The NBA celebrated its 75th anniversary during the 2021 season. As part of a season-long celebration, the league announced the selection of members to the NBA’s 75th Anniversary Team on October 21, 2021. Chosen by a blue-ribbon panel of current and former NBA players, coaches, general managers and team and league executives, as well as WNBA legends and sportswriters and broadcasters, the team comprised the greatest players in league history. From George Mikan and his early hook shots to Michael Jordan’s acrobatic dunks through Steph Curry’s sharp-shooting three-pointers, the star-studded lineup was named. With obvious room for debate from passionate NBA fans, this team is the best-of-the-best; 75 legends of the hardwood … and also the cardboard.
The early days of basketball cards are as spotty as the league itself, with new sets followed by years-long gaps in between releases. The first true basketball set was a 72-card Bowman issue in 1948. Topps then produced an 80-card set in 1957. Fleer was the third company to attempt a basketball issue when it released a 66-card effort in 1961. Topps again produced a basketball set in 1969, and again annually through the 1981-82 season. Today Panini owns the basketball license and between base releases, parallel runs and insert sets, basketball fans have their choice of hundreds of different hoops issues from which to assemble their modern collections.
Shortly after the NBA’s announcement, the PSA Set Registry activated the NBA 75th Anniversary Team set for basketball collectors. To complete this set, collectors must acquire rookie cards of each member of the NBA 75th Anniversary Team.
The set was instantly popular with collectors and competition was fierce from the beginning. But the acquisition of 75 legendary rookie cards is no small feat, and it wasn’t long before the most dedicated collectors began to reveal themselves and others fell down the leaderboard.
Jeff Clarke is one of those dedicated collectors. In fact, a lifelong sports card enthusiast, he currently maintains the No. 1 position on the NBA 75th Anniversary Team set. With more than 700 active sets in his personal Registry, Clarke is a dedicated and knowledgeable collector with a lifetime of experience.
In the interview below he offered his thoughts on PSA, the Set Registry and his personal passion project, the NBA 75th Anniversary Team Set. PSA – How did you begin collecting? What is your hobby story? Jeff Clarke – I grew up in a really small town called Hamilton, New York, where Colgate University exists. My friends and I started following baseball, basketball and football when we were eight or nine years old. We’d go up to our local retailer, P.M. Jones, and start buying cards as soon as the new sets came out.
I’m 61 years old now, so I have been collecting for more than 50 years. My collecting story is a combination of my love of sports and a love of having those cards to identify the players. I also am a statistics aficionado, so looking at the card backs during that time and reading the players stats was a lot of fun for me. Today you can just hop on the internet and get whatever information you need, but back then you had to buy a book called The Baseball Register, or a team yearbook or something similar. So having statistics so accessible that I could use to compare players was a really fun thing for me.
PSA – Your PSA Set Registry listings show that you are interested in many sports.
JC – Originally I really loved baseball and was a huge Pete Rose fan during his early days with the Cincinnati Reds. As his career progressed he seemed to get better and better. Having some of his earliest cards from the 1960s was particularly fun for me back then. Over time my interests shifted primarily to basketball cards with a small amount of football cards. I think that happened because I became more of a basketball player than anything else; a very modest high school basketball player, that is. I was also around during that incredible period of time when I could watch players like Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West. Then when Julius Erving came around he changed the way the game was played in so many ways because of his flair and pure athleticism. From there it was easy to keep going.
Then over the years what captured my fancy were the key card sets. I love the NBA 75th Anniversary set, and now I see PSA has been adding sets for teams that won major championships like the Olympic Dream Team, and a new set for the Golden State Warriors. Those are the types of sets I am focusing on now.
PSA – You just began touching upon it, but what do you enjoy most about participating in the Set Registry?
JC – Without PSA and the Set Registry I think collecting would be in the dinosaur age. PSA grading cards brought about a commonality of supply and quality, and the Registry has allowed collectors to show their accomplishments so we can all see what amazing sets have been built. It challenges
PSA – You are currently participating in 720 different collectors to see what they can accomplish. One reason I am Registry sets, some more intensely than others. But your so diverse with more than 700 sets is that I like building sets interests are exceptionally broad with company sets, player that aren’t necessarily popular. They might be attractive to sets and specialty sets. You truly are a card collector. me for personal reasons, but perhaps aren’t as popular
JC – If I look back to when I started getting cards graded, I came into that aspect of the hobby very late considering how many cards I already owned. But when I began the
grading aspect, I tried to build complete sets of particular players. For example, having grown up in Hamilton, New York where Colgate is, I collected Marv Hubbard and Mark Van
Eeghan who both played for the Raiders. I watched them play in college and met them a few times, and they were guys I enjoyed following on television because of their local connection. So one of the first things I did was try to collect those guys, as well as Pete Rose who I mentioned earlier. I eventually drifted away from player sets, but they were the
basis of my PSA collecting career. If you look at my sets you will see I am very deep into sets for Carmelo Anthony, Adrian Dantley, Chris Mullin, John Stockton … I typically collect a lot of cards that aren’t really investment cards.
For example, I met NBA players Kevin Porter, Geoff Petrie and Syracuse University coach Jim Boeheim when I attended youth summer basketball camps as a teenager. Years later I was able to start PSA player and coach sets for them and complete those sets. I attended college at Northeastern University in Boston with Reggie Lewis and later requested and then completed his player card set. This is one of my favorite parts of collecting cards. A collector doesn’t have to collect only superstars or rookie cards. It can be enjoyable to collect cards of players with whom you share a local or personal affinity. I really enjoy collecting larger player sets and seeing the variety of cards issued for a particular player over the years. That is easy for players of the 1960s and ’70s because they primarily had one card each year. Maybe two or three if they had an All-Star card LeBron James set which would attract a lot of people.
The other thing that is fascinating to me is the difference in old cards. For example, the NBA 75th Anniversary set includes the George Mikan card, which is kind of like the Honus Wagner of basketball collecting. Over the years PSA has graded around 12,000 1948 Bowman basketball cards, and there are only 386 graded George Mikan cards.
Now look at the 2013 Panini Prizm Giannis Antetokounmpo card, of which there are currently 2,768 PSA 1 Os. I am increasingly looking toward the older sets because there
is only so much supply. Again, there are only 1,069 Bill Russell rookies that have been graded by PSA, and only 547 are PSA 5 or better. Compare that to 2,200 Topps Chrome
Le Bron James PSA 1 Os, and that is only one of probably 400 different rookies cards that were issued for him. I find it all fascinating, and enjoy discovering what I believe to be real
values for iconic players in those old sets, such as Cousy, Mikan, Russell, Chamberlain, etc.
PSA – We’ve discussed the 720 sets you are participating in, but the NBA 75th Anniversary set is one that you made a significant push towards. What about that set really drew your attention?
JC – It was the breadth of the different eras and the enjoyment I get in comparing them. The 75th Anniversary set only requires one card from the ’48 Bowman set, six cards from the ’57 Topps set, and so on. There are only 28 post-1988 cards, which is still 34 years ago. I am pleased that I was able to obtain a PSA 10 for all of those players after 1988. But those earlier cards, and the idea of looking for a Russell or Chamberlain, is really fascinating to me.