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The '86-87 Fleer Basketball Set and the Story of Johnny Moore

Illustration by Adam Waito

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The '86-87 Fleer Basketball Set and the Story of Johnny Moore
Luke Winkie

Johnny Moore wasn't a great basketball player.

He played point guard at the University of Texas, and was taken out of the second round in 1979 by the San Antonio Spurs, long before Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovic turned that franchise into a perennial contender. Moore played 10 years in San Antonio, was a decent assist man, and never scored more than 13 points a game. Currently, he's a coach for the independent American Basketball Association. Even if you watched Moore live, even if you're in the upper percentiles of NBA fandom, and even if you're an eternally committed Spurs fan, it is likely that you do not have any strong memories about his career. Moore was one of those players who shows up, helps your team in some mild, under-the-radar ways, and disappears with a few paychecks and an entirely anonymous legacy. No statues, no retired numbers, no Hall of Fame speeches, but plenty to be proud of.

So with all that settled, why on earth is Johnny Moore's rookie card from the 1986-87 Fleer set worth $10,000, making it the second-most-valuable card in that entire set?

Sports cards tend to follow conventional wisdom; the more famous you are, or the better player you are, the pricier your paperboard is going to be. Moore checks neither of those boxes, and yet you can purchase a Trae Young rookie card right now for less than half the cost of one of his. What gives? How did this relative nobody end up with a run that's worth more than our rent? I called up Mark Rubin, the owner of American Legends, one of the best card stores in the U.S., for some answers.


To understand why Moore's card draws so much commercial interest, you must first understand how coveted that 1986-87 Fleer collection is. "It's probably the most iconic modern basketball card set there is," says Rubin. "It has the rookies of Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, and Hakeem Olajuwon." When the set was first released, it came and went without much interest. But the public discovered a huge reservoir of nostalgia for mid-90s basketball in the years since. We all spent most of April absorbing a 10-part documentary that, primarily, aimed to make 30-somethings teary-eyed at the sight of Scottie Pippen. So, assembling a full, end-to-end archive of that Fleer set, which is one of the most coveted effigies of that era, became a white whale for a certain type of fan.

Honestly, it's easy to see why.

I'm very much within the demographic that I outlined, so I'm biased, but that Fleer set is beautiful. Each piece is printed on an instantly recognizable red-white-and-blue pattern. The portraits seem to glow, and if you love sports, there is something instantly alluring about, say, a 21-year old Jordan, mid-dunk, in a throwback Bulls jersey. (Naturally, that rookie card has sold for six figures in the past.) Still, that doesn't explain why Moore would be in the same echelon. There are plenty of iconic sets out there, right? The infamous 1909 T206 run is responsible for the Honus Wagner card, which routinely draws some of the hottest auctions in the entire memorabilia industry, and you're still able to find prices for items in that selection that are considerably lower than the '86 Moore. So what gives?


Like most things card collecting, says Rubin, it comes back to scarcity. People that want a full Fleer set don't want to cut corners. The goal is not just to own every card, it's to own every card in gem mint condition, which is the highest grade handed out by the PSA. "Gem mint" basically refers to any card that is as close to perfect as possible; some vaguely defined ideal tier that's superior to just "mint." Rubin tells me that the Fleer set is known among collectors to suffer from a lot of printing defects and deterioration; ink smudges, off-centered portraits, and so on. Simply put, they're aren't a lot of gem mint Fleer cards out there, which is why an anonymous basketball player can quickly become one of the holy grails of card collecting.


"PSA publishes a population report online of all the cards that are graded 10. And there are only 65 gem mints of Johnny Moore out there," says Rubin. "Jeff Malone, another nondescript player of that era, has only 63 out there. But if you're trying to put together a full set, you're going to need that one, and there's just not a lot of them out there." 


In that sense, you can look at the Johnny Moore bull market like a weird historical glitch.

If there were 20 more gem mint copies in the ecosystem, the asking price would drop considerably. But a rising tide lifts all boats; the market deemed the Fleer set to be a high-demand item, and through a combination of luck and attrition, Moore happened to represent one of the cards that slipped through the cracks. The permutations get wilder the more you think about it. Imagine if Moore ended up with a legacy on par with some of the rookies in the set? Those 63 gem mint copies would be worth a king's ransom. Instead, Johnny Moore is mostly valuable by association, like a ninth man getting carried to a title by the superstar on the same team.

We've seen a huge expansion of the sports card market in 2020.

It feels like every month a new record is set. A Mike Trout card moved for $3.93 million at auction, and a LeBron rookie card moved nearly $2 million, as investors look to secure their cash in appreciable assets while the pandemic continues to keep the markets unsteady. According to Rubin's research, the same can be said for the Fleer set, and Johnny Moore himself. 10 years ago, his card routinely changed hands for around $2,000 or so. It is only within the last five years that enthusiasts have seen the price hit the five-figure mark. Will there be a ceiling? Will people eventually realize that paying $10,000 for a guy who averages 13 points a game is a raw deal? Who knows, but it's fascinating that for as staid as the card business has traditionally been, some truly unexpected players have wormed their way into the conversation. Johnny Moore never commanded much attention in his playing days, but now, he's one of the top names on every collector's tongue. "It keeps you on your toes," says Rubin. No matter how much time you commit to this hobby, you can never be prepared for what's around the corner. 


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