How Tom Chambers Reinvented NBA Free Agency

The Neil Armstrong of unrestricted free agency talks about the summer of 1988

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NBA free agency has arguably become the NBA’s main event. For some fans, free agency is more entertaining than the actual games. It provides hope and dreams for teams looking to build toward a championship. As we’ve seen, one key free agent signing can make all the difference for a championship run. A key point in free agency becoming its own circus was in 2010 when LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined Dwyane Wade to form a big three in Miami. In subsequent years, we’ve seen LeBron make more free agent decisions (Cavs, Lakers) and Kevin Durant choose to sign with the Golden State Warriors in 2016. 

With players like Durant, Kawhi Leonard and Kyrie Irving available, 2019 free agency was everything it was expected to be and more. Durant and Irving teamed up in Brooklyn. Leonard signed with the Los Angeles Clippers and convinced Paul George to tag along. Besides creating seismic shifts in power throughout the NBA, players’ salaries have skyrocketed as well. Teams spent about $3 billion on the first day of free agency.

Free agency existed before 1988, but teams had the right to match any offer to their own free agents from another team. If a team chose not to match an offer, they would receive compensation from the second team signing their original player. After the collective bargaining agreement in 1988, players who have had two NBA contracts and at least seven years’ experience were allowed to become unrestricted free agents. That meant there was no compensation for a team losing their own free agents.

With free agency happening a month from the new CBA, the NBA was headed for a sudden change. One of the top free agents on the market was Tom Chambers. A top-scoring forward, Chambers was not prepared for what would happen.

“[NBA Players Union general counsel] Larry Fleisher talked to my agent [Howard Slusher],” Chambers told ONE37pm on the phone from Arizona.“He said that [unrestricted free agency] was a possibility and not to take the qualifying offer that the Sonics had offered me because there was an opportunity for something special.”

An All-Star with the Seattle Supersonics, Chambers enjoyed playing in Seattle. The problem was a roster glut at his position.

“I just didn’t want to end up in Cleveland or Detroit or something like that,” said Chambers. “I wanted to make sure that I ended up somewhere I wanted to be, and that was an opportunity to do that. We had Xavier [McDaniel] and Derrick McKey. We had some good forwards, so there was no reason for a team to have three of their best players at the same position. It made sense that they were going to move one of us, and I didn’t want to be that person.”

Unwittingly, Chambers became the first unrestricted free agent in NBA history. A hot commodity on the free agent market, Chambers received a five-year, $9 million contract immediately at the start of free agency from the Phoenix Suns. Suns assistant coach Paul Westphal, head coach Cotton Fitzsimmons and general manager Jerry Colangelo came to Slusher’s house to negotiate.

There were no bells and whistles. No arena meetings with Chambers photoshopped into a Suns jersey on the Jumbotron. There wasn’t even any place for negotiation or back-and-forth exchanges.

“It wasn’t a negotiation,” Chambers recalled. “[Colangelo] offered me a contract and said, ‘You have 15 minutes to take it. We’re going to go to our next option if you don’t do this. We’re going to get somebody today.’” 

After the offer, Chambers and Slusher retreated to the back of Slusher’s office. “This is a great offer,” said Slusher. 

“Yeah, but we want to be sure,” said Chambers. 

“Do you want to be in Phoenix?” Slusher responded. 

“Yeah,” Chambers replied. “I love the guys that are on their team. I love the way they played.” 

And just like that, Chambers accepted the offer and became a member of the Suns. There were a rumored six other teams on Chambers’ free agency list, but Phoenix’s hard stance, as well as the quality of fit in playing style, stopped Chambers from ever meeting with another team or consulting his family on the big decision.

Even though it was a quick decision for Chambers, signing with Phoenix ended up being the right decision. He joined a Suns team coming off a 28-win campaign during the 1987-88 season. Looking to rebuild, the Suns had dealt veteran All-Star Larry Nance to the Cleveland Cavaliers and acquired point guard Kevin Johnson in a mid-season trade. The additions of Johnson and Fitzsimmons as coach enticed Chambers, who embraced an uptempo style of play. The loss of Nance also left a huge void at the power forward that Chambers could fill. “For me, I wanted to run the floor,” said Chambers. “I didn’t want to go and be with the bad boys in Detroit and walk it up and score 75 points a game. I wanted to score 125, and that’s what we did and we had a lot of fun doing it.”

Chambers became the centerpiece added to a young Suns nucleus, helping the team to a 27-win improvement from the previous season and a Western Conference Finals appearance. In his five years in Phoenix, Chambers made three All-Star teams. He scored 60 points in a game in 1990, and the Suns won at least 50 games every season. 

Chambers—who still works for the Suns as a color commentator in their pre- and post-games and has a real estate business—sees the numbers for player contracts today and says he could have never imagined the league’s growth from the point of his deal with Phoenix to now. “I had no idea the NBA was going to be like that,” Chambers said. “I played 16 years and had a great career. I made $16 million in my career, and these guys are making a million dollars a month. It’s a whole different situation, how well the league is doing. Obviously, what we did back then helped players. We weren’t making that much money back then, [but now they’re] doing pretty well.”

Chambers doesn’t take much credit for the birth of free agency. “The reason I’m the first [unrestricted free agent] is because I signed a contract faster than anybody else,” he says. “There were other people qualified to be in that position who were in the league in their third contract with at least seven years.” He sees his place as a historical footnote as pure coincidence. Even still, free agency wouldn’t have reached the heights it has in recent seasons without Chambers’ maneuvering back in 1988.

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