Really, the Jazz's playoff troubles started last July. The day before Tom Chambers was supposed to have lunch with Jazz Coach Frank Layden, the Phoenix Suns went after him with an all-out selling job.

The Jazz could offer Chambers a chance to play closer to home, but Phoenix had everything else he wanted - $9 million over five years, a team leader's role and a starring part in a major reconstruction. Of course, by joining the Suns he'd miss out on playing for an NBA title contender, right? So look who's still in the playoffs and going strong. Chambers and the Suns play Golden State Tuesday night in Game 2 of a best-of-seven Western Conference semifinal series, all of which is painful for the Jazz.Ready to leave Seattle, Chambers contacted owner Larry Miller even before the July 1 date when he officially became available to other teams as a new, unrestricted free agent. The Jazz were very interested, planning to play him in a three-forward rotation and also use him at center, joining Karl Malone and Thurl Bailey in the NBA's fastest, strongest front line.

If they'd landed the 6-foot-10 Chambers, an Ogden native and offseason resident, the Jazz also would have signed ex-University of Utah teammate Danny Vranes in an offense-defense package. The Jazz later did try to sign Vranes in time for the playoffs, but he was tied up in Europe.

In the wake of being swept by Golden State in the first round of the playoffs, Jazz officials talked about needing flexibility and more weapons. While the adjustment might have cost them a few of their 51 regular-season wins, just imagine what Chambers and Vranes could have done for them against the Warriors.

Chambers never lunched with Layden. After meeting on July 2 with Suns officials Jerry Colengelo, Cotton Fitzsimmons and Paul Westphal at the southern California home of agent Howard Slusher, Chambers took their one-time-only offer and went directly to Phoenix for a news conference. The Jazz, along with four other teams that called Slusher that day, were left out.

And just look at the Suns. Rising from the ashes of a 28-54 season, they went 55-27 to finish with the second-best record in the Western Conference and swept Denver in the first round of the playoffs.

No doubt, Chambers has had plenty of help in the turnaround, on a team that features only one holdover from 1986-87 - guard Jeff Hornacek. Besides Fitzsimmons, point guard Kevin Johnson, NBA Sixth Man Award winner Eddie Johnson, rookie forward Dan Majerle and several solid role players have made a huge difference.

Still, Chambers is considered the key figure, a player who has "far exceeded expectations on and off the court," according to Colangelo, the team owner and president.

Of course, expectations for Chambers were low in many ways. After a one-year vacation, his reputation of being difficult and selfish had returned in Seattle. Fitzsimmons acknowledges that part of the rap was deserved, but Kevin Johnson says now, "We may have been leery of Tom at first, but the guy wants to win more than anybody on the team. He plays hard. He dives on the floor. he sets the example."

Sets the example? Tom Chambers, the gunner, the crybaby? Same guy.

In what he calls a career year, Chambers averaged highs of 25.7 and 8.4 rebounds and was a genuine NBA All-Star choice. The SuperSonics also came from nowhere to reach the Western Conference finals that season, although the Lakers swept them.

The way things look, Chambers will be back for more against the Lakers - with, of all people, the Suns. "I thought we'd be better than people thought we were going to be," Chambers has said, "but never did I imagine that we'd win 50 games and be where we are."

Which, of course, is not home for the summer, where the Jazz are.