The Tom Chambers Sweepstakes ended suddenly and surprisingly for the Jazz last summer. Right until the news arrived that Chambers had signed a five-year, $9 million contract with Phoenix, Jazz officials were looking forward to a scheduled meeting with the free-agent forward.

"We were very surprised," Jazz owner Larry Miller said later.Chambers will finally appear in the Salt Palace tonight, as the starting center for the improving Suns.

The Jazz had visions of teaming Chambers with Karl Malone and Thurl Bailey for the most devastating three-forward rotation in basketball, and even using all three together. "On one hand, he'd be a great addition," noted Jazz president-general manager David Checketts, "because we'd have three forwards who could all score - we'd just run them in and out of there."

Other issues are just a little intriguing: How much would the Jazz have paid Chambers? Could he and Malone have co-existed? Would Chambers' personality have helped or hurt the Jazz?

No doubt, finding out would have been fun.

After Layden convinced management to pursue him and Chambers contacted the Jazz to express his interest, the plan was set in motion. Miller cleared the idea with Malone in mid-June, even informally agreeing to a contract extension with the Mailman - which Malone later decided was insufficient, but that's another story.

"It's no secret that (Chambers) and I have our differences," said Malone, remembering a 1986 summer-league fight. "When it comes down to playing, I can play with anybody. I don't say I'd take them out to lunch or anything, but I could play with them."

The Jazz's approach was for Chambers to have lunch with Coach Frank Layden during the July 4th weekend, and later bring in his agent, Howard Slusher, to meet with Miller and Checketts. Instead, Chambers ended up huddling with Phoenix officials at Slusher's Southern California home on Saturday, July 3, and announced the signing at a news conference in Phoenix the following Tuesday.

"It caught me off guard," Chambers said then of the Suns' offer. "I was prepared to talk to six or seven other teams."

Failing to land Chambers made the Jazz step up their chase of 1987 first-round draft choice Jose Ortiz, who's now a token starting forward, but they're left to wonder what Chambers would have done for them. In fact, if they had signed Chambers, they would have taken another Slusher client and ex-University of Utah player, Danny Vranes. Vranes eventually went to Greece, the Jazz losing interest in him when the idea of an Chambers-Vranes, offense-defense package was gone.

"(Chambers) was the one guy we felt could help us take the next step right now," Miller said at the time.

"There would have been a lot of advantages to it," noted Layden, "another scorer, a guy who can play a couple of positions, and a defender (Vranes) . . . the way (Chambers) plays would have been very conducive to our style. We had budgeted amply for him."

Jazz players hedge on the subject, apparently because they're protective of each other. Asked about Chambers' fitting in, one player said, "Where? Maybe he could start, I don't know." Another said last summer, "If he's so great, why isn't he still in Seattle?"

Says Checketts, "You just don't know what the overall chemistry would be. It's interesting that everywhere Tom has been, people have not hesitated to take their shots about him being hard to get along with."

The early reviews in Phoenix, meanwhile, are good. In late July, Chambers spent a full day in Phoenix on a whirlwind promotional tour for the Suns. In September, he came to town to work out with his new teammates. These days, he's starting at center and sometimes taking a secondary role to forwards Eddie Johnson and Armon Gilliam, while averaging 20.3 points, entering Friday's home game with Detroit.

"Chambers is going to have to be our leader," Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons said during training camp. "When we talked to him about signing, we pretty much laid it out to him what kind of team it would be, and that we needed leadership."

And the Jazz needed scoring. In racking up 123 points against Portland Thursday, they showed they can do all right on their own occasionally, but there will be nights during the season - and the playoffs - when they'll wonder about Chambers.