The term “Bad Boys” brings to mind different things to different people. For fans of Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, the 1995 movie probably comes to mind. For those who grew up listening to Puff Daddy/P. Diddy, the song “Bad Boy For Life” might pop into your head. Or if you couldn’t get enough of the show Cops, you’re probably thinking of the theme song right now. But for basketball fans, especially for fans in the 35+ age bracket, the late 1980s Detroit Pistons will be the one of the first things that comes to mind.
They were one super tough, give no f*cks, all out punishing team that brought the best teams and the best players to their knees. A very strong case can be made that Jordan may not have been the player he turned out to be had he not squared off against the Pistons in his early years. If you’re looking for a fascinating 1980s basketball history lesson, I’d highly recommend watching the ESPN 30 for 30 episode about the Bad Boys. It’s remarkable to see how those guys played and it’s a great reminder of how basketball was a much different, much tougher game back in the 80s.
To me, the Bad Boys were led by the following three players: Isiah Thomas, Dennis Rodman, and Bill Laimbeer. These guys had grit, they were hungry to win, they knew how to get in guys’ heads, and they were talented. Of the three, I get the sense that Rodman cards have become the most popular. In terms of rookies, it’s probably a toss up between Rodman and Thomas, with Laimbeer rookies selling for dirt cheap (a PSA 9 was selling at a Buy It Now price of $50, as of 7/24/2020). Even still, I want to highlight a rookie card for each of the three main Bad Boys, because although I loathed the Pistons growing up, I revered and respected their sheer determination, however dirty, to win.
Let’s start with Isiah Thomas, whose rookie card is from the exact same set as one of the most widely known, widely coveted, and probably widely counterfeited cards of all time: the 1986 Fleer Jordan rookie card (#57). Jordan’s card is iconic and features him going up for a dunk in true Air Jordan fashion. Isiah’s rookie features him in a far less exciting photo, but it’s still a great card from a classic set. The Isiah rookie is card #109 of 132 and features Isiah dribbling the ball in a deep blue Pistons jersey wearing old school white Converse Weapons with a referee looking on in the background.
It’s a very nice-looking card, the image looks pretty crisp, and ungraded copies can be found on eBay for roughly $35-$70, depending on quality. Even high graded copies, like PSA 9s, can be had for under $300. To me that sounds like a steal. If we dial it back just two years and look at what PSA 10s were selling for, we’d see that you could get the top graded Isiah rookie for $400-$500. However, the most recent data available from PSA show the PSA 10s are now going for around $1,200 to $1,675, which represents a very healthy 100+% return in just two years. I certainly don’t expect the value to double again in the next two years, but this is a strong sign that his top graded rookies could be nice investment pieces and is another indicator that the basketball card industry is coming back to life.
The next man up, unquestionably the wildest and most flamboyant player in the league at the time, is Dennis Rodman. Rodman had been featured in the news from time to time over the past couple of years as a result of his ties to North Korea. Somehow, he and Kim Jong-un have struck up a friendship and if anything, it just adds to Rodman’s bizarre and controversial persona. (Check out this Hoops Hype article if you’re interested in the backstory of how Dennis Rodman met Kim Jong-un.)
But on to the Rodman rookie card! The Rodman rookie in focus is from the 1988 Fleer set, card #43. In my mind, this set belongs in the junk card category, a category that was prevalent throughout the late 80s and into the mid-90s. As a result of the card industry getting too hot in the 80s and the top sports card companies (like Fleer and SkyBox) forgetting the rule of scarcity, they got greedy and overprinted card sets, including this Rodman rookie. As a result, the prices of ungraded cards on eBay are very affordable. In fact, there are multiple cards available for Buy It Now prices under $40, so if you’re a fan of “the worm”, it’s a no-brainer to go out and grab an ungraded rookie.
Even the graded cards, up to a PSA grade of 9, can be purchases for under $200. As of July 23, 2020, a Rodman PSA 9 rookie sold for $127.29, and that same day some fortunate eBayer got one for just $100. The PSA 10s though do typically sell for over $1,000. The most recent PSA 10 sale on July 23 came in at $1,323, and the day before, a PSA 10 sold for $1,295. And if we look back two years to see what PSA 9s and 10s were selling at, again we’d see that they significantly cheaper. In fact, in July 2018 you could get a PSA 9 for under $30 or a PSA 10 for around $300. This indicates a remarkably strong 2-year appreciation of over 200% for both PSA 9s and 10s! That said, getting a high-grade Rodman rookie (or two) would not only be a cool card to add to one’s collection, but it could also be a savvy investment opportunity.
Last up is Laimbeer, who was a steal of a pickup for the Cleveland Cavaliers with the 65th pick in the 1979 draft, the same draft as Magic Johnson, who went first in that draft class. Laimbeer’s ungraded 1981-82 Topps rookie card (#74) can be purchased for less than the cost of a craft beer out at the local pub. There are multiple copies of it selling on eBay for under $10. The card features Laimbeer pulling down a left-handed rebound in the old school crimson colored Cav’s uniform.
I couldn’t find anything official on PSA’s site for graded cards, but the two PSA 10s were selling on eBay for $2,000 each. There was massive drop off on eBay going down to the PSA 9s, which can be acquired for only $50. I don’t think Laimbeer will have as much staying power or see as strong an appreciation in value as either Rodman or Thomas, but if you’re a Pistons fan, a PSA 9 graded Laimbeer rookie could be a nice cheap addition to your collection. And who knows, his cards could pop if a The Last Dance type series comes out featuring the 80s Pistons. I’d absolutely watch that.