From the perspective of the Clippers’ franchise, Tom Chambers is The One that got away… well, he would be if there weren’t so many subsequent The Ones they let get away. But Chambers was the first and his own subsequent success would sting the California franchise… well if only they cared enough to feel the sting.
Anyways, Chambers was something special when he debuted with San Diego Clippers in 1981. He was eight overall pick in the previous draft and averaged 17 points and 7 rebounds his rookie season to more than justify the selection. His second pro season was nearly a mirror image, but the Clippers sent Tom off to Seattle after the year concluded in exchange for James Donaldson (who lasted one year with the Clips) and a bevvy of picks.
As the Clippers entered their state of “forever rebuilding”, Chambers became the first building block for the Sonics to earnestly reconstruct themselves.
Tom Chambers was clearly a great starting point. He could score the ball in a variety of flummoxing ways for opponents. Although 6’10″, he was never afraid to let loose with long range jumpers that sailed high into rainbow arcs and dropped softly into the net. By 1987, he’d push the range all the way out to the 3-point line and connected on 37% of those downtown shots. Just as annoying for opponents was Chambers’ ability to get to the basket.
In the halfcourt, Chambers had enough handles to work his way around larger opponents to strike at the basket from close range. On the break, he was a veritable freight train that loved to rise… and rise… and rise up for two-handed slams. On all of these drives, he had a penchant for leading with a highly raised right knee that’d create a buffer between himself and the defender. If you decided to take a charge or block the shot, you’d pay the price.
After bottoming out in 1986 with 31 wins, the Sonics returned to the playoffs in 1987 behind Chambers, Dale Ellis, and Xavier McDaniel. Every member of the trio averaged over 20 points a game that season, and the next one. They blazed their way to the Western Conference Finals after upsetting Dallas and Houston. The Sonics, though, were a bit over their heads and the Los Angeles Lakers swept the upstart club in four games.
Earlier that 1987 season, Chambers achieved his lasting piece of immortality by winning the All-Star Game MVP in front of a home crowd in Seattle in what many consider the greatest All-Star Game ever played. The appearance wouldn’t Chambers’ last as an All-Star, but it’d be his only one as a Sonic. As a free agent following the 1987-88 season, Tom signed with the Phoenix Suns.
With high-octane offense concocted by Cotton Fitzsimmons, Chambers reached his apex as a player with 25.7 PPG in 1989 and 27.2 PPG in 1990. The Suns reached the Western Conference Finals twice behind the dynamic trio of Chambers, Kevin Johnson, and Jeff Hornacek. However, these two appearances resulted in defeat, and in the 1991 season the 31-year old Chambers began to show signs of wearing down.
Chambers’ average fell to 19.9 and then 16.3 PPG in 1991 and 1992, respectively. The Suns continued to have on-court success, but it was less pronounced. So, prior to the 1992-93 season, Charles Barkley was traded for. Sir Charles’ MVP season pushed Chambers to the bench. Chambers rode out that year and the next one, in Utah, as a sixth man and effectively left the NBA after the 1995 season.
The Los Angeles Clippers finished the 1994-95 season with a 17-65 record. Appropriate since that’s the exact same record the San Diego Clippers achieved way back in 1981-82 with Chambers as a rookie. The Clippers had continued their usual ways, but Chambers had risen to stardom, played in five conference finals, the NBA finals, and won an All-Star MVP.
I somehow imagine he has no regrets on the way his career went.
Seasons Played: 1983 – 1997
2x All-NBA 2nd Team (1989-’90)
4x All-Star (1987, 1989-’91)
All-Star Game MVP (1987)
NBA - 1107 Games
18.1 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 2.1 APG, 0.8 SPG, 46.8% FG, 80.7% FT
Contemporary NBA Ranks (1982 – 1995)
4th Points, 6th FTs Made, 6th FGs Made,
22nd Rebounds, 28th PPG, 29th Blocks
3rd Games Played, 5th Minutes Played