players keeps the 1987-88 Fleer Basketball set selling well. Based on player selection alone, those two sets were tough acts to follow. Still, 1988-89 Fleer Basketball does contain many important (and underrated) rookie cards, namely of Scottie Pippen, Mark Price, Reggie Miller, Horace Grant, and Dennis Rodman. Most consider John Stockton’s rookie card to be in 1988-89 Fleer even though he did previously appear in Star Company sets, which lacked widespread distribution.
The 1988-89 Fleer basketball cards include a simple design with a two-tone interior border that varied based upon the respective team colors. Fleer’s card styles during that period were always simple and uncluttered and, unlike sets produced later, did not include anything resembling a basketball on the card fronts (with the exception of a basketball design included on the 12 All-Star cards in 1988-89 Fleer). Since Star Company had produced its final basketball cards for the 1985-86 season and Topps was not manufacturing basketball cards at the time, Fleer was the major producer of NBA cards between the start of the 1986-87 season and the end of the 1988-89 season.
The cards from 1988-89 Fleer that collectors remember most are the unique poses: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s sky hook (his last card), Charles Barkley going up to attempt a shot, and Scottie Pippen going to the basket. The cards of Bill Laimbeer playing defense or of Robert Parish grabbing a rebound are also excellent.
At the same time, a number of players are shown at the free-throw line, including Patrick Ewing, Dominique Wilkins, Dennis Rodman, Jack Sikma, Moses Malone, and Isiah Thomas, likely not what fans were looking for on cards of these stars.
A number of players are also shown on their cards standing still (Wayman Tisdale, Steve Stipanovich, and Derrick McKey, among them).
Of course, every set should ideally have a balance between action cards and posed shots, but, a weakness of this set is that several of the top players have poses on their cards that are not particularly distinctive.
The 12 All-Star cards (numbers 120-131) are a frequently unappreciated part of the set, as All-Star cards were rarely produced in basketball sets in the 1980s. The card of Larry Bird driving to the basket is well done, and Magic Johnson’s All-Star card arguably includes a better pose than does his regular card in the set. It is odd to see the All-Star cards of Byron Scott shooting and of Mark Eaton trying to block a shot with the basketball not being visible on either card, but, on the whole, this small group of All-Star cards is a winner. There is also an 11-card subset of Super Star Stickers, which were included one per pack.
Fleer certainly missed an opportunity with its card backs in this set. Absent was any write-up about particular players or even an endearing player cartoon, as was often included on basketball cards in the 1970s. Since cards here contained only statistics against a relatively bland green, orange, and white background, there was a lot of unused space.
On Greg Anderson’s rookie card, for one, there is basic biographical information at the top and one season’s worth of player statistics below, with most of the card back being blank. As NBA Hoops cards would go on to include more elaborate statistics, a player portrait, and a career description on the back of each card, empty space on basketball card backs would soon be a thing of the past.
Beyond these stylistic concerns, 1988-89 Fleer Basketball is a set that collectors like and can affordably collect. For those who don’t prefer cards on glossy stock, this set has great appeal, and even the four most expensive cards (Jordan, Miller, Pippen, and Stockton) can often be found for under $50 each.
Especially for a small set, the number of superstars included is very high. Particularly because of the player selection, it is safe to say that this set has drawn more collector interest than any Fleer set produced in the immediate years to follow.
The 1988-89 Fleer Basketball cards offer a strong overall presentation while also being available and affordable, and there is a great deal to be said for that.
John McMurray writes about vintage cards for Sports Collectors Digest. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.