The Signing of the First Unrestricted Free Agent, Tom Chambers
In 1988, the Phoenix Suns made history as they changed the framework of the NBA forever.
Tom Chambers received his first NBA All-Star appearance in 1987 as a member of the Seattle Supersonics. He was named the All-Star Game Most Valuable Player after scoring 34 points and was quickly turning heads as he approached free agency.
Throughout the first 40 years of the NBA, if a player swapped jerseys for a new team, it was almost guaranteed to be by trade, not by choice. When a player’s contract was finished, their current team would reup the deal and move forward with them on the roster.
This was until 1988, the same year that Tom Chambers’ contract was up for renewal with the Supersonics.
“I remember being in New York City at an owners meeting,” Former Suns Owner Jerry Colangelo said. “David Stern was addressing the group. He talked about unrestricted free agency and almost immediately my eyes went to the owner of the Seattle franchise. I said to myself, ‘You just lost Tom Chambers.”
It was set in place that as long as the player had been in the league for at least seven seasons and had played through two NBA contracts, the choice was theirs to choose a new destination. Colangelo took little time in his efforts to acquire Chambers as he quickly began an aggressive approach at one of the top players on the market.
“At the appropriate time at midnight, that call was made,” Colangelo said. “We had a meeting set up for very early the next morning.”
The Suns already had connections with Chambers as both he and assistant coach Paul Westphal shared an agent in Howard Slusher, but beyond that, Chambers was excited about what the Suns were doing on the court.
“I just loved what the Suns were doing the year before,” Chambers said. “Kevin Johnson was playing great. I loved the speed of the game. I loved the fact that they’re just going to go up and down and score a lot of points, which I wanted to do. Mostly, it was they wanted me.”
Colangelo was joined by Westphal and Head Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons as the trio met with Chambers and Slusher. After trading All-Star Larry Nance the season prior, Fitzsimmons hoped to move fast and acquire Chambers to fit into that role.
“We were all sitting around the pool, talking for a little bit,” Colangelo said. “Slushes’ phone is ringing and teams are calling trying to set up appointments. I sensed we had to take care of this pretty quickly.”
Colangelo was known as a straight shooter and got directly to the point by giving Chambers and his agent an ultimatum and a timetable.
“Here’s the deal and you have 15 minutes to make a decision or I’m out,” Colangelo said.
“He made an offer and even Howard had to say let’s go talk,” Chambers said. “Basically, you have 15 minutes to make your mind up because if it’s not going to be you, it’s going to be somebody else.”
With other big names on the market such as Danny Schayes and Jon Koncak, Chambers and Slusher didn’t want to let the opportunity in Phoenix slip away.
“So, I went back to the pool,” Colangelo said. “Five minutes or ten minutes later, he came back and said you’ve got yourself a forward.”
And as the pen touched the paper, history was made. Tom Chambers became the first unrestricted free agent to sign a contract with a new team.
The Suns Ring of Honor member went on to earn three more All-Star nods in Phoenix while also helping lead the Suns to the 1993 NBA Finals. Chambers has remained in the Valley as a Phoenix Suns broadcaster as that one day by the pool changed his life and the framework of the NBA forever.
Since '68: Tom Chambers First NBA Unrestricted Free Agent