Posted: June 4, 2003
On July 8, 1988, the Phoenix Suns signed Tom Chambers as the first unrestricted free agent in NBA history, setting in motion a string of successes that culminated with a trip to the 1993 NBA Finals. The All-Star forward played in all 24 games that postseason and started Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals against the Sonics, his former team, to help the Suns advance to the championship series.
Now a Suns broadcaster and community relations representative, Chambers sat down with Suns.com recently to talk about the rise of the Suns and his part in that magical 1992-93 season.
Suns.com: How significant was it for the team to advance to the Western Conference Finals in both 1989 and 1990?
Tom Chambers: It was huge for everybody involved because that year was my first full season in Phoenix and we weren’t even picked to do anything. Cellar dwellers, if you will. That whole season long we turned a bunch of heads, we scored a bunch of points and we had a lot of fun playing basketball. The beginning of that season the stands were half full. By the end of that season it was sold-out crowds all the way up through '95-96. That was the turnaround of the franchise. It would have been great to have the season we had and just miss the playoffs, but to get into the playoffs and win a couple of rounds was something really special for everyone involved. It’s always more important to a player, it seems to mean more if you do it when you’re not supposed to do it. There wasn’t a lot of pressure on us and we just had a whole bunch of fun.
Suns.com: How much pressure did you feel personally coming to Phoenix as the league’s first ever unrestricted free agent?
Chambers: I wasn’t concerned with myself. I wanted to go someplace where I thought we could win. A lot of people thought I was going for the money, because I came to Phoenix and they really didn’t have as much going. Yet I felt the components were there and that they were a perfect fit for me, and that we would win immediately. Obviously, the coaches believed that we could win and Jerry (Colangelo) and myself, and the players all believed we could win, and we did. We had the components, but we just hadn’t been together. Kevin (Johnson), Mark (West) and Tyrone (Corbin) had just come for a half a season before. I wanted to come here. I felt like this was the perfect town and team to have success, and fortunately that’s exactly what happened.
Suns.com: With the America West Arene opening, new uniforms, a new coach in Paul Westphal and the addition of Charles Barkley, what were the expectations entering the 1992-93 season?
Chambers: There was a lot of anticipation. We had been looking at the new arena for quite some time, a state of the art facility and something that all of us had worked towards for four seasons and had really earned by bringing the fans back, by putting a real competitive team on the court and a team that was fun to watch. We were scoring 110, 120 points a game and everybody loved what we were doing, especially the players.
Suns.com: What were the expectations as you started the playoffs?
Chambers: You talked about the turn from ’88 to ’89 where the team was not supposed to have any success, but in ’93 we were supposed to win the whole thing. Two completely different situations in a matter of five years where we went from the bottom of the barrel to the Western Conference Finals to ’93 where we really picked from the get-go. With Charles coming in and solidifying the team that we already had, we were expected to get out of the west finally and go all the way to the Finals.
Suns.com: How much of a shock then was it to lose the first two games of your first-round matchup at home against the Lakers?
Chambers: We were embarrassed, but we didn’t feel like we were going to lose the series. We had so much confidence in ourselves and maybe that’s one of the reasons we lost (those games). We thought we could turn it on any time we wanted to. You just can’t do that in the playoffs and we learned that. From then on, it was a different story.
Suns.com: What did you think of Paul Westphal’s proclamation that you would win the last three games of the series and advance after dropping the first two?
Chambers: What else is he supposed to say? "We’re not going to win the series?" That’s how Paul responded to it. It was a bold statement, but that’s exactly how we all felt. He was just reaffirming to us that he believed in us and that we should continue to believe in ourselves that we were a better team than the Lakers. We certainly had a great road record that year, one of the best, if not the best, in the NBA. We needed to go do it on the road. We just made it harder on ourselves than it should have been.
Suns.com: What are your memories of the Western Semifinals against the Spurs?
Chambers: There was no time to relax. We made it difficult on ourselves by going to a full five games against the Lakers when we should have taken care of business a little bit quicker. There’s no time to relax, especially in the West and it’s been like that a long time. All of the teams in the west are capable of beating another one, whether it’s the eighth or the first seed, or four or five. We had to come ready. San Antonio was a heck of a team. They had a lot of different styles of players. They had defensive players and they had guys who could score, so we knew it was going to be a tough series.
Suns.com: What do you remember about Barkley’s game-winner in Game 6?
Chambers: It was nice to go down there and win one. You hate to go to a Game 7 because in one game anything can happen in the NBA. That’s what you work for all season long is that home-court advantage, but you hate to have to go down to a Game 7. The game was close and when it’s close with Charles on our team, we felt like we could win at the end. I don’t know if that was the best shot in the world, him pulling up from the top of the key, but that’s the way he wanted to do it. He had confidence in himself and he made it.
Suns.com: What was it like to meet your former team in the Conference Finals?
Chambers: It was nice. I liked playing against those guys. We struggled in that series also. In fact, when we came back here for Game 7, it was tied up and it shouldn’t have been. We were having trouble guarding Derrick McKey and he was somebody who I played with. I asked Coach Westphal if I could start because I felt like I could contain him and that’s what we did. So the only time I started that whole season was in Game 7 of that series and I was able to hold him down and I was able to score, too, so it added some more scoring to our team. Me being a veteran in the playoffs was a huge advantage for us. Before that, we were starting a rookie (Richard Dumas) and it just didn’t work out for us in some of the playoff games.
Suns.com: So you initiated the suggestion that you start Game 7?
CHAMBERS: I had talked to him about it a lot. Paul was a guy who talked to his players a lot. He talked to me a lot, being a veteran. I just said that I had always guarded Derrick and I always had success. I was taller, being 6-10, 6-10½, where Richard was 6-8. Derrick’s a long guy, 6-9 or 6-10 and I knew his tendencies, he liked to go left and so on. So Paul said, “Let’s try it,” and we did and it was effective.
Suns.com: Where does winning Game 7 against the Sonics to advance to the NBA Finals rank in your career highlights?
Chambers: It was a great game for our team, for me. Playing against my old teammates and feeling like I could come in and do what I needed to do to help the team win and it happened. I came out and hit some big shots, extended the defense a little bit, had Derrick come out to play me. He was a very good defensive player so he wasn’t inside bothering Charles all the time and I was able to slow Derrick down offensively, too. He didn’t have a terrible game, but he had been playing very well up until that game.
Suns.com: How did you handle the reduced role you took when the Suns traded for Barkley?
Chambers: I wasn’t disappointed at all about a reduced role. I felt like I could contribute at the center position, backing up Charles or backing up the small forward. I just wanted to help the team win. I had accomplished a lot of personal goals and I wanted to win a championship. I knew, like everybody else knew, that we would be a better team with Charles on the team.
Suns.com: What kind of effect do you think your handling the reduced role with such class had on the rest of the team?
Chambers: I’m sure it shocked a lot of people. Being what I was and carrying a team literally whenever it needed to be done, they’re going to look at me and wonder if I’m going to throw a fit, or if I’m going to be upset. That wasn’t what it was all about. Earlier in my career, it would have been more difficult, but at that point all I wanted to do was win any way possible. I still felt like I could score. I felt like I could contribute. I was mature enough and prepared to do whatever it took to win. If we were a better team coming in, I just had to change my role coming off the bench and doing different things and playing better defense, trying to rebound, because I could do that in fewer minutes. It was different, but it was nice to be able to make that run and have a team that I felt could do it.
Suns.com: What was it like around town as you entered the Finals?
Chambers: It was crazy. Everybody was aboard. We had great fans. That season there were so many games that we probably should have lost and we just hit huge shots to win. I recall a few of Dan Majerle’s. It was almost like it was destiny. We were supposed to win 60-plus games and we were supposed to be in the Finals, because everything really fell into place and it worked out really well for us. The town believed in us and we believed in ourselves. It was a type of euphoria that you don’t experience very often and it was just crazy. It was unbelievable. The Suns were just everything.
Suns.com: How satisfying was it for you to reach the NBA Finals after playing for the Suns for five seasons?
Chambers: It was extra-special. I left Seattle to come here to this team and in five years it would be consummated, and we’d be able to go to the NBA Finals. When they say rebuilding a team, we did it quicker than anyone would have expected, but in five years we were playing for the NBA Championship and that was just a great culmination of five years of exactly what we had hoped would be accomplished. Nobody could have been happier about what was transpiring than myself.
Suns.com: What was the confidence level of the team as you headed into the NBA Finals?
Chambers: We were confident, but maybe we were always too confident. It seemed like every series we started off poorly. San Antonio was the only series where we won all our home games. Against Seattle we lost some, LA. We just needed to focus and when there was a sense of urgency we were a team that really couldn’t be beat. We allowed them to win a game early and that made us have to focus and really get after them. Unfortunately, when you lose a home game early in the series and against a team like Chicago, it comes back to haunt you.
Suns.com: How disappointing was it for you to hear some fans boo Kevin Johnson after Game 2?
Chambers: It was painful for everybody to hear. KJ and myself were really what got this thing going and we had won big, and we all knew what KJ meant to us and we couldn’t do it without him. Both of us were playing a lesser role, even though KJ was a lot younger, but it just wasn’t happening and that happens in the playoffs. Starters have bad games in the playoffs and guys that aren’t expected to do anything have good games.
Suns.com: Of course, Kevin bounced back big in Game 3 and so did the team. What are your memories of that triple-overtime win?
Chambers: I don’t think that you could ever have a better game than that game. You had great players and great teams playing as hard as they could possibly play with every play meaning so much. It was just incredible to have the game go on for that many minutes. I think some of the guys played more than 50 minutes.
Suns.com: After the Suns won Game 5 in Chicago, Barkley said you guys saved the city.
Chambers: That’s probably true. There would have been a big party (had the Bulls won). I guess before when they’d won they had all kinds of looting and fires, and all kinds of stuff going on. It was just Chuck saying the one-liners that everybody thinks and he really took some pressure off everybody to go back home, and do what we needed to do.
Suns.com: What are your memories of the deciding Game 6?
Chambers: It was frustrating for me because I came out of the game with three minutes to go and we were up six points. That was just Paul’s philosophy a lot that season where when we had enough points he wanted to put in players who he felt played better defense, and unfortunately from that point on we didn’t score and they did, and we lost the game.
Suns.com: Did you think that 1993 was your last shot at an NBA Championship at the time?
Chambers: I never doubted I would have a shot at playing again. I felt like I could. Right after the playoffs I was released so they could use my money, because of the way that the collective bargaining agreement was at the time. They could go sign somebody else with the money I was making. They went and signed A.C. Green so my career here was done. I went and signed with the Jazz and they were a great team. We won 65 games up there. I felt like I could continue to play and help teams. Not carry a team with 25 points a game, but I could help. As far as the ’93 series and when it was over, I kind of felt like my career was done in Phoenix because of the fact that at that point, the popular thing to do in the league was the guys who had been around for 10 or 12 years making a lot of money, they can go find somebody else for the long term, which they did with A.C.
Suns.com: Overall, what was your relationship with Barkley like that season?
Chambers: It was great. Charles and I did a lot of things off the court. We went out, we ate, we hung out. We had a lot of things we enjoyed doing together, playing cards. Charles was a fun guy to be around, he really was. He was always a gentleman around my children and my family, and a nice guy when people came up to him. I just really enjoyed my time with him.
Suns.com: What was it like for you return to the team as a broadcaster and community relations guy after the disappointment you felt in leaving after the ’92-’93 season?
Chambers: My relationship with the organization has been good. You can have your feelings hurt when it’s time to move on, but they made a business decision, probably one I would have made also. When you can get a young and upcoming guy versus signing an older guy who you may just get a year or two out of… They did what was right and that’s one of the reasons that has been changed in the collective bargaining agreement because a lot of veterans were going down the road and organizations couldn’t have them finish out their careers, because they needed to use that money in other ways. So I was upset, but if I was Jerry I probably would have done the same thing. You want to be here forever, you don’t want to go anywhere, but fortunately it worked out.