Chasing basketball cards of Wilt Chamberlan, Bill Russell, others one great treasure hunt


Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain’s 1961-62 Fleer basketball cards were two of the most sought-after from the set. (Associated Press file)

The old saying goes something like this:

The thrill of the chase exceeds the satisfaction when the treasure hunt is over.

Such is this corner’s near five-year long journey to amass what many will see as simply a collection of cardboard.

It sounds ridiculous, and in the grand scheme of things perhaps there is merit to all the time and money invested. But for something I intend to pass along to my son, perception means a lot.

Cardboard heroes have long been a tradition in America. The older an iconic sports card gets, the more it becomes an artifact with a value that exceeds a number in a price guide.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, millions were saddled inside their homes. To pass the time, boxes in attics and basements were shuffled through and timeless collectables were discovered once again. Retro has been back for a while. COVID amplified retro. Toys, video games, comic books — you name it — were brought back to life in so many ways.

Growing up, sports cards collecting was an obsession. But by the time I was 16, that passed with occasional interest through the years.

Then during the pandemic — spurred on by son’s interest in basketball — I unearthed my collection of vintage cards, and decided to add to it. Maybe I was chasing the feeling of nostalgia from my childhood, when mornings eating breakfast meant reading NBA box scores in the sports section’s agate page. I was fascinated then and still am today.

So it was back to basketball cards, which has an unusual history within the industry.

While baseball and football cards remain forever popular, basketball cards from the late 1940s until the 1970s were hit-and-(mostly)miss. Because basketball cards lacked in popularity, they were under-produced.

Wilt Chamberlain's rookie card from the 1961-62 Fleer basketball set is one of the most iconic in sports cards history. (Mark Podolski The News-Herald)
Wilt Chamberlain’s rookie card from the 1961-62 Fleer basketball set is one of the most iconic in sports cards history. (Mark Podolski — The News-Herald)

As the years have passed, one pre-1980s basketball set has stood above the rest — 1961-62 Fleer. The goal was to build that set, which consists of just 66 cards. It’s arguably the most iconic set — regardless of sport — ever produced, mostly because of the notable rookie cards included. The list is headlined by Wilt Chamberlain’s rookie card.

At the time of the set’s release, basketball cards were rare within the industry. The 1948 Bowman set was the sport’s first mainstream set, followed by 1957 Topps then 1961 Fleer.

The 1961-62 Fleer cards of Wayne Embry and Lenny Wilkens, whose name was incorrectly spelled
The 1961-62 Fleer cards of Wayne Embry and Lenny Wilkens, whose name was incorrectly spelled “Wilkins.” (Mark Podolski — The News-Herald)

The first 1961 Fleer cards acquired are near to my heart — the No. 12 Wayne Embry of the Cincinnati Royals and No. 44 Lenny Wilkins of the St. Louis Hawks. Wilkens’ last name on his card was incorrectly spelled “Wilkins,” which could have been a metaphor at the time of the current state of the NBA … getting there but still a long, long way from the popularity of the game today.

Of course, Embry and Wilkens are well-known in these parts as one of the most successful and admired general manager-coach tandems in Cleveland pro sports history. The duo built up the Cavaliers from the doldrums of the early 1980s into a winning franchise that had a successful run from the late 1980s into the 1990s.

There were other well-known players’ cards to chase. Among those players include Hall of Famers Bob Cousy, Bob Pettit, Hal Greer, Tom Heinsohn, Sam Jones, Dolph Schayes and the No. 2 Elgin Baylor rookie.

There were obscure players on the checklist. The coolest name of the bunch was Sihugo Green of the St. Louis Hawks. After acquiring Frank Selvy of the L.A. Lakers, it was learned Selvy — while playing in college for Furman — once scored an NCAA Division I record 100 points in a 1954 game against Newberry.

The mention of a 100-point game always brings Chamberlain into the discussion, and with the 1961-62 Fleer set, the No. 8 Chamberlain is the undoubtedly the most sought-after card. It goes for thousands in any condition but what makes the Fleer set iconic is the inclusion of so many rookie cards — 19 in all.

The other rookies in the set that rank among the most iconic sports cards of all time are the No. 36 Oscar Robertson and the No. 43 Jerry West.

There’s also the No. 38 Bill Russell — which was the second card ever produced of the late Hall of Famer Celtics center, and the last card I recently acquired to finish the set.

It was a fun spending nearly five years on the hunt. Diving back into the hobby was enjoyable but I’m not sure if I’m back for good. I do love treasure hunts. But like all treasure hunters — and all avid collectors can attest — the big question is what’s next?



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