Move over, 1986 Fleer: Another Michael Jordan rookie is now most valuable

Maligned by a counterfeiting scandal and hurt by a Beckett classification, the 1984-85 MJ Star #101 is back on top

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The 1984-85 Michael Jordan Star #101 is MJ's first NBA card ... and now is being valued as such.

It took more than 25 years to get back to the top, but the Michael Jordan 1984-85 Star #101 card has reached the pinnacle as the most valuable MJ rookie.

A Jordan Star #101 card, one of three in a PSA 9, was sold privately this month for $925,000, cllct has exclusively learned. That beats out the price paid for a Jordan 1986 Fleer rookie in a PSA 10 that sold for $840,000 at PWCC in July 2021.

The buyer and seller wish to remain anonymous, but cllct reviewed bank statements that confirmed the transaction brokered by Acquir, a new business of Jesse Craig, who frequently dealt with high-end deals in his last stop at PWCC.

This Michael Jordan 1984-85 Star #101 card, graded PSA 9, sold for a record $925,000 earlier this month.
This Michael Jordan 1984-85 Star #101 card, graded PSA 9, sold for a record $925,000 earlier this month.

"It's finally time," Craig said. "It's time for collectors to wake up because they've been asleep at the wheel."

Over the last quarter-century, no card has been beaten down more than Jordan's Star rookie.

And the seemingly concrete stories that kept it down for so long have started to unravel.

'Water in the desert'

After the 1981-82 season, Topps had given up on NBA cards. Sales were so lackluster that it wasn't worth making a set anymore.

It's hard to imagine that being the case, with Magic Johnson and Larry Bird leading the Lakers and Celtics, respectively, to titles in their first three years in the league, but the league was very much still struggling.

Enter Robert Levin, a 23-year-old number cruncher who was one of the first hired ahead of the launch of the Golden Nugget Casino in Atlantic City. A longtime card collector who was bored with his day job, Levin boldly walked in to the Gulf & Western building in New York, where NBA Properties was then located, and walked out with the rights to make NBA trading cards.

Terms of the contract? $10,000 a year, plus sales royalties.

"When we agreed to the deal, it was like I had just given them water in the desert," Levin told cllct. "They needed it badly."

Not that Levin, at the time, had the money to make it work — but he sure had a dream. It would be called Star International.

The "International" part wasn't exactly accurate.

"We knew of seven continents, but we didn't sell to six of them," Levin joked.

From a one-bedroom apartment, rented for $50 a month, on top of a daycare center in North Philadelphia, Levin coordinated it all. The contracts for the photography and the printing, and, of course, the wholesale dealers.

Still, timing was on Levin's side.

In the mid-1980s, Jordan, Charles Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler, Patrick Ewing and John Stockton were arriving to the NBA, and Levin was in position to make all their first cards. His first set was the 1983 All-Star set. In Star’s three-year run, Levin made an impressive amount of cards.

The cards were sold in team sets in small plastic bags. Other bags included subsets such as All-Star sets and NBA champion sets.

He said the goal was to make 5,000 of each card each year, but that never worked out. There were ink issues and miscut cards.

“We couldn’t sell more than the most troubled player card on the team,” Levin said. “So, if we had a Bulls player card that was giving us a problem, we didn’t make more. We could only have as many sets as that player had good cards.”

Like a smart businessman, Levin milked the Jordan phenom for as much as he could, making 25 different Jordans in all.

Even early in his NBA career, Jordan was a marketing gold mine. (Credit: Getty Images)
Even early in his NBA career, Jordan was a marketing gold mine. (Credit: Getty Images)

The sets were sold to wholesalers, who had to promise to buy a minimum of five sets per team, a total commitment of about $60. Those wholesalers would then sell the team bags to the public for $1.10 each.

That might seem cheap today, but at the time, the last basketball product that most collectors had seen was 1980-81 Topps, which offered 24 cards in a 25-cent pack. There were half the cards in the Star baggy (12).

Levin's exclusive run with the NBA ended after the 1985-86 season, when he couldn't compete with the league's offer from Fleer, which he said was at least double his fee. They were ready to get back into making basketball cards after a 25-year hiatus.

"I lost money every single year," Levin said.

The counterfeiting scandal

From 1984 to 1996, the Star Jordan was exactly that ... the star. The July 1990 issue of Sports Card Trader confirmed as much, naming it the first $1,000 card made in the '80s.

In November 1993, Beckett listed the Star card as the most coveted Jordan card at $4,500 in mint. The 1986-87 Fleer was at $850 in mint.

Things started to go downhill in 1997.

The story, which has been told over and over again, is Star wanted a second bite of the apple. So, according to the rumors, the company had a printer make more than 100,000 new Star cards and backdated the copyright on the back to make it seem authentic.

With the trading card market now mature, and Jordan four titles in, the price for a set, still in those bags, was now hundreds of dollars. The sets on the Shop At Home channel cost between $299 and $699.

For the dealers who had previously dealt with the Star cards, there were some tell-tale signs that the Shop at Home cards weren't authentic.

In some cases, they had different color borders than the originals or different pictures, and the biggest slip up might have been the 1984 Olympic Set.

"The one at Shop at Home had Ewing, (Wayman) Tisdale and (Chris) Mullin," longtime Star dealer Steve Taft said. "Those guys weren't in the original set because they went back to college."

In July 1997, the NBA filed a civil lawsuit against Levin, the printers he allegedly used and the dealers who sold the cards. The charge was counterfeiting cards and selling those cards across state lines without a license.

A little more than a year later, the NBA won its case. Levin, who pleaded the Fifth Amendment in the civil case, was one of two defendants who didn't settle and was ordered to pay $30,000. To this day, he insists he didn't order the reprinting of cards.

The NBA believed there were 14 sets that featured newly created counterfeit cards. Those included sets with Jordan, namely the 1984 Olympic Medalist set, the 1985 Gatorade Slam Dunk set, the 1985 Michael Jordan Olympic set and the 1985 and 1986 Bulls Arena sets.

For 27 years, every story on the Jordan Star card has mentioned the counterfeiting scandal, and in the process, ruined how the Jordan #101 was perceived and valued.

Those with interest in the card have said all along that the Jordan #101 was not counterfeited.

Father time is perhaps more credible.

Neither Beckett nor PSA have seen a higher number of fakes on the Star card (vs. the 1986 Fleer), and the numbers along with the condition of what has come in, strongly suggest there isn’t a slew that has been encapsulated or is coming down the pike soon.

“If someone had the Jordan 101s to run off, they would just run off those,” Taft said. “Why would anyone bother making sets?”

The aesthetics matter

The brilliant shot of Jordan dunking on the 1986 Fleer adds to the card's appeal. (Credit: Julien's)
The brilliant shot of Jordan dunking on the 1986 Fleer adds to the card's appeal. (Credit: Julien's)

The Jordan Star card had another thing working against it: the awkwardness of the picture on card #101.

Seriously? It’s of Jordan rebounding? If there’s a category where MJ didn’t end his career in the top 50 that’s certainly one of them.

“I contracted a photographer to take pictures at games,” Levin said. “But I somehow wound up with the scraps. That photo I had of Jordan for that card was the best one I had!”

Compare this to the 1986 Fleer Jordan which has him perfectly flying through the air en route to a dunk. (Making matters worse: The two photos might have been taken in the same game.)

Not the real rookie?!

Many current Star owners say some of the downfall also had to do with how Beckett treated the Star Jordan #101 by putting XRC (extended rookie card) on it instead of treating it like the natural rookie card.

In the spring of 1990, Beckett Magazine, long tied to baseball, came out with Beckett Basketball, featuring none other than Jordan on the cover.

It was the first time the Star #101 card was called an XRC.

For Dr. Jim Beckett, the founder of the annual price guides and monthly magazines, there was no debate.

In 1985, Beckett wanted to level the playing field by determining rookie cards from earlier versions that didn't meet what he considered standard qualifications.

One of the first XRCs was the Darryl Strawberry card in the 1983 Topps Traded set. In order for hobby stores to get it, Beckett said they needed to order 100. It wasn't fair game. So, the card received an XRC designation.

Eventually, the lack of being pulled from a pack or not having a full national distribution also got the designation of XRC, as did the rookie cards in the 1984 USFL set, which included Pro Football Hall of Famers such as Steve Young, Reggie White and Jim Kelly.

Beckett told cllct the Jordan Star classically fit the definition of an XRC. It wasn't pack pulled. It wasn't available enough, and there's another qualification — it was missing randomness. Anyone who bought the Bulls set was definitely getting Michael Jordan.

Critics, most often collectors of the Star cards, say there's too big of a time gap between the release of Jordan's 1984-85 Star card and the 1986 Fleer.

Beckett says that's rubbish.

"The 1984-85 Star came out in spring of 1985, and the 1986-87 Fleer came out in the early fall of 1986," Beckett said. "It's a little more than a year separating them."

The XRC vs RC debate has received a lot more attention in the last 10 years, as current collectors of the Star card believe the designation hurts the card's value.

They also allege Fleer executives in the 1990s motivated Beckett to make the distinction.

But Beckett points out that, in that first issue, when the Star was the XRC and the Fleer was the RC, that the Star card was worth $25 more than the Fleer ($200 vs. $175). The XRCs of all the other cards were also more valuable than their rookie cards.

Beckett laughs at the suggestion Fleer had anything to do with his call, saying he never had one conversation about augmenting their past cards or subverting a competitor.

In fact, Fleer, he said, was the most stubborn of advertisers and whose executives, at least for a period of time, with which he most disagreed.

"To think that Fleer and I were in bed with each other," Beckett said. "Nothing could be farther from the truth."

The stigma starts to fade

If Dr. James Beckett had something against the Star card, it would be confusing.

After all, it was Beckett, who in late 2008, started grading and encapsulating the Star cards, while PSA, unsure about counterfeiting, stopped and only resumed in July 2022 after Collectors, PSA's parent company, was purchased. New CEO Nat Turner, a collector himself, made grading the Jordan #101 one of his first tasks.

In recent years, the stigma surrounding the card had started to fade.

There were two reasons why this happened.

First, a concerted effort from people such as Taft and David Dzendzel, one of the biggest Star collectors in the world, who owns the other two PSA 9s, to get the word out that the Jordan card was not believed to be part of the counterfeiting. Second, as the population of the 1986 Fleer Jordans rose and rose, the Star cards stayed amazingly scarce.

Between Beckett and PSA, more than 40,000 Fleer Jordan rookies cards have been graded.

Total 1984-85 Jordan Star cards? Fewer than 1,500.

A tough condition to be in

Then there's the condition.

Jordan was on top of the Bulls bag, so odds are, it would get more rustled.

Between PSA and Beckett, only 5.4 percent of Jordan Star cards are graded a 9 or better.

The PSA 9 that just sold was one of just three, and there are no 10s.

Between PSA and Beckett, nearly 14 percent (13.8) of the 1986 Fleer Jordans are graded a 9 or better.

That data caused Dzendzel to give the Star Jordan a serious look.

"The more I looked at the numbers, the more I was convinced that it was the most undervalued card in the hobby," Dzendzel said.

Dzendzel made some good money flipping into that insight. At the 2022 National, he sold a PSA 8 for $100,000 to Geoff Wilson, founder of Sports Card Investor. The following year, Wilson filmed an hourlong interview with Taft to discuss the merits of the Star card.

Less than six months after his sale to Wilson, the sale that turned heads in the hobby occurred, as a PSA 9 Star was bought for $444,000.

The momentum on the card was real.

Just 17 months later, that card is the same card that sold this month for more than double and nearly reached $1 million.

Dzendzel, who bought one of his PSA 9s raw in January 2023 from a set still in a bag for $60,000, and another for $110,266 in March 2023, has now — at least at current comps — multiplied his money by 10 times over ($170,266 invested, $1.8 million value).

So, is Dzendzel holding on?

"If I were single I would, but my wife worries I have too many eggs in one basket," he said.

But he can't help think of the people who believed in the card in the beginning and didn't hold on long enough.

"I think of all those people who had this card in those screw-down cases, who either gave up the fight or had their cards damaged from what they put it in," Dzendzel said.

The new record sale is an affirmation the card is again back in the rare air it originally occupied.

Darren Rovell is the founder of and one of the country's leading reporters on the collectible market. He previously worked for ESPN, CNBC and The Action Network.