When we think of Western Conference NBA basketball our mind is drawn to high scores and a fast-paced style of play. That is the style former NBA All-Star Tom Chambers was built for. Chambers grew up as a promising 6-foot-2-inch guard out of Colorado. Then, in between sophomore and junior year of high school, Chambers grew seven inches. All of the sudden, he had the ability to play the game as a guard, with good handling and shooting skills, but at the size of most NBA power forwards. It was a unique combination that led him to a productive career at the University of Utah and later to the NBA.
Chambers was selected eighth overall in the 1981 NBA Draft out of Utah by the San Diego Clippers. Chambers was traded from San Diego to the Seattle SuperSonics, where he spent five seasons. His time in Seattle was highlighted by his first All-Star appearance in 1987, as he won the All Star Game MVP Award.
Chambers’ peak performance came when joined the Phoenix Suns as a free agent. During his time with Phoenix, Chambers teamed up with dynamic point guard Kevin Johnson, and was a three-time All-Star and two-time All-NBA Second Team. Their run in Phoenix was capped by a NBA Finals appearance in 1993, but they lost to the Chicago Bulls in six games. After his time with Phoenix, Chambers spent a season with the Utah Jazz before spending a season overseas with Israel’s Maccabi Tel Aviv BC. Chambers ended his career with two very brief stints with the Charlotte Hornets and Philadelphia 76ers.
Tom Chambers clearly has a fondness for the “Wild West”. The 13-year pro grew up in the Rocky Mountains, spent nearly his entire career in the Western Conference, and decided to build his post-NBA life out West. Chambers has spent time doing community relations and television work for his former team, the Phoenix Suns. He is an avid outdoorsman and owner of The Tom Chambers Shooting Star Ranch in North Ogden, Utah. Just like his playing days, Chambers likes to get in space, run-and-gun and always try to put life’s ball in the basket.
Mundo: How did a seven-inch growth spurt in high school change your game?
Chambers: Well, being a 6-foot-2-inch sophomore I was able to face up and handle the ball. So I learned those skills not thinking that I would ever be a “big guy”; and obviously I was a scorer and had some success. But going into my junior year I grew so much and was able to finish at the basket over big people and started dunking the ball regularly and just really started working on my inside game. When I went to Colorado there was a “Mile High 1-on-1 Basketball Tournament” there at the time and I entered and won the thing; and coming from a small school in Utah that was obviously a huge jump for me. It just let me know that I had the potential to be really good because I had become a 6-foot-8-inch player at that time.
Mundo: You attend Utah, get drafted eighth overall in the 1981 draft. How did being selected top 10 in the draft feel?
Chambers: I had a lot going on at Utah and became a pretty good player there. I had a pretty good teammate [Danny Vranes] who was well above me and was an All-American before I was, and was projected to go above me in the draft. Even in college when they invited me to go back to the draft, I wasn’t even projected in the first round. So I had doubts right up until the last moments—when Paul Silas decided to take me for the Clippers with the eighth pick—that I would go into the NBA. Obviously I wanted to, but it wasn’t a dream as a child because no one I grew up with or knew had ever experienced or done that. I wanted to be as good as I could be but I never really had that goal because I didn’t know it was a possibility. But then when I was in college my game started to get better in all facets. I got bigger and stronger. I was able to play center even though I was thin, just because I was tall enough. I had the skills people were telling me would do well in the NBA, so when I actually got drafted, I was like “Wow this is cool!” Then I naïvely asked me agent “Am I going to make the team?” I really didn’t know much about the NBA. I knew a bit about the ABA from spending time in Colorado and then back in Utah with the Stars [who later became the Jazz]. But it was just something that I had never really had anybody to experience it, so it was virgin soil to me. So I went to the Clippers even though the organization has struggled throughout the years, Paul Silas instilled in me some toughness and an attitude. It really helped me get better in my career.
Mundo: The first year in San Diego you lead an injury-ridden team in scoring. Then they draft Terry Cummings, and they trade you to Seattle. You clearly had played well enough to stay. Was that a tough transition?
Chambers: Well, nobody likes to be traded. But first let me address Terry. Terry was the guy they [The Clippers] should’ve drafted. Could we both be power forwards in the NBA? Absolutely. Did we both have All-Star years in the NBA? Yes. But, we played well together. I could play small forward and he could as well. We could both play the small or big spot. So Terry was the right pick, and we were a good team my second year. But I did become expendable because they could use big guy, James Donaldson, and a couple other guys that didn’t really pan out, and then they got a draft pick that ended up being Michael Cage. It worked out probably for both teams. I had great years in Seattle and my career flourished and I became an All-Star. Had I been in San Diego maybe I wouldn’t get to be an All-Star because the team’s record wasn’t good enough to warrant that. But I am glad I was drafted there. It was a great experience going through that and then getting traded. But, yeah, it hurts. You don’t want to be given up on. But I went to a team that was better and had some veterans and we became a pretty good team in Seattle.
Mundo: Fast-forwarding to Phoenix, was Kevin Johnson the most instrumental person to you? Best point guard ever?
Chambers: Well, finishing with Seattle, they did the same thing San Diego did. They went out and got some free agents. There had never been unrestricted free agency. So I got to choose where I wanted to go. One of the reasons I wanted that was I wanted the opportunity to help a team that had had previous success. Phoenix was that team, but was at their lowest point since the franchise got there. But I saw the parts. I saw Kevin Johnson and the things he had done. Tyron Coburn and Mark West were also part of that trade. But they also had Jeff Hornacek; they had pieces where I thought that was going to be the perfect place for me. They wanted to run, they wanted to score a bunch of points, and that’s what suited my game. I was able to pick that team and it wasn’t just because I wanted to go to Phoenix to be warm, it’s because I thought we could be good. And we really became good. Kevin [Johnson] was certainly instrumental in what I did. He helped me reach my goal and become a consistent All-Star with him. We suited each other well. He became an All-Star; I became an All-Star for three years in a row there because he needed a guy setting a screen so he could do what he did. And if my guy jumped on him I took advantage of a small person. It was a play that we perfected there and I certainly had my best years playing with Kevin. I played with John Stockton for a bit, but I certainly wasn’t in my prime. I played with Gus Johnson in Seattle and he was heading out. So playing in my prime with Kevin was absolutely spectacular.
Mundo: In 1993 Charles Barkley comes in and you get to the NBA Finals that year. What is it like finally getting to finals having MJ on the other side?
Chambers: Well it was special. That season we moved into a new arena, Barkley came into town. Chuck came in and we were automatically favorites to win the NBA championship because people felt he was that piece to get us to the top. And it did. We were a good team. At times we played down to our competition, but we got to the Finals. We dug ourselves a hole a few times in the playoffs, and it happened with the Bulls. Playing against Michael in the Finals was incredible. How many people were watching that series and tuned into that. You’re just under a microscope and it was the biggest forum you could play in. It was absolutely spectacular … except for one John Paxton three-point shot.
Mundo: Afterwards, you spent a year in Israel. How was that different from the NBA?
Chambers: Well, I was released by the Jazz right before the season was about to start and my agent called me and said we have this deal with Maccabi Tel Aviv, the best team in European Cup Perennial League. They said, “We’d like to have you come over here so make your mind up.” So I was like, “What the heck.” I went over there and it was a great experience. You know what, it wasn’t a great basketball experience, after playing 15 years in the NBA. You’re practicing twice per day, you’re flying five hours to play in the European Cup, then in your division during the week. But I loved my experience there. The people and food were great. The country was great. Basketball-wise it was a good experience because of the way they played. They thought, “Here comes Tom Chambers he’s going be here for only 6 months.” These guys had been part of the team in prior years and would be for the next several years. So it was a different deal. I had a couple of injuries at the time too. So basketball-wise it wasn’t as good as I would’ve liked but boy was it a great experience for me.
Mundo: Where does your love and preference of the Western Conference over the East Conference stem from?
Chambers: About 10 points a game. The Western Conference has always been the higher scoring conference in the NBA. When I first came into the NBA, when you played Detroit, Chicago, New York, if you scored 90 points it was a lot. In the West teams were racking up 120, 130 points. We got 156 in a game with the Suns. For me, my skills were best suited when we were running the basketball. I outran everybody. I liked to get myself on top of the basket. It’s OK in the half court in a two man game, but it didn’t suit my style to play that knock-down-drag-out basketball. I had short arms and I wasn’t a great defender, so being on a team that really wanted to score the basketball was best for me and the team I was playing for.
Mundo: Why do you think the Western Conference is historically higher scoring?
Chambers: I don’t know if it’s explainable, but the players out here physically run and shoot. That’s what it is. There have been teams who have wanted to slow it down. The Trail Blazers have done it at times, but still you have to score in the West. If you’re out here playing the Lakers and you can’t get 110 points you’re not going to win. So you have to put the pieces together to succeed and that’s scoring a bunch of points. That’s what’s happening out here. The Spurs and Rockets can keep the scores low. There are teams out here that if they don’t have the scorers they’re going to have to keep the scores low, play really good defense, block some shots and grab a bunch of rebounds. So that’s out here too, but for the most part it’s just the [run-and-shoot] style. And the style doesn’t get a bunch of credit. Many people felt the Suns couldn’t win with that style. People said that for the Lakers except for when Magic did it. And now they’re doing it because they have such a great group of players. In the playoffs it slows down to a much different game and that’s where the balance comes in. That’s why the East teams often end up winning because of their toughness and the fact that points aren’t going up on the board as fast. They make it a half-court game and it’s tough to compete with that.
Mundo: Let’s look at Mike D’Antoni, head coach of the NY Knicks. Does the “eight seconds or less” offense really work? How so? What is the premise?
Chambers: The idea is simple: Don’t have many turnovers and get a shot at the basket. And if you can hit three pointers you obviously only need to make 30 percent of your threes to make 50 percent of your twos. So the numbers go with that. The Suns went to play the East last year and only lost one game in the Eastern Conference because they outscored everybody. In the playoffs it changes a bit. But, for most part in the regular season, if you can score 110 points in the East you’re going to be pretty darn good. So if D’Antoni can accomplish that, they can parlay it into victories and that team can do it. Guys like that style because you can run, shoot and have fun with it.
Mundo: How did your community relations with the Phoenix Suns come about after your playing career?
Chambers: Jerry Colangelo [general manager at the time] asked me to stay with the team, help out a little bit, and get into community relations, which included the charity work in town. It also included going out, speaking, and representing the team and I did that for a number of years. I still do some of that, but I now am on the TV side doing a pre-game, halftime and post-game show. Most of my time with the Suns is doing that now. I sometimes get out to some of the events and speak, but I love Phoenix. Phoenix is a great city. I don’t know if there’s a better city. In the summer it gets a little warm, but I have four boys who are going to school here. So it’s tough to pick them up and go somewhere else. And I like what I’m doing here so hopefully I’ll be able to continue with that.
Mundo: Where did your love of horses come from? (Chambers owns “The Shooting Star Ranch” located in North Ogden, Utah).
Chambers: I bought property up there [Utah] right when I first got into the NBA. The first thing I bought with my first NBA paycheck was a horse. I always wanted one as a kid and really wanted to do that. I liked to hunt, fish and get outside, so I got a horse to do that. Then I got married to a lady who wanted to show horses and so I started getting into show horses; the more expensive horses which includes training them and breeding them. So the ranch has been a full service training facility for my horses, and then we also take a few outside horses for years. Like a lot of other industries now, the horse industry is down so I’ve really tried to sell a lot of that type of horses and just keep a few around that I can enjoy with my children. We love to get out, we love to ride and it’s more of a hobby and personal enjoyment right now than a business.
Mundo: You’ve always been a guy who prefers the West, what is it that draws you out there?
A: It’s home. I’ve always been a west coast guy. When I go back East, it always seems like it’s 30 degrees or less. The only time I went there when it was warm was Chicago in June and that was beautiful. Also it’s too far from family, my roots are deep out here and I just love the cities. I’ve been blessed. To go to San Diego, it wasn’t my choice, I was drafted, great city. Traded to Seattle, it wasn’t my choice, great city. And I chose Phoenix and it was spectacular. Then I chose Utah for a couple years so I like it out here a lot, not just because of the basketball, but it’s a great place. The mountains, the west, the whole thing is just beautiful.
Mundo: What is one thing you’d recommend an East Coast resident to see when traveling out West?
A: The Rocky Mountains. When I was in Denver in high school for a tournament it was beautiful. And Salt Lake City [Utah] and even now the mountains, especially in the summer are spectacular. A lot of people like them more in the winter because of the skiing, but I just love the mountains. Also I love the game; moose, elk, deer, and the kids love the hiking, fishing and riding in the mountains. So to me, it’s getting into the outdoors, which is one of my favorite things—the mountains, lakes, and streams and all the natural beauty that’s out here.