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Tom Chambers: White men can jump


If someone mentions the name Tom Chambers, most basketball fans will think about all of his magnificent dunks at the end of the 80s. The power forward was much more. The man with the spring will be also remembered as the first true free agent in NBA history.

NBA franchise had the right to a player from the moment a college graduate was drafted. If the contract expired, the previous "employer" always had the last word.

"There was no such thing as free agency at the time, everyone was restricted, and if a club had the rights to you, you had to sign it again," said Tom Chambers, describing the situation until the late '80s.

If the franchise did not fulfill the desire of a trade, a player could be tied to a team for life. The fact that many players only played for one team at a time did not always have anything to do with loyalty. There was no alternative.

Accordingly, Chambers had little hope for improvement in 1988 at the Seattle SuperSonics. Chambers was an outstanding player with a variety of unique selling points, even at a time when the League was peppered with legends such as Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Isiah Thomas, and Dominique Wilkins.

Despite a height of 2.08 meters, Chambers was anything but a type of player as Karl Malone, Kevin McHale, or the typical power forward of his time. 

"I've built more on finesse, relying on my throw and speed," said Chambers of his earlier style of play, which revolutionized the game and also opened the door for future shooters on the Four, for example, Dirk Nowitzki.

That Chambers was not a real "garbage man", as Charles Oakley once defined the position of the power forward, went back to his time as a teenager. The young Chambers played with just under 1.90 meters on the guard position. Similar to Anthony Davis later, however, Chambers got a late spurt of growth and suddenly found himself back in the big positions. At college at the Utah Utes, he even played on Center.

But while many tall people had problems coordinating themselves, Chambers kept his skills. The already strong athleticism was even more pronounced, the ball-handling and bounce were exceptional for a big man. In a nutshell, Tom Chambers quickly became a spectacular big guy.

Nevertheless, there were doubts about the scouts in the NBA. Had Chambers only benefited from his physical superiority in college? The Clippers were convinced and draft him in 1981 with the eighth pick.

The Clippers were still in San Diego at the time, but under owner Donald Sterling they had the same problems they will have for the next 30 years. A change followed and Chambers was traded to Seattle despite promising performances.

There, Chambers finally flourished and became a franchise player. In 1987, Forward put on 23 points per game and was elected for the All-Star game. In what was arguably the best all-star game in history, he ran one pick-and-roll after another with Magic, scoring 34 points and winning the MVP award.

By that time, Chambers had arrived in the ranks of the stars. With the Xavier McDaniel and Nate McMillan in the team, a franchise from the state of Washington pushed through to the Conference Final. There was Magic Johnson but no longer a teammate - but opponent, the Showtime Lakers swept over Seattle.

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A year later, the disappointment followed already in the first round, as the run-and-gun Nuggets by coach Doug Moe defeated Chambers and Co. Seattle then faced a change, but the Sonics presented him with the qualifying offer. But behind the scenes of the NBA, something was happening.

The boss of the players' union, Larry Fleisher, got wind of the signature contract and made contact immediately. "Fleisher called my agent and said, 'Wait a minute before signing up with the Sonics because we think we're in for a little revolution'. That's what we did then," Chambers said.

And just a little later it was official: a new collective bargaining agreement was in a place that allowed certain players to become unrestricted free agents on an expiring contract. A player had to be for the duration of two contracts and a total of seven years in the league. Chambers fulfilled these conditions and was suddenly the first NBA player to enjoy the benefits of capitalism.

"It was a great opportunity for me to choose the team that suits me best and earns more money at the same time." One franchise switched the fastest: The Phoenix Suns around the then General Manager Jerry Colangelo.

The Suns were in a state of upheaval to save the franchise's negative image. As many as 13 current and former players were accused of cocaine use, in addition, there were rumors of bet manipulation. With a trade of, among others, Larry Nance for Kevin Johnson and Mark West, the course was set. Then there was the Cleveland Cavaliers pick that took Dan Majerle to the Arizona desert in the summer.

Phoenix saw in Chambers the perfect fit for their new line-up and aggressively promoted the forward, but kept up the pitch. "You have 20 minutes to think about it," Colangelo reportedly said. "He basically said, 'Here's the money, if you do not take it, it'll get another.' I signed as fast as I could," explained Chambers.

It should pay off. With a five-year working paper valued at $9 million, the former Sonic rose to become one of the top earners in the league (by comparison, Jordan received around two million a year). "It was my right, but it felt bad, I had a guilty conscience when I told the owner, I had a good relationship with him and my teammates, but if another team offers more, you have to get yours."

In times of social media, such sentences would probably have caused a storm of indignation, but this was largely absent. Instead, the Suns became one of the attractions of the league. The duo KJ and TC made a tremendous mood, Phoenix was made again for positive headlines in the field.

Twice in a row, they went to the Conference Finals, where Lakers and the Portland Trail Blazers were too strong. Chambers stood in his prime and put on 26.5 points per game. Unforgettable were also his notorious dunks. Probably no white player stuffed as elite as Chambers. His dunk on pitiful Mark Jackson is one of the best dunks in history.

Four years in a row, under the sun of Arizona, there were at least 53 victories to celebrate. But there was a lack of playoff success. And so the people in charge reacted in Phoenix. In a blockbuster trade, a certain Charles Barkley was taken to the desert. With the controversial superstar, the Suns played the best season of their franchise history (62-20) and failed only in the finals against Jordan's Bulls.

Chambers was already the sixth man of the team. After the epic six final games, Chambers was dismissed. As a result, he still played in his old age for Utah Jazz, Charlotte Hornets, Philadelphia 76ers, and also in Israel for Maccabi Tel Aviv.

In 16 years in the NBA, he played 1107 games, scored 20,049 points, had four All-Star appearances and two All-NBA team selections. He is the only player eligible for the Hall of Fame and has not been considered despite at least 20,000 points.

In Phoenix, you will not forget TC. As the only player - until Devin Booker, Chambers managed to have a 60-point game (22/32 FG, 16/18 FT, 1990 against the Sonics). His coach, Cotton Fitzsimmons, commented, "An incredible show in the attack, he's a monster."

At the national level, on the other hand, Chambers is still associated with something else every year - the Free Agency. He started off shifting the balance of power of the NBA and was thus indirectly involved in the creation of his own monster.

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