Suns sign first unrestricted free agent in NBA history

Chambers Signs

RUNNING A PROFESSIONAL BASKETBALL FRANCHISE has never been a 9 to 5 operation. However, it's rare when a team dramatically changes its fortunes in the dead of night.

At 12:01 a.m. on July 1, 1988, the Phoenix Suns ventured into new territory, becoming the first NBA team to sign an unrestricted free agent. Under a new collective bargaining agreement between management and the players, free agents with seven years or more experience would be considered unrestricted, meaning any team could sign them without compensation or right of refusal by the player's old team.

Tom Chambers meets the Phoenix media after signing with the Suns.

T he "what" and "why" of this story is easy to explain. Coming off a 28-54 season the year before, the Suns were considering all options to improve the roster. Trades and a fruitful draft had brought the Suns a harvest of young talent. What they needed now was a steadying influence, an on-the-floor leader who could help new Head Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons guide the younger players through the NBA's stormy waters.

The question was not of "What?" or "Why?" It was "Who?"

Several unrestricted free agents would be available. The search, however, narrowed down to two candidates. Sacramento guard Mike Woodson, who played for Fitzsimmons in Kansas City, and Seattle forward Tom Chambers. It was Chambers who actually fit the Suns' needs. Already well-stocked with young guards Kevin Johnson and Jeff Hornacek, the Suns needed strength and scoring up front to take the pressure off the young backcourt.

As June 30 turned to July 1, the Suns had made up their minds. They would waste no time in getting their man.

"My agent got a call at 12:01 a.m., July 1," Chambers said. "It was (Suns assistant coach) Paul Westphal. He said the Suns wanted to talk to me."

Four days later, talk turned to reality. The Suns signed Chambers to a five-year contract. With little warning to the rest of the league, the Suns jumped into the unrestricted free agent pool, while Seattle got splashed. The SuperSonics were the first to feel the impact of such a signing. In losing Chambers, Seattle said goodbye to a player who had averaged 20 points and six rebounds per game in 1987-88. What they got in return was.nothing.

"It was quick, it was sudden," Chambers told a Phoenix press conference. "They came in the door and offered me a deal. I just flat out couldn't refuse it. Now that I've had time to look back and think, I'm very excited."

If you think Chambers was excited...

"Our intention of going to Los Angeles to meet with Tom was not just to have a cordial discussion about his future," said Suns President and Chief Executive Officer Jerry Colangelo. "We came in ready to deal. We thought that the longer this goes on, the less likely we would have been successful."

"I immediately became a better coach," jokes Fitzsimmons. "Tom gives us the chance to step up the ladder that much quicker. I'm not saying we're going to be a championship team, but this gives us a chance to skip a few steps along the way."

Chambers understood his role. An early season loss at San Antonio proved to be disturbing to Fitzsimmons because his younger players seemed to accept defeat a little too easily. Chambers, however, continued to battle to the game's end, explaining his reasons to reporters afterwards.

"I pride myself on not giving up," Chambers said. "With this young team, if they see me do that, then they may do it, too.

"If they saw me quit, what kind of inspiration would that be?"

Inspiring players was something Chambers would never have to worry about.

"Tom has been one of the most helpful players to me," remarked Kevin Johnson during the Suns' training camp in 1988. "I can't say enough about Tom. He's been supportive. He's a veteran player who sets a good example."

Good enough to have been named Suns' team captain from his first year with the squad. Chambers' example on the court was worthy of recognition. In his first two seasons, Chambers led the Suns in scoring, placing in the top five in the league, as the Suns advanced to the Western Conference finals both seasons.

His desire and unrivaled talent made Chambers an immediate favorite with Suns fans who were looking for a hero. In Chambers, they found one. The admiration from fans and teammates for Tom Chambers' contributions to the Phoenix Suns were, and have always been, unrestricted.

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