Box Break, 1998/99 Topps Finest Series 1 Basketball

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For my first basketball card box break, I’ll be opening this box of 1998/99 Topps Finest Series 1.  There are 24 packs per pox, and six cards per pack.  Topps placed all of the rookies in Series 2, so for now, the focus will be on trying to pull cards of star players from the 1990s.  I’ll be opening a box of Series 2 in the upcoming days, so please be on the lookout for that.



Here is the front of a typical pack.  Just like the box itself, no player or other photography is included.  Just a big Topps Finest logo and a list of the inserts that are available.



Here is a picture of the back of the pack.  I’ve enlarged the photo somewhat so that the insert odds are readable.  I was not collecting in 1998/99, and until now had no idea that in addition to regular Refractors, Topps also inserted “No Protector” and “No Protector Refractors” into some of their Topps Finest products.  So right off the bat, I’ve learned something new, and learning about the hobby is one of the reasons why I decided to open a few boxes of cards in the first place.  Double-Sided Mystery Finest Refractors and the Centurions Refractors are the big inserts that I am chasing.  So let’s get ripping!



First, let’s take a look at the base cards.  I’ve included three examples because Topps Finest had three slightly different designs.  As far as I can tell, Topps included a basketball in the bottom-right corner for cards that featured a forward, a hoop for cards that featured a center, and a pair of basketball shoes for cards that featured a guard.  I had no idea that Topps Finest featured this scheme to designate player positions, so again I am learning quite a bit about this product through this box break.  We can also see that Topps included protective film on the base cards.  I am not sure how I feel about protective film on cards in general.  On the one hand, when buying singles, I’ll only obtain cards that still have the protective film on them (if they came out of the pack that way).  On the other hand, protective film is often not aesthetically pleasing – look how the verticial wording on the protective film distracts from the card photograph.  However, I will say this:  Because Topps included the protective film in 1998/99 Finest, the UV coating on the card surface did not stick together at all.  It was refreshing to open a nearly two-decade old product from the late 1990s and not have all of the cards stick together into one large solid brick.  In many instances, when cards stick together, pulling them apart ruins card surfaces.  But that was not a worry for me here, and for that I am grateful.



Here are the card backs.  Instead of presenting yearly and/or career statistics, cards list players’ career, 1997/98, and playoff highs for three statistical categories.  That is an interesting change of pace; I do like how specific dates are included so that card owners know exactly when a given player was at his “finest.”  I do wish the sphere-like shadow that covers the card number was not included.  It is a little too distracting for my tastes, and makes the player photo appear somewhat crammed in.  I would have preferred it if Topps simply extended the color border running up the left side of the card all the way up.  There would have been enough room to include the card number in the color border, leaving expanded room for the photo.



I pulled six “No Protector” cards, right in line with the stated odds (1:4).  Although these cards are not Refractors, card backs (not shown) feature a higher gloss coating than the regular base cards.  For this reason, it is possible to distinguish “No Protector” cards from a regular base card that has simply had its protective film removed.  From the above group, Gary Payton and the venerable Sam Perkins are the best of the bunch.



I pulled two regular Refractor cards, again in line with the odds (1:12).  Although not stars by any means, both Mario Elie and Terrell Brandon had solid and impactful NBA careers.  Elie was a solid contributor on those great Rockets teams of the 1990s, and Terrell Brandon made two all-star teams.


I pulled one No Protector Refractor, again in line with the odds (1:24).  I was hoping for more of a star player, but then again, Williamson played in the league for over a decade.  That is not easy to do.



Hardwood Honors cards were inserted at 1:33 packs; I beat the odds and pulled this Sam Cassell card.  As can be seen in the checklist here, Topps included 20 players in this insert set.  I would have preferred to pull a Hall-of-Famer as some really great names were included in this set.  I was never a huge Sam Cassell fan, but the one-time all-star scored over 15,000 career points and played a long time.  He was a heck of a player.  Cassell was sort of hard to keep track of during his playing days because he moved from team to team quite regularly.  The card design is okay.  I don’t hate it, but it somehow doesn’t seem to stack up to some of the inserts that Fleer created during the late 1990s.



And now the real fun begins.  I pulled two Mystery Finest cards.  Regular Mystery Finest cards were seeded 1:33 packs, and Mystery Finest Refractors were seeded 1:133 packs, so I definitely beat the odds by pulling two of these cards.  For the longest time, I did not know what a Mystery Finest card was.  I’d see them listed in price guides over the years, and always wondered what the “Mystery” was (recall that I was out of the hobby by the late 1990s when these cards started showing up in the marketplace).  Both sides of the Mystery Finest cards shown above were coated with black film.  So let’s see what I pulled:



Card #1: Oh no!  That didn’t go too well did it?  Given my lack of experience and familiarity with Mystery Finest cards, I did not know how to properly peel off the black film.  1998/99 Topps Finest cards are extremely thin, and as such, I didn’t realize what or where I was supposed to be peeling back.  I accidently pulled the card into two independent sections – one for the card front, and one for the back (both still covered by black film).  Even though I had accidently destroyed the card, I was still curious about which players were featured.  As such, I cut the card front and back (again, now two independent pieces) to try to separate the back film from the card surface.  The above photos are what is left of the massacre.  There are two ways that I could have dealt with such an unsatisfying result:  1) Feel extremely foolish and upset with myself for destroying a decent hit from a great hobby box, or 2) Learn from my mistake, be a little bit more patient and try again with the second Mystery Finest card in my possession.  I chose option 2.  Would I redeem myself?



Card # 2: Buying cards by the box, compared to buying singles, is a much more risky proposition.  As such, I’ve turned to buying singles much more over the last couple of years; singles are just a more efficient way to spend money in our great, but expensive, hobby.  So the fact that I took a chance on this box of 1998/99 Topps Finest, and then destroyed one of the better cards that I pulled did not sit well with me.  Still, I had a chance to amend myself, and I did.  Having a better idea of where I should be applying slight pressure to gently peel off the black film, I had greater luck with Mystery Finest card number two.  After I peeled the black film off just the tiniest amount from the corner of the card, I grabbed a pair of tweezers to better grip the black film going forward.  After about 10 minutes of extremely gentle pulling, I successfully peeled off the black film from both sides of the card.  I was left staring at the above Shaquille O’Neal / David Robinson Mystery Finest Refractor (if it is not clear from the photo, only one card is being shown: Shaq on the front and the Admiral on the back).  This is a great card, and it will be placed into my Personal Collection.  I typically don’t collect cards that feature multiple players, but the fact that I pulled this one directly from a pack and had first destroyed another Mystery Finest card makes the above O’Neal/Robinson card a welcome addition to my collection.  As can be seen above, the card went directly into a top loader.  Beckett books this card at $12.50 to $30.00.  I’ll have to dig around eBay and the like to get a more precise value.  I may have this card graded as well as it is in great shape.


The Bottom Line

This box of 1998/99 Topps Finest Series 1 proved to be a real learning experience for me.  And that is one of the main reasons why I bought this box: to learn.  I now know that all rookies in 1998/99 Topps Finest show up in Series 2 (box break forthcoming), that not all cards came with protective film, and that an extreme amount of patience is needed to pull off the black film from a Mystery Finest card.  Opening this box was a great experience; it really delivered for me.

As for the set itself, I like the design and the player selection.  And with only 125 cards featured in each series, it is possible for set collectors to put a full set together.  Thumbs up so far; I look forward to seeing what’s in series 2.  Stay tuned.

Have you ever accidently destroyed a card?  I’d be curious to find out.




Word of the Day

indelible – impossible to remove or forget; her performance made an indelible impression on me; his achievements left an indelible mark on the era; an indelible image


  1. Had a lot of fun reading your blog today! Nice flashback with you opening up these finest packs. If I recall, the mystery peel came off easier back in those days. Maybe they’ve bonded to the surface of the card over the years. The Shaq/Robinson card is really nice. Based on eBay and COMC listings, I’d say value in the $5-$8 range, but graded would be cool. If there’s not many graded I think it would be worth it.


    1. I’m glad that you enjoyed reading my blog. Sharing my collecting experiences with others is one of the main reasons why I decided to create Lingua Sports Cards. I’ve learned a lot about the hobby over the last couple of years by reading card blogs, and thought I’d return the favor by creating some of my own content. Yeah, the black film was not easy to peel at all, but Mystery Finest cards were a truly creative idea for Topps to try out. I commend the company for doing something new at the end of the last millennium. I tend to like it when card companies think outside the box – sometimes ideas work, and sometimes they fail miserably. But for innovation to occur, the sports card industry (like all industries) needs patience and understanding. Not every idea will be a winner, and that is okay.


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