It was May 11, 1976. The New York Nets were in Denver for Game 5 of the ABA Finals against the Nuggets - a potential series-decisive 48 minutes. Jim Bukata, the ABA's director of marketing and public relations, was in charge of bringing the trophy from the league office in NY to Colorado, in case of the Nets clinching the title. But it never got there. Well, sort of.
Bukata arrived in Denver on game-day, got a rental car, and drove to McNichols Sports Arena. He was watching the game, before realizing that he forgot the trophy in the trunk. Jim went to get it, but it was no longer there - someone stole the car. That's when Bukata became a Nuggets fan, along with the rest of the ABA. They were hoping Denver would win the game and give them some extra time to find the trophy. And that's exactly what happened.
The Nuggets beat the Nets 118-110, forcing a Game 6 in New York, buying the league more time to track the championship trophy down. But once the final buzzer in Game 6 sounded - New York beat Denver 112-106 - it was still nowhere to be found. The league was forced to give the Nets the old trophy they had received after winning the '74 ABA title. But at least Julius Erving got the proper Finals MVP award.
One month later, the trophy, worth about $900, was delivered to the ABA's headquarters, and it was later presented to the New York Nets. The package carried a return address of C.J. Flynn, 2619 Lark. Denver, but no such person or adress was found.
The funny part is that it cost the thief $7.80 postage to send it back.
Jim Bukata, NY Times
As to who stole it, that remains a mystery. Unless you want to believe Bruce McLeod, who published his confession on an ABA website. According to Bruce, he went to Game 5 with his friend Stanley after stealing tickets from someone's milk box. After they got kicked out by the Denver police, Stanley and Bruce moved on to the next, much more significant theft that night.
As we trudged across the McNichols parking lot, we passed a limousine. It had what I noticed was a "shiny object" in the back seat. The rear door was not shut all the way which I think is why it didn't lock. The "shiny object" turned out to be the ABA Championship trophy. Needless to say, Stanley and I "removed" it. I kept it hidden in my room for about two whole months before my mother discovered it and wanted to know what it was and, more importantly, WHERE it came from. Of course I embellished a story about how we "bought it from some guy" (probably the same guy who had "sold" us our Game 5 tickets).
Much to my dismay, I came home from school one day and found that "my" ABA trophy had disappeared. Mom had somehow found out what I had, and worse…had determined where it belonged. Years later she told me she mailed it to somewhere in New York. It cost her over $7.00 in postage which she promptly deducted from my allowance. I sure wish I still had it, it would be quite the conversation piece. Mom has since passed on but she did instill some good values in me. Unfortunately, I didn't apply those until later on in life. Stanley and I were..."the Third Team" of the ABA Finals. Too bad we didn't win the trophy honestly.
Bruce McLeod, Remember the ABA
Was it really Bruce? It's hard to tell. It might be. But whether it is or not, it's the only sensible version we have. Until someone figures it out, the story of the '76 ABA Championship trophy remains one of the greatest mysteries in the league's history.