Basketball card

The Ultimate Guide to Protecting and Storing Your (Basketball) Cards

This past year was a huge year for basketball card collecting, and its really exciting to see so many people getting back into the hobby or starting out their card collecting journey. Its important to remember that proper protection and storage is extremely important when collecting basketball cards (or any cards for that matter), and below I’ve highlighted the best practices for card protection and card storage.

Although this blog is focused on basketball cards, these tips can apply to any sports card, or other collectable standard size card like Pokémon cards, Magic The Gathering cards, and so forth.

Size It Up

The first step in card protection is to figure out how large and thick the card is. For most cards, especially nearly all sports cards made from the late 1970s to today, the dimension will be the ‘standard size’, which measures 2½” x 3½” and has a 20 point thickness.

Some common cards that do not fall into the standard size mentioned above are cards from the 1970-71 Topps set, like the Pete Maravich rookie card (#123). These cards were tall and skinny cards (often referred to as ‘tall boy’ cards) that measured 2½ inches by 4 11/16 inches. However, there are very few sets like this, and nearly all cards you come across from Bowman, Topps, Fleer, Panini, and others will adhere to the standard size.

The image below shows some of the various card sizes relative to a regular sized 1999-2000 Fleer Force card featuring Kobe Bryant (#2). As you can see, the Jo Jo White card (#111) from the 1976-77 Topps set is enormous, measuring 3 1/8 inches by 5 ¼ inches, and is the largest regular Topps card in any sport. Other “tall boy” Topps cards include the 1970-71 set, which is the set the Oscar Robertson (#100) card is from in the photo below.

Topps "Tall Boy" cards (1970-71 & 1976-77) next to a standard size Fleer Force card - images feature Jo Jo White on the 1976-77 topps basketball card, Oscar Robertson on the 1970-71 Topps basketball card, and Kobe Bryant on the 1999-2000 Fleer Force card
Topps “Tall Boy” cards (1970-71 & 1976-77) next to a standard size 1999-2000 Fleer Force Kobe Bryant card

Card Thickness and the Point Scale

You measure a card’s thickness by the point scale, with one point (or ‘pt’) being equal to 1/1000 of an inch; in other words, a 1000 point card would be an inch thick.

Most cards are 20 points thick, but certain memorabilia cards, particularly those featuring anything game-used, the card will be have to be much thicker by design. For instance, the beautiful 2004 SP Game Used Michael Jordan and LeBron James Dual Jersey card will certainly be at least a 75 point card, as a result of the jersey patches encased in the card.

Some other card thickness sizes you may encounter are 35pt, 55pt, 75pt, 100pt, 120pt, and 135pt. There are thicker cards, but they are quite rare.

For a visual guide to card thickness, check out the BCW card thickness gauge guide below.

BCW card thickness point gauge

Now that you have a better understanding of card sizes, you’re ready to start buying the right protective gear to store those beautiful pieces of cardboard.

Card Sleeves

Card sleeves, also known as ‘Penny sleeves’ or ‘thin plastics’, are the first line of defense for cards. These super light weight, soft, and malleable sleeves fit a standard size 20 point card with ease, and will protect against finger prints and dust, but not much else. The sleeve also serves as a easy way to get a card into and out of a more protective top loader.

Card sleeves typically come in two sizes, tight (which tightly hugs standard size sports cards) or loose (which allows for some wiggle room with standard size cards and will tightly hug cards sized 2 5/8″ x 3 5/8″). Personally, I prefer the looser fitting soft plastics. The packaging will tell you what size card they can hold, as seen by the image below.

Ultra Pro Card Sleeves
Ultra Pro Card Sleeves

There are plenty of options available at any card or hobby store for buying card sleeves, as well as Amazon and other hobby specific websites. The Ultra Pro card sleeves in the image above are generally a safe bet and cost about $8 for a pack of 100 ($0.08 per sleeve) or if you are looking to buy in bulk you can find a pack of 500 for $20 ($0.04 per sleeve). Amazon will sometimes offer discounts on the packs of 500 so it is worth checking there first. Not quite ‘penny’ sleeves, but still a cheap first line of defense for your cards.

Once you have your cards covered with a penny sleeve, you can go a step further and either use a flexible pouch (also know as a semi-rigid card holder or card saver) or you can use a top loader. Let me explain both in a bit more detail.

Flexible pouch (aka semi-rigid card holder or card saver)

If you’re thinking of sending your cards into be graded, this will be your card holder of choice. In fact, PSA recommends all card submissions be placed “in a protective flexible pouch”, because it allows their graders to easily access the card without damaging it.

Twitter screenshot of a Lebron James 2020-21 Panini Prizm Blue Shimmer stored in a semi-rigid card holder
Twitter screenshot of a Lebron James 2020-21 Panini Prizm Blue Shimmer stored in a semi-rigid card holder (but lets be real, Jordan is the GOAT)

Even if you aren’t interested in grading your cards, these may still be a good option. They are very light weight and skinny, so with a proper box you can pack a ton in. I personally think single cards look better in top loaders, simply because there is less wasted space around the outside of the card, but if you’re looking for a fairly low budget way to keep your cards safe this is a fine option.

These semi-rigid card holders typically cost around $30 for a pack of 50, but if you buy in bulk or split the cost with a friend, you can get some great deals. Ultra Pro offers a pack of 200 for $47, which is one of the better deals I was able to find from a trusted brand. However, if you like supporting small businesses and other people working in the hobby, I’d also recommend checking out the PSA Collector supplies store.

Top Loaders

If you only want to protect your cards and have no intention of sending them in to be graded, the most common next level of defense is to put your sleeved cards into a top loader, sometimes referred to as a hard plastic. Top loaders are made of a much thicker and more durable plastic, and are great for protecting your cards from being bent, scratched, or dented. If you ever purchase a card through eBay, typically the seller will send it in either a semi-rigid holder or a top loader.

A 25 pack of Ultra Pro Premium Top Loaders (standard 3" x 4" size)
A 25 pack of Ultra Pro Premium Top Loaders (standard 3″ x 4″ size)

Since cards come in various shapes and sizes, so to do top loaders. Most cards will fit into the standard size top loader, which will fit cards in the 20 point – 35 point range, but there are wider sizes available for thicker cards. Most people only use the thicker sizes to store memorabilia type cards, but I have heard of a few people housing duplicate cards in wider top loaders. Below I’ve listed a few of the more common sizes, price points, and I’ve also linked to products on Amazon.

Common Top Loader Sizes

You can get larger sizes, but the four sizes listed above will get the job done for probably 99.9% of all cards you come across. You can also buy top loaders with the words “Rookie Card” etched onto the plastic in gold foil or white lettering.

Back when I was new to collecting, I liked including cards that weren’t clear rookies, like some of Shaq’s rookies (his Topps rookie #362), into these Rookie Card plastics. It actually looks nice and does help distinguish rookie cards from non-rookies.

1992-1993 Shaquille O'Neal Topps Rookie Card #362
1992-1993 Shaquille O’Neal Topps Rookie Card #362

But please be careful if you are browsing cards at a card show or buying online. Just because a card is in a Rookie Card plastic, it doesn’t mean it is actually a players rookie card. One of my best friends made this mistake at the Baseball Hall Of Fame, and only because a 2nd year card was in a Rookie Card plastic.

One-Touch “Mag” Holder

If a top loader isn’t enough, or if you want a more premium “slab-like” look but don’t want to pay to get your cards graded, you may want to explore One-Touch holders. These premium holders, sometimes referred to as a “Mag” holder, feature a no fuss magnetic closure that allows the two pieces to snap into place without the use of a screwdriver. This is a much better solution than the screw-down protectors from back in the day, which were a pain to deal with.

Most of the modern One-Touch holders also protect cards from ultra violet (UV) light damage, and have diamond style corners to keep the corner of your card both safe and visible.

1991 Upper Deck Michael Jordan #75 in One-Touch Holder
1991 Upper Deck Michael Jordan #75 in One-Touch Holder

One-Touch card protectors come in the wide ranges of sizes that you’ll also find with the Top Loaders listed above, and I’ve even seen sizes as thick as 260 point, which is wild. A pack of 5 standard sized One-Touch holders will typically cost $20-$25, but Amazon sometimes offers discounts and like anything else, buying in bulk can help you keep costs down. However, I only reserve these beasts for my very best cards, and only own a few.

Team Bags

If you have a bunch of cards from a given set, or if you have some players from a single team that you want to protect but not as individual cards, an inexpensive but good option is a team bag. These are just thin plastic bags sized to fit multiple cards and feature a convenient resealable strip that makes it easy to open and close the bag.

I’ve also noticed that more and more sellers on eBay are opting to put single cards that are protected in a top loader into a team bag rather than just locking the card in place with a piece of tape. This is, of course, a best practice because it adds an extra layer of protection to the card and doesn’t leave any sticky tape residue on the top loader.

Team bags are very affordable, with packs of 100 selling for less than $10 on Amazon. The Ultra Pro bags also claim to be able to hold 35pt to 180pt One-Touch holders, which translates to being able to hold at least 10 or so cards.

Fireproof & Floodproof Safe

If you have a few valuable cards you may want to look into purchasing a fireproof and floodproof safe. This may sound like overkill, but if ever the unthinkable were to occur, a $50-$100 investment in a safe could save your valuable and potentially irreplaceable collection. In essence, this is a form of insurance for your collection and other valuables.

The majority of my personal collection is housed in cardboard boxes, but my 100 or so best cards are kept in a fireproof and waterproof SentrySafe, along with some of my most important personal documents.

SentrySafe Fireproof Box and Waterproof Box with Key Lock (Charcoal Gray)
SentrySafe Fireproof Box and Waterproof Box with Key Lock (Charcoal Gray)

The model I own is the exact model seen above (which typically costs between $75-$85 through Amazon). It has a very convenient handle, which makes it pretty easy to more around and to pull it out from its ‘home’ and put it back when I’m done. It has a little bit of weight to it (roughly 20 pounds or 9 kilograms), but its not prohibitively heavy by any means which makes it easy to pull out whenever I want it.

The only weird thing about the safe is the rounded key, I’ve never seen anything like it but my guess is that the rounded key makes picking the lock more difficult. However, if someone was going to steal the contents inside, they’d obviously just take the whole darn safe since its easy to carry around. This safe is really only to protect against damage and likely won’t be your best option to protect against theft.

Again, a safe may be overkill for you, but if you think it will help you sleep better at night and if you want to further protect your cards, it might end up being the best $100 you’ve ever spent. Better safe than sorry.

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