Tom Chambers: The First Unrestricted Free Agent

Tom Chambers remembers when an NBA player’s destiny lied with the whims of his team.

Before 1988, you could be drafted or traded. Signing with another team after your contract was up, however, was not the wide-open option it is today. Even if your team was willing to let you go, they had to receive compensation[1].

In short: if you were good, chances were you weren’t going anywhere.

“There was no such thing as free agency,” Chambers said. “If a team had you, then you had to sign with that team unless they traded you. You really couldn’t move. There was no movement at all. Therefore, contracts were kind of locked into what you could make.”

Chambers was better than good. The 6-10 forward was coming off a stellar five-year stretch in Seattle in which he averaged 20.4 points, 6.6 rebounds and 2.4 assists. His MVP performance in the 1987 All-Star game had put him firmly in the consciousness of NBA personnel and fans, alike.

The Sonics, however, appeared less than thrilled with the state of their frontcourt despite Chambers’ presence. They pulled off a draft-day trade to bring up-and-coming forward Michael Cage to Seattle. They had drafted another long-limbed, athletic forward in Derrick McKey the year before.

Chambers knew his own worth, but wondered how he’d be able to show it with the Sonics’ shifting toward a different group of frontcourt players. With his contract now up for renewal, Chambers assumed he’d simply be retained and then traded when the right deal came along. Until that happened, it looked like he had no choice but to return to Seattle under uncertain circumstances.

Until head of the NBA players’ union Larry Fleisher called.

“He called my agent after Seattle had given me a qualifying offer,” Chambers recalled. “He said ‘don’t accept it, because we feel like we’re going to get this unrestricted free agency thing done.’”

Days later, it became official. Players whose contracts had concluded would be truly free to choose their teams if they met two conditions:

1) have been in the league seven years or more and 2) have played through two NBA contracts.

As a player who met both requirements and whose talents would be in high demand, Chambers, it turned out, would be the perfect pioneer for the NBA’s new frontier of free agency.

Chambers 60-Point Game: Part 1

When the new collective bargaining agreement – and its subsequent unrestricted free agency rules – became official in 1988, Suns General Manager Jerry Colangelo looked over at Seattle owner Barry Ackerley.

“You’re going to lose Chambers,” Colangelo said.

The long-time Suns’ manager did not dare assume the star forward would wind up in Phoenix, but he and his staff were determined to do all they could to make that possibility a reality.

At 12:01 a.m. of Friday, July 1, 1988, Chambers’ home phone in Los Angeles rang. On the other end of the line was Suns assistant coach Paul Westphal.

Phoenix’s choice of caller was nostalgically strategic. The two had a history derived from having the same agent and having run basketball camps together. The Suns had also left a good impression on Chambers in his last game against them the previous season.

“The year before we had played against the Suns [after] they had gotten Kevin Johnson, Mark West and Tyrone Corbin,” Chambers said. “Loved what they were doing as a team. Loved Kevin Johnson as a point guard, Jeff Hornacek [also]. I jut felt like, since they had [traded forward] Larry [Nance], they needed that guy to come back and fill that spot.”

His train of thought ran parallel to that of the Suns.

“If you look at our roster, we have a young nucleus,” Colangelo said just days before signing Chambers. “In the [1988] draft[2], we added defense, rebounding, athletic ability, quickness and a lot more scoring than people might realize. If we can add a bona fide veteran player who can play and get some numbers, that would be perfect.”

High-Flying Sun

The negotiations between Chambers and the Suns became the predecessor of free agent wining and dining that would define the process in decades to come. Westphal had secured a meeting with their potential prize at his home in Los Angeles. He was joined by Colangelo and head coach Cotton Fitzsimmons, who had recently taken over the job that summer.

The trio went armed with three things: niceties, a vision and a contract.

“Our intention in going there to meet with Tom was not for cordial conversation, but to come back with a signed contract,” Colangelo said. “I don’t think Tom knew that morning that he would be a Phoenix Sun by that night.”

He didn’t, but the idea became more and more appealing as that summer Saturday saw the sun pass overhead. The meeting had started at 9:00 a.m., and there was little sign it would end after lunch.

“The Suns were very aggressive,” Chambers admitted. “Cotton, Jerry and Paul were sitting in my house and they basically weren’t going home until they made a deal.”

Chambers wasn’t put off by Phoenix’s proactive approach. They might have been trying to beat him into submission, but they were beating him with millions of dollars. It was hard not to accept, let alone complain.

“They made a hell of an offer, and in my judgment we had to take it,” he said.

Chambers 60-Point Game: Part 2

The speed with which an agreement was reached and ultimately announced blew the NBA and its followers away. Even with the ink of his own signature drying at the bottom of a five-year, multi-million dollar contract, Chambers was still trying to grasp what had happened.

Instead of being off-handedly used as a property, he had been wooed as a highly-sought after athlete. More importantly, the final decision had been his.

“They came in the door and offered me a deal. I couldn’t refuse it,” he said. “It caught me off guard. I was prepared to talk to six or seven other teams. I was in a unique situation to be able to pick and choose a team. I never had a chance to talk to anybody else.”

“[Unrestricted free agency] was cutting-edge stuff. It was stuff that hadn’t really been done...You could get a player and not have to give up anything for him except for money?”

— Tom Chambers

“It was cutting-edge stuff,” Chambers now reflects. “It was stuff that hadn’t really been done. Even though they offered me more money than Seattle – quite a bit more – and it seemed like a huge contract, it became obsolete almost instantaneously. You could get a player and not have to give up anything for him except for money? That’s where it went kind of crazy after that.”

The Suns, meanwhile, were elated. Not only had they jumped out ahead of the rest of the league to nab that summer’s free agent prize, but they had set a precedent, one that would eventually land them the likes of Clifford Robinson, Steve Nash and Goran Dragic.

“This is a statement,” Colangelo declared at the time. “We will do whatever we can to be competitive. When we looked at the free agent list, there was no question in our mind who would have the most impact for our team – Tom Chambers. He is in the prime of his career with a lot of great years ahead of him.”

The words proved prophetic. Chambers improved his scoring 25.7 points per contest in 1988-89, then poured in an other-worldly 27.2 points per game in 1989-90. He and Johnson became on the league’s best duos, one that helped lead the Suns to consecutive Western Conference Finals appearances. In the following four years, he was named an All-Star three times (1989-1991) and honored with two All-NBA Second Team spots (1989, 1990).

Before all that happened, Fitzsimmons joked about the immediate effect of Chambers’ arrival.

“I immediately became a better coach when Tom signed,” he laughed.

[1] The latter scenario occurred in Phoenix in 1980, when Gar Heard – a hero from the Suns’ 1976 NBA Finals run – signed with the then-San Diego Clippers. Phoenix received a pair of third-round draft picks in exchange for Heard’s departure.


[2] Phoenix has just drafted forward Tim Perry (7th), swingman Dan Majerle (14th), big men Andrew Lang (28th) and Dean Garrett (38th) and point guards Steve Kerr (50th) and Rodney Johns (55th).