Sports Collectors

Overlooked and Underrated Rookie Cards of NBA Greats – Part 3, the 1970s

In the 1970s, post-Wilt and Russell, but pre-Magic/Bird, the NBA found itself short on spectacular, media-friendly stars. Of course, there was Kareem, putting together the greatest three-year run in the history of the sport and capturing a title in Milwaukee, before thriving on a series of underwhelming Lakers teams. Toward the end of the decade there was also Dr. J, who was still the standard for spectacular play. However, the league lacked a signature dynasty and was woefully short on mainstream, media-friendly superstars.

This isn’t to say that the NBA of the ‘70s was bereft of talent. Unfortunately, that talent wasn’t capturing the imagination of an apathetic public. Cable TV, and a truly widespread audience were still a ways off. Plus, given the ugly perceptions of the league as “too Black”, and overrun with drug abuse, broadcasters weren’t clamoring to air games nationally. It’s been pointed out countless times before, but even the Finals were relegated to tape delay.

We’ve looked at rookie cards of four greats from the dawn of pro basketball, and a quartet of legends from the star-studded 1960s. Here, we take a look at the cardboard debuts of several stars as accomplished as those who preceded them, but also lost to the NBA’s “dark ages”.

For the purposes of this series, we’re sticking purely with NBA guys. This isn’t because anyone here has anything against the ABA (if anything, your author might love the ABA too much), but because we’ve already explored the ABA, not once, but twice.

We’ll start with the 1970-71 Topps set, which marked the first time that mainstream basketball cards were released in consecutive years. It’s well-trodden ground here, but Topps’ 1969 return to hoops resulted in the most iconic of sets. Fifteen of the 99 “tallboy” cards are rookies of Hall of Famers, many of them inner circle greats: Lew Alcindor, John Havlicek, Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, Earl Monroe, Jerry Lucas… Of course, it helped that a basketball rookie card hadn’t been produced since 1961.

For its ‘70-‘71 product, Topps once again went with a tallboy format. This time the set was expanded, to 175 cards, and released – in an historical first for basketball – in two series. As ’69 had worked through the RC backlog, the ‘70 set wasn’t nearly as stacked. The headliner is “Pistol” Pete Maravich, with Rockets great Calvin Murphy also featuring, along with a pair of future coaching greats: Pat Riley and Jerry Sloan.

 

Bob Dandridge (1970 Topps, #63)

Overlooked and Underrated Rookie Cards of NBA Greats – Part 3, the 1970s

You’d think this would leave room for recognition for a guy whose on-court achievements equal or exceed those of his more famous set-mates. Alas, there’s seemingly always “just not enough” limelight for Bob Dandridge to get his fair share.

Over thirteen seasons with the Bucks and Washington Bullets, Dandridge averaged 18.5 points and nearly seven rebounds per game. He was named an All-Star four times – of the set’s other rookies only Maravich, with five, was selected more times.

He was actually better in the playoffs, averaging 20 points and almost eight rebounds in 98 games. Incidentally, those 98 outings, and his 1,967 points, are each third-most in the NBA between ’69-’70 and ’79-’80. Also, between 1970 and 1979, Dandridge took part in more NBA Finals games and scored more points (only Jerry West was within 100) than any other player.

In his second season, alongside Kareem and Oscar Robertson, he put up 19 and 10 in a 14-game playoff run that culminated in a championship. The following spring, he averaged 21.5 and 8.8 rebounds as Milwaukee returned to the conference finals.

Five excellent seasons later, he signed with the Bullets, teaming up with Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes. In 1977-78, he helped power the Bullets to their first title. Dandridge’s higher-profile mates the attention, but he was a force, averaging 21.5, 6.5 rebounds and four assists in the postseason, and sealing Game 7 of the Finals with a late dunk.

The Bullets almost duplicated the feat in ’78-’79, as Dandridge averaged over 20 points and earned Second Team All-NBA and First Team All-Defense honors. In 19 more postseason games, he averaged 23, 7.4 and 5.5 assists, as the Bullets returned to the Finals, where they fell to the Seattle Supersonics.

Despite triumphing alongside the greats and accumulating a legendary resume, Dandridge is nowhere near a household name. In fact, for his troubles, he had to wait until 2021 – nearly thirty years after his last NBA game – for enshrinement in the Hall of Fame.

The design of the 1970 Topps set is (if we’re being honest) aggressively bland – thanks largely to the fact that Topps wasn’t licensed to include team names and logos. Despite this, Dandridge’s RC is quite easy on the eye, the contrast between the basketball, the blue background and the green Bucks jersey helping the card to pop. Also delightfully eye-catching are the accompanying prices. With a PSA population of just 219, it takes some effort to find, but can be had in PSA 7 (pop: 45) or 8 (pop: 87) for under $100. Three of the 27 PSA 9s (there are no 10s) sold between September 2020 and September 2021, at prices under $500.

Nate Archibald (1971 Topps, #29)

Overlooked and Underrated Rookie Cards of NBA Greats – Part 3, the 1970s

The spiritual predecessor to Isiah Thomas and Allen Iverson, Nate “Tiny” Archibald was lightening quick, an exceptional ballhander, an awesome scorer and tough. 1960s South Bronx tough.

In 1970, Archibald was selected by in the ABA Draft by the Texas Chaparrals, and with the 19th overall pick in the NBA Draft, by the Cincinnati Royals. Unlike many in those days, Tiny chose the NBA.

After a solid rookie season in which he averaged 16 points per game, he kicked off one of the great runs for a point guard in NBA history. In his second year, he averaged 28.2 points and 9.2 assists per game, made nearly 49% of his shots, and earned a spot on the All-NBA Second Team. That season, he had nine 40-point, 10-assist games, breaking Oscar Robertson’s record of eight, set in 1963-64.

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In 1972-73, he torched the league to the tune of 34 points and 11.4 assist, while, again, making about 49% of his shots. This, famously, is the only time that a player has led the NBA in both points and assists per game in the same season. This time he was selected First Team All-NBA, and finished third in the MVP vote.

He broke his own record from the prior season for 40-point, 10-assist games in a season, with fourteen – the mark still stands. 2016-17 Russell Westbrook (10) is the only other player ever to reach double figures. To this day, only Oscar (49) and James Harden (32) have more of 40-10 games than Tiny’s 23.

On November 18, 1972, he put 51 points and 14 assists on the Rockets. On January 9, 1973, he laid into the Knicks for 52 and 14. Eighteen days after that, in Atlanta, he treated the Hawks to 52 and 11. Those were (to that point) three of the eleven 50-point, 10-assist games in NBA history. Archibald was the fourth player ever to have multiple such games, the first to do so multiple times in the same season, and the first to ever do so three times total. Only Russ (4 in 2016-17) and Harden (4 in 2018-19) have ever had three such games in a season.

35 games into the 1973-74 season, Tiny ruptured his left Achilles. Typically a kiss of death for explosive players, the injury was merely a setback, as he was back in ’74-‘75, averaging 26.5 points and almost seven assists, earning All-Star and All-NBA First-Team honors. He followed that up with nearly 25 and 8, and another All-Star/All-NBA First-Team double.

In 1977, he had to do it again. This time, prior to his first season as a Buffalo Brave, he ruptured his right Achilles. The injury cost him all of the 1977-78 season, and ended his prime. But, again, not his career.

In 1978, as part of the ridiculous franchise swap between the Celtics and the Braves, Archibald was sent to Boston, where he spent five largely healthy seasons, averaging 12.5 points and over seven assists, earning three more All-Star selections. In 1980-81, he earned another Second Team All-NBA nod, while teaming with Robert Parish, Cedric Maxwell and a young Larry Bird to lead the Celtics to a title.

Archibald’s rookie card resides in the understated but alluring 1971 Topps set. Some manner of action shot would be preferable, but the funky baby blue script at the top, combined with the trim on Archibald’s jersey makes for a great look.

Wildly overlooked even within its own set, it’s the eleventh most-graded ’70 Topps card, behind several established stars (Oscar, Wilt, West, Havlicek, Alcindor and Maravich), and four other rookies: Rick Barry, Dan Issel, Dave Cowens and Bob Lanier.

Of 545 graded by PSA, a majority have earned grades of either NM 7 (150) or NM-MT 8 (191), with PSA 5 (55), 6 (83) and 9 (35) largely rounding out the population. PSA 7s and 8s are readily available in the low-three-figures, while 9s, when available, fetch low-four-figures.

Rudy Tomjanovich (1971 Topps, #91)

Overlooked and Underrated Rookie Cards of NBA Greats – Part 3, the 1970s

Elvin Hayes was the Rockets’ first-ever star, but, more than anyone other than Hakeem Olajuwon, Rudy Tomjanovich is the face of the franchise. These days, Rudy T is best known for guiding a pair of Hakeem-led teams to NBA titles, or as the recipient of a devastating, career-threatening punch from Kermit Washington in a December 1977 brawl between the Rockets and the Lakers.

Prior to all of that, though Tomjanovich, the second overall pick in the 1970 draft and one of the best forwards of his era, with career averages of 17.4 points and 8.1 rebounds over eleven seasons. However, he was even better in his pre-Punch prime.

In six-plus seasons starting in 1971-72 (his second in the NBA), Rudy averaged 20 points and 9.3 rebounds per game, and was named an All-Star four times. Twice he averaged nearly twelve rebounds per game. In 1973-74 he was outstanding, finishing sixth in the league in scoring (24.5 per game), fifth in Player Efficiency Rating (20.5) and fourth in Win Shares (12.8).

Most incredibly, he returned to floor in 1978-79, following reconstructive face surgery, to average 19 points and 7.7 rebounds per game, and earn the fifth All-Star nod of his career. He retired in 1981 as the Rockets all-time leader in rebounds, second in points scored and third in assists. His 13,383 points are still good enough for fourth in franchise history, as are his 6,198 rebounds.

Rudy’s rookie also resides in the 1971 set. 380 have been slabbed by PSA, with nearly half (187) earning NM-MT 8s, with 7s (91) and 9s (40) making up much of the rest of the population. 7s and 8s are typically available for less than $100, with PSA 9s, after years bouncing of between $100-$150, now commanding around $300.

Though there are only 5 PSA 10s in existence, eight have sold in the three years prior to writing – six between February 2019 and February 2021, for between $1,300 and $2,000. A pair has since changed hands, for $5,766 and $4,079.

Bob McAdoo (1973 Topps, #135)

Overlooked and Underrated Rookie Cards of NBA Greats – Part 3, the 1970s

Bob McAdoo is a poster child for greatness lost to obscurity and itinerance. One of the most versatile big men of the time, he boasted an excellent perimeter game, thrived in an up-tempo system, and was a stellar defender.

Another #2 overall pick (out of UNC in 1972), McAdoo began his career with the Buffalo Braves. After winning Rookie of the Year in 1972-73 with averages of 18 and 9, “Mac” ripped off an incredible three-year run, during which he averaged 32.1 points, 13.8 rebounds and 2.5 blocks, won three consecutive scoring titles, earned a pair of All-NBA selections (one First, one Second), finished top-three in MVP voting three times, and won the award in 1974-75. His 1973-74 season remains the last in which an NBA player averaged 30 points and 15 rebounds, and is one of just two in almost 40 years (along with Shaq in 1999-2000) in which a player led the NBA in both scoring and field goal percentage.

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In December 1976, McAdoo was traded to New York. In 171 games across three seasons (one full) with the Knicks, he remained fantastic, averaging 26.7 points and 12 rebounds, and earning the last two All-Star selections of his career.

Between February and September 1979, he was traded twice – first to Boston, then to Detroit. In March 1981, he was waived by the Pistons, and signed by the New Jersey Nets, with whom he played ten games, before being traded to the Lakers. Though he put up numbers post-Buffalo (24 and 10.5 between 1976-77 and 1980-81), that he took part in just six playoff games in five years in four different cities didn’t boost his prominence.

However, that he was a member of the early Showtime Lakers for four seasons, two of which ended in championships (1982 and 1985), as a veteran scorer off of the bench, rightfully added some luster to his resume.

McAdoo’s rookie card anchors Topps’ 1973-74 set. Even in a down period for hoops cards, this set failed to make an impact. Between a less-than-thrilling design and a sparse rookie crop (McAdoo, Paul Westphal, and not much else), the set is barely an afterthought. It must be said, though, that thanks to the rather sharp Braves jersey, the McAdoo RC is quite appealing. Relative to the set’s standing within the hobby, it also commands some respect.

Of 501 that have been graded by PSA, nearly 70% are 7s (124) or 8s (213), and can be had for under $400. PSA 9s, meanwhile, after spending several years in the $200 range, sold three times between September 2020 and May 2021, in the low four digits, while one PSA 10 (of which there are just four) sold in September 2020, for $6,990.

Jamaal Wilkes (1975 Topps, #50)

Overlooked and Underrated Rookie Cards of NBA Greats – Part 3, the 1970s

Before Jamaal Wilkes was an All-Star and a champion as a member of the Lakers, Keith Wilkes was, well, a champion as a member of the Golden State Warriors. He was also a multiple-time champion and All-American at UCLA. That’s a story for another time.

The eleventh pick in the 1974 draft, Wilkes spent his first three NBA seasons in Oakland, as a member of the Warriors, averaging 16.5 points and over eight rebounds per game. “Silk” won Rookie of the Year in ’74-’75, when he also helped Rick Barry & Co. to a title. He was also named an All-Star in ’75-’76, and Second Team All-Defense each of his last two seasons.

Wilkes signed with the Lakers as a free agent in the summer of ‘77. He went on to spend eight seasons with the Lakers, averaging 18.4 points, and making 51.6% of his shots. He averaged no worse than 17.3 per game in each of six healthy seasons in L.A. (1978-79 though 1983-84), three times averaging 20+ (plus another season of 19.6), during which he earned another two All-Star nods. Like McAdoo, Wilkes won a pair of rings as a Laker, in 1980 and 1982. In 2012, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame, and later had his #52 raised to the Staples Center rafters.

His RC, found in the 1975-76 Topps basketball set that also features Moses Malone’s debut, features Wilkes in the center of the card, but mostly sandwiched between Wes Unseld and another Bullet. Meanwhile, the ball, seemingly on its way out of bounds, appears to be flying at the camera. It’s not entirely clear what’s transpiring here. A fun visual oddity.

Just 209 of these have thus far found their way to PSA. About two thirds have earned grades of PSA 7 or 8, and, when found, can be had for between $100 and $200. If you find one of 30 PSA 9s for sale, it can be yours for mid-triple-digits, while one of the seven PSA 10s will run you in the low-/mid-four figures.

Robert Parish (1977 Topps, #111)

Overlooked and Underrated Rookie Cards of NBA Greats – Part 3, the 1970s

Before establishing himself as a perennial All-Star and filling out his Hall of Fame resume in Boston, the Chief spent four seasons in Oakland, where he began his development into one of the NBA’s top young bigs. Over those four years, he averaged 13.8 and 9.5, though in the two seasons in which he got full time minutes, he averaged are more eye17, 11.5 and 2.2 blocks.

In the summer of 1980, after three straight seasons out of the playoffs, the Dubs parted ways with Parish in what would become one of the most significant NBA trades ever. Parish, then almost 27, was traded to the Celtics, along with the #3 overall pick in the 1980 (which became fellow Hall of Famer Kevin McHale), in exchange for the rights to first overall pick Joe Barry Carroll, and #13 over pick Ricky Brown.

The rest is history. Nine All-Star selections (including seven in his first seven seasons), two All-NBA nods, two top-ten MVP finishes, three rings, and spot in the Boston Garden rafters.

Like Wilkes, Parish’s rookie card captures him in action, in the delightful Warriors dark blue jersey of the era. Fortunately, unlike Wilkes, Parish is unobstructed in the photo. PSA 7 (pop: 337) and PSA 8 (pop: 728) make up most of the PSA population of this card. As they’re not TOO difficult to find, they can be had in these grades for fairly modest prices (typically under $150). A PSA 9 (pop: 189), meanwhile, will typically command low four figures, while one of ten PSA 10s, based on three sales in the past year, comes in at the high four figures.

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