The brand-new Phoenix Suns will play the Jazz in the Salt Palace Monday night, which brings us to another story of Tom Chambers, Good Guy. Here's Chambers, moving to Phoenix, becoming the Suns' team leader, helping make them the NBA's No. 1 instant success story and proving everybody wrong.
Again.If this stuff sounds familiar, it should be. After Chambers went from bad guy to good guy and back again in Seattle during the past two seasons, he's a constant subject of personality studies. He likes the latest results. "I've been a bad guy long enough," he said during the recent All-Star Weekend. "I'm kind of enjoying being a good guy."
Chambers supposedly reached Good Guy status to stay in 1986-87, when he helped turn around the SuperSonics and led them to the Western Conference finals. During a year when Chambers became the All-Star Game MVP as a fill-in player, Seattle Coach Bernie Bickerstaff said, "The one thing about this league is, it's hard to live down a reputation."
Last season, Chambers' shooting, rebounding and assists were down and he was struggling with the new image. "It's a funny thing, this nice-guy stuff," he said after a frustrating loss to the Jazz. "They want me to go out and smile, but I haven't gotten a call all year long."
The Sonics improved during the regular season, but even though Chambers had an excellent series, they lost to Denver in the first round of the playoffs. Chambers later criticized Bickerstaff's playoff strategy, and accused rebounding king Michael Cage of being one-dimensional after Seattle acquired him in a draft-day trade.
Obviously, Chambers was not going back to Seattle. The former University of Utah player and local off-season resident became the first player to jump teams as an unrestricted free agent, signing a five-year, $9 million contract with Phoenix before even talking with contending teams like the Jazz. All of which was more material for Chambers' critics. Instead of trying to blend in on a winning team, Chambers was going to a loser where he could shoot all he wanted and nobody would mind, right?
Just look at the Suns now. After going 28-54 last season, this remodeled team is 32-17 and chasing the Lakers in the Pacific Division. They'd have a homecourt advantage if the playoffs started today - the Jazz, among others, would be on the road.
"I wanted the responsibility; I wanted the challenge to help turn that around," says Chambers. "It was a perfect situation for me to show what I could do. That was a way to get out of this rut I've been in for eight years."
Chambers is ninth in the NBA in scoring with a career-best 25.5 average, and he's rebounding and doing whatever the Suns want. "He's done everything we hoped for when we signed him," said assistant coach Paul Westphal, who started the official pursuit of Chambers immediately after the July 1 free-agent date. "He's been a leader, on and off the court."
With only one player, guard Jeff Hornacek, still around from the scandal-shaken '86-87 team, the Suns are giving Chambers plenty of help - point guard Kevin Johnson is third in the NBA in assists behind Magic Johnson and John Stockton; forward Eddie Johnson is the top sixth-man scorer; and rookies like Andrew Lang and Tim Perry are contributing. "They play so hard, sometimes they don't know which direction they're going," Chambers marvels of his younger teammates.
If this keeps up, Chambers just might shake the reputation that's dogged him. Curiously, Karl Malone shoots more, talks more, complains more and draws considerably more technical fouls than Chambers, but nobody calls him selfish or a crybaby, do they? Not to his face, anyway. But Chambers has carried those labels throughout his career, and he knows they'll return if the Suns start fading. "People love to jump on that wagon," he says.
For now, the outlook is bright. The Suns are again drawing big crowds to Veterans Memorial Coliseum, with plans in the works for a new downtown arena. With so many young players on the team and four years left on his contract, the 30-year-old Chambers will be likely around for even better days in Phoenix - and he probably has those coming to him.
Said Chambers, "I've had more bad times in the league than I've had good times."