In 1980, Topps released a rookie card for two players who would change the game and paired them with one icon who already had.
In 1980, Topps Chewing Gum had just taken a loss.
After years of owning the baseball card space as the category’s exclusive seller, a federal judge allowed Fleer to come in as a competitor and break their monopoly of the market.
While the higher-ups at Topps likely spent much of that year conversing with lawyers, the brand’s employees tasked with creating cards for the less popular category of basketball must have been busy rubbing a crystal ball.
That year, the NBA saw the ascent of two players who would define a decade and explode the game: Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. The future MVPs and NBA champions were both rookies in the 1979-80 season, taking their rivalry and the league to new heights in the major markets of Boston and Los Angeles.
As Topps’ baseball business was taking a strike at home plate, their basketball branch had the foresight to place both Bird and Magic on one card.
That idea proved prophetic and iconic.
“It’s an amazing card,” Jesse Craig, the Director of Business Development at trading cards and collectibles marketplace PWCC, told Boardroom. “It’s like you hit the lotto when you were manufacturing a trading card because of all the things that came into place for that.”
For Topps, it was a jackpot. For fans who fell in love with basketball in the 1980s, it was a grail.
Craig himself calls it his “favorite card of all time” and he’s not alone in holding the 1980 Topps standout in high regard.
In fact, an autographed version just sold on PWCC for $9,250.
While Magic Johnson and Larry Legend headline the card thanks to their 1980 rookie arrival and highly regarded rivalry, they’re sharing space with another star on this Topps classic. Centered between the two titans is an All-Star from the 1970s who also took home Finals hardware in the 1980s: Julius “Dr. J” Erving.
Putting the Sixers star in the middle as a benchmark for greatness only adds to the Nostradamus notion that these players were going to be transcendent.
However, the man who dunked from the free throw line and once changed direction in midair is still somewhat slept on in both the hoops hierarchy and collectible market.
“I think Dr. J is very undervalued as a player and his cards in general,” said Craig, who shares the same sentiment regarding Tiger Woods.
Even without Dr. J, the fact that Larry Bird and Magic Johnson are on the same card in their rookie season is so incredible that it’s almost dumb luck.
Still, the addition of one of the game’s all-time greats is the icing on the cake.
“That guy being added to a Bird/Magic rookie card? It’s just incredible,” Craig said.
In an era where basketball cards are exploding in the collectible conversation and talent is at an unprecedented high, one has to wonder what a modern equivalent would look like.
Not only would it take the aforementioned youngsters reaching top-10 status in the future to equate the greatness, it would take a time machine for Panini to print that.
Famously, one close comp to the Bird x Magic x Erving card came decades later.
“In 2003, they came out with the Fleer LeBron, Wade and Melo card,” Craig said. “They took a page out of the 1980 Topps book when they made that card, right?”
There’s no doubt that the achievements of James, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony make that card a keeper and an obvious homage to the archival Topps trio.
However, while the ’03 rookie card impresses, its roster isn’t toting the same combined resume of titles and MVP trophies as the Bird x Erving x Magic moonshot.
Nor is it going two-for-two on predicting top-10 all-timers, adding extra emphasis by pairing them with an already established legend.
Signed and sold, the grail card for Craig is not in his personal possession despite being the apple of his eye for decades. In this era of advising at PWCC, he sees collecting and consuming cards as a conflict of interest.
Still, that’s not to say that the coveted 1980 Topps trio won’t one day end up in his hands.
“Eventually owning a PSA 10 of that card is a goal of mine down the road,” Craig said. “I just can’t see another card like that in our market.”