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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