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Tuesday, April 21, 2009
(by Mike DeNero)
On the night of April 12, 1958, one year after leading his Boston Celtics to the championship in his rookie season, the greatest player in NBA history limped through the sixth and final game of the NBA Finals with a heavy cast on his right ankle. Rather than nurse the torn ligaments and chip fracture he suffered in Game 3, he flew from Boston to St. Louis and arrived at his team’s hotel after midnight the evening before the game. Upon seeing his injured center suddenly appear in the lobby, his coach, Red Auerbach, asked, “what are you doing here, and how does it (the ankle) feel?” “I didn’t come out here to watch the game,” he replied. “I came to play.”[i]
As he hobbled through Game 6, he could only exert an impossible but gallant effort to stop the opposing team’s star, future hall of famer Bob Pettit, from pouring in 50 points to secure the 1957-58 NBA Championship for the St. Louis Hawks, as the Hawks beat the Celtics 110-109. That night, the greatest player in NBA history must have resolved to win the NBA title ... several more times.
We use the term “winner” too often in sports, as one victory, or even one championship, does not a winner make. Rather, “winners” win things ... and win them often. Bill Russell was a winner; perhaps the quintessential winner. His team reclaimed the NBA title the next season (1958-59) and held it in their grasp for the next eight years and ten of the next eleven. Yes, winners win things.
Bill Russell bubble gum cards are tough to find; only a few different ones were made. His rookie card from the 1957-58 Topps Basketball set is, along with the 1948 Bowman George Mikan, one of the top two basketball cards ever produced. The card’s obverse features a brilliant image; a determined Russell defending an overmatched opponent. The identity of the opposing player is irrelevant. Further, it is doubtful that he attempted a shot over the towering and intimidating Russell. Even if he had, the most dominating defensive player ever would have probably swatted the ball as it arced hopelessly toward the hoop.
The 1957-58 Topps Basketball Set and NBA Season
The eighty card 1957-58 set was Topps’ initial foray into basketball cards. It is also one of only three basketball issues released prior to 1969 – Bowman issued a 72-card set in 1948 and Fleer produced a 66-card set in 1961. As the sole basketball set compiled in the 1950’s, it is the vintage collector’s only opportunity to get a sense of the golden age of the NBA. Accordingly, each player is pictured wearing a tight uniform with short shorts and mid-calf white socks tucked neatly into canvas Chuck Taylors. In the background of many action shots appears a sparse “crowd” sitting in a dimly lit, musty arena (some teams played in nothing more than glorified gymnasiums). In fact, during the 1957-58 season, the NBA’s aggregate regular season attendance totaled less than 1.2 million (1,167,462[ii]); thus the average game was witnessed in person by a mere 4,824 spectators (the NBA averaged more than 10,000 fans per game for the first time nearly twenty years later during the 1975-76 season).[iii]
While baseball enjoyed its heyday in the 1950’s, partially due to the dominance of the New York teams (the Yankees, Giants, and Brooklyn Dodgers), pro football only began to appear on fans’ radar after the legendary 1958 NFL Championship between the New York Giants and Baltimore Colts. Basketball, however, was a mere afterthought, at best, despite being described in Sports Illustrated’s October 27, 1958 issue as “an engrossing display of grace, finesse and power. ... This is the human body in purposeful action, in economy of motion, a sight to gratify the eye of anyone with an instinct for sport.”[iv]
After all, the NBA, which was the result of a merger between two fleeting professional leagues, was formed only eight years prior in the summer of 1949. While the league boasted seventeen franchises that season, it quickly contracted to eleven in 1950 and eight in 1954, the same season that welcomed the 24-second shot clock, a rule change that might have saved the league, as battles such as the 19-18 slugfest between the Pistons and Lakers in 1950 always lurked as a possibility.[v]
As it had since 1954-55, the 1957-58 season opened with eight teams divided into two divisions, each team playing a 72-game schedule. The Eastern Division included the New York Knickerbockers, Syracuse Nationals, Philadelphia Warriors, and the defending NBA champion and division winning Boston Celtics, while the Western Division featured the Cincinnati Royals, Minneapolis Lakers, Detroit Pistons, and the division winning St. Louis Hawks. Interestingly, six teams made the playoffs with division winners receiving a first round bye.
As NBA rules limited the number of players on each roster to ten,[vi] it appears that Topps included within its 1957-58 Basketball set nearly each player who began the season on an NBA roster, as each team is represented by ten cards. Thus, while the 80-card set, at first glance, appears to be sparsely populated, it is actually remarkably complete. However, the exclusion of a rookie card of Celtics legendary guard Sam Jones (nicknamed “The Shooter,” and “Mr. Clutch”) is the exception that proves the rule. Jones, who became one of the NBA’s first African-American stars, was drafted by the Celtics before the 1957-58 season, proceeded to win ten championships in twelve seasons, was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame (the “Basketball Hall of Fame”) in 1984, and was named to the NBA’s 50th Anniversary All-Time Team. Unfortunately for the vintage collector, Topps was unable to predict Jones’ forthcoming accomplishments at the time, and decided not to include him in the set.
While Topps made sure that the set is a near complete representation of the NBA’s 1957-58 player personnel, it appears to have paid less attention to its quality control of the printing process. Many of the 2 1/2” X 3 1/2” sized cards (now the standard) that survived the past fifty years are off-center and exhibit white “snow” on the obverse, two characteristics that make it very difficult to acquire high grade examples. The reverse of each card (many of which appear to be upside-down, another curious printing result) includes a card number, the subject player’s biographical information, including certain of his career and previous year’s statistics, and a drawing of a generic basketball player standing in front of a growth chart whose height matches that of the subject player, a novel feature that drew the novice fan’s attention to a characteristic shared by many basketball players (a trait quite obvious to today’s fans). While there are thirty single printed cards in the set, forty-nine double printed, and one quadruple printed (#24, hall of famer Bob Pettit), all of the cards are extremely rare, compared to their baseball and football counterparts released the same year.
Curiously (or not), only ten of the set’s eighty cards picture African-American players, comprising just 12.5% of the entire set. While the NBA’s color barrier was officially broken in 1950, teams remained reluctant to integrate to a great extent. For example, in Bill Russell’s rookie season (1956-57), twenty-two different African-American players appeared in an NBA game, slightly less than 22% of all players who appeared in an NBA game that season.[vii] By 1960, 26% of the NBA’s players were African-American.[viii]
Many believe that the small percentage of African-American players in the NBA at the time can be explained by the unofficial “quota” system that existed throughout the 1950’s (and even into the 1960’s), due to the alleged stranglehold that Harlem Globetrotters owner, Abe Saperstein (who solely recruited African-American players), had on the NBA owners. As most NBA bosses also owned the arenas in which their teams played, they apparently made more money from Globetrotters appearances than they did from their own teams’ games.[ix] While this theory may seem far-fetched, there exists some statistical support for this alleged cow towing to Saperstein – in its December 9, 1957 issue, Sports Illustrated reported that during the 1956-57 season, total aggregate attendance at the 307 NBA games played (including regular season, playoff, and championship contests) was 1,707,229 while attendance at Harlem Globetrotters games was 1,976,703.[x]
In addition to all of these characteristics, the 1957-58 Topps Basketball set’s most notable inclusions are twenty-one hall of famers (e.g., Bob Cousy, Tommy Heinsohn, Bob Pettit, Bill Russell), twenty of which are also “rookie” cards (although many appearing on “rookie” cards were veterans at the time), cards that represent a player’s sole appearance on a bubble gum card (e.g., Maurice Stokes, the 1956-57 Rookie of the Year who was paralyzed after suffering a head injury during one of the 1957-58 season’s final games), and six cards featuring players named to the NBA’s 50th Anniversary All-Time Team: Bill Sharman, Dolph Schayes, Bill Russell, Bob Pettit, Bob Cousy, and Paul Arizin.
The sheer number of hall of famers is particularly notable. Today, it seems quite odd that twenty-one players in a league of eighty could later be enshrined into the Basketball Hall of Fame. Regardless of the Hall’s possible overpopulation, the result is a set that features one of the game’s “legends” on every four cards, an incredible bang for the vintage collecting buck!
The Bill Russell Rookie Card: the Set’s Crown Jewel
While the 1957-58 Topps Basketball set features many gems, the Bill Russell rookie card is its crown jewel. While the set also includes several rookie cards, Russell’s is one of only a few featuring a young player at the beginning of his career – he entered the NBA the previous season (at the age of twenty-two) after leading his collegiate squad, the University of San Francisco Dons, to back-to-back NCAA Championships and captaining the United States team to the gold medal in 1956 at the Games of the XVI Olympiad, held in Melbourne, Australia. Russell went on to win his first Most Valuable Player Award during the 1957-58 season, averaging 22.7 points and 16.55 rebounds per game.
We have heard, countless times, that a picture is worth a thousand words. That cliché could not better describe the image featured on the obverse of the Bill Russell rookie card. As the vintage collector peers at the look of sheer determination on Russell’s face, as he is pictured defending an overmatched opponent, he or she can almost guess the magnitude of Russell’s forthcoming career accomplishments.
In his thirteen NBA seasons, he won five MVP Awards. While never a prolific scorer or focal point of the Boston Celtics’ offense (averaging 15.1 career points per game), he was undoubtedly the game’s greatest ever defensive player, averaging 22.5 career rebounds per game and several blocked shots (however, blocked shots were not recorded as a statistic until the 1973-74 season[xi]).
But most importantly, Bill Russell was a winner. And as a true winner, he won often. In his thirteen seasons, he led the Boston Celtics to eleven NBA titles, including a string of eight straight from 1958-59 through 1965-66, and back-to-back titles to close out his career as both player and coach. While it is admittedly impossible to reduce the accomplishments of such a legend to mere box scores or statistics, his performance in series-deciding post-season games is perhaps the closest we can come to quantifying his mark on the game. He played in eleven of them and averaged 18 points and 29.4 rebounds per game. Most importantly, his Celtics triumphed in each of those eleven series-deciding games.
There are sets and individual cards that teach us not only about our beloved hobby, but the history of sport as well. Some cards also help us understand the mere mortals whom countless of us have idolized. The 1957-58 Topps Basketball set accomplishes both. It provides the vintage collector a window to the golden days of a new league that would become an international phenomenon in the years to come. And, perhaps most importantly, by featuring one of the greatest basketball cards ever issued, the Bill Russell rookie, it helps us appreciate the greatest player to ever lace up a pair of black canvas Converse Chuck Taylor high tops.[xii]
Copyright © 2009 Mike DeNero's Vintage Sportscards, LLC. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.
Endnotes[i] “Event & Discoveries,” Sports Illustrated, April 21, 1958, 24, available at http://vault.sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/cover/toc/7560/index.htm. [ii] The Association for Professional Basketball Research, “NBA/ABA Home Attendance Totals,” available at http://www.apbr.org/attendance.html. [iii] Id. [iv] Jeremiah Tax, “Roundball Bounces Back,” Sports Illustrated, October 27, 1958, 31, available at http://vault.sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1003012/index.htm. [v] Rob Fleder et al., Sports Illustrated: The Basketball Book (Time Inc. Home Entertainment, 2007), 67. Immediately, teams averaged 93.1 points per game for the 1954-55 season, up from 79.5 in 1953-54. Id. [vi] Tax, “Roundball Bounces Back,” Sports Illustrated, October 27, 1958, 31, available at http://vault.sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1003012/index.htm. [vii] Terry Pluto, Tall Tales: The Glory Years of the NBA, in the Words of the Men Who Played, Coached, and Built, (Simon & Schuster, 1992), 75. [viii] Id. [ix] See John Taylor, The Rivalry: Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and the Golden Age of Basketball (Ballantine Books: New York, 2005), 27. [x] Roy Terrell, “The American Game,” Sports Illustrated, October 27, 1958, pg. 29, available at http://vault.sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1132873/index.htm. [xi] Steve Aschburner, “Historical Black Hole Leaves League Defensive Records to Speculation,” January 6, 2009, SportsIllustrated.com, at http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2009/writers/steve_aschburner/01/06/all.time/. [xii] Angus Lind, “Converse Chuck Taylor All Stars Still Popular After Decades of Wear,” The Times-Picayune, March 11, 2008, http://blog.nola.com/anguslind/2008/03/converse_chuck_taylor_all_star.html.