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Hey, Tom Can Smile!

Nov. 23, 1987
Nov. 23, 1987

Table of Contents
Nov. 23, 1987

The Chargers
Michigan State
Phoenix Suns
Chi Chi
Tom Chambers
Soccer
Horse Racing
Dexter Manley
First Person
Television
Point After

Hey, Tom Can Smile!

Tom Chambers is trying hard to loosen up, but Seattle's star forward still finds it tough dealing with his critics

A full 30 minutes after he had been voted the most valuable player of the 1987 NBA All-Star Game in Seattle last February, Tom Chambers was still smiling so hard it looked as if his face might break. It was a strange sight. When he's playing, his mouth seems locked in a perpetual sneer, and even when he's not in uniform his deep-set hazel eyes rarely sparkle. But the 6'10" SuperSonics forward had just scored 34 points in the West's 154-149 overtime victory, right there in front of the hometown fans, and he could not restrain his joy. Then, at a postgame press conference, his face was flushed, his adrenaline was flowing, and his mouth, unfortunately, was open.

This is an article from the Nov. 23, 1987 issue Original Layout

"Today," pronounced Chambers, "I am the best player in the world."

Oh, no. Groan. Slap the forehead. Maybe Larry Bird could have said the same thing, and it would have rung with Hoosier sincerity, or maybe Magic Johnson could have brought it off with a smile. But not unhappy, unhumble, unpopular—indeed, nearly unknown before the All-Star Game—Tom Chambers. As the basketball world looked on, the disease that has plagued Chambers throughout his career—the dreaded foot-in-mouth—had struck again.

Back in 1985, after Seattle upset the Celtics 107-97 in the Boston Garden, Chambers said, "There's no way their front line matches up with ours." Then there was his evaluation of the personnel moves the Sonic management had made before last season. "I'm normally an optimistic person, but I really question what we're going to be able to do," he said. "The forecast is real bleak." Others were thinking along the same lines, but only Chambers thought out loud. Just last week, in evaluating himself as a player, Chambers said, "I'm six-ten; I can run, jump, shoot the three-pointer and dunk. There's not many of us around." Nor many who would put it quite that bluntly.

That comment after the All-Star Game was pure Chambers. His entire career—high school, college, the pros—has been one long struggle to gain acceptance and to avoid the three-letter word that has always seemed to hound him. Tom Chambers is a great talent, but.... His All-Star Game acceptance speech, in fact, brought to mind Sally Field, who, after receiving her Oscar in 1985 for Places in the Heart, gushed to the audience, "I can't deny the fact that you like me! You like me!"

In effect, that's exactly what Tom Chambers was saying about his MVP award. "No one will ever know what winning that meant to Tom," said Jim Feeney, a friend and former teammate at Fairview High in Boulder, Colo. "Finally no one could say, 'But you could've done better.' "

One day recently, as he wheeled his blue 560 SEL Mercedes toward his home in Bellevue, Wash., just east of Seattle, Chambers, 28, was asked about that All-Star Game. He smiled, not a face-breaker this time, but a genuine one nevertheless.

"You know, when I see a film of that game now and see the happiness in my face, it almost brings a tear to my eye. It put me at peace." How rare that was, because Chambers has spent most of his career at war with somebody.

He was never completely happy at the University of Utah, where he crossed wires with coach Jerry Pimm, mostly over an offensive style that was deemed wide open by the player and undisciplined by the coach. To demonstrate his displeasure, Pimm benched Chambers twice during his junior year. In his first two NBA seasons, 1981-82 and '82-83, with the San Diego Clippers, Chambers was given free rein. But that ultimately did him more harm than good. He got the reputation of being a big scorer on a losing team, a guy who looked for good stats—he averaged 17.4 points per game those two seasons as the Clippers went 42-122—instead of looking for a way to win. He was Tommy Gun, not Top Gun.

The rap followed him to Seattle after he was traded before the '83-84 season and grew worse as the SuperSonics eventually became the StuporSonics. Chambers was dangled in trade talk, but he stayed around, a defiant lightning rod for criticism. His former teammate and current Knick guard Gerald Henderson once called Chambers "the most selfish guy I ever played with."

Last season was the best of Chambers's six-year career, as the Sonics surprised the NBA by making it all the way to the Western Conference playoff finals. He averaged a career-high 23.3 points per game and began to improve his play in other areas, too, particularly assists and steals. NBA coaches, players and general managers began to reconsider their views. "I always thought he was only interested in personal goals, but he started to become more team-oriented last season," says Denver assistant coach Allan Bristow. But, ultimately—perhaps inevitably—the season turned sour for Chambers. After performing superbly in Seattle's playoff upsets of Dallas and Houston, Chambers and most of the other Sonics all but disappeared in the West final against the Lakers..

"This season, things are going to be different. This team is going to make it different," Chambers says. He looks almost pleadingly at his questioner. "Look, I want to write a new chapter in the Tom Chambers story."

Of the earlier chapters he says, "I've always been the talented kid who doesn't have to work hard. I was the one who never quite lived up to the expectations that were put on me because I didn't work hard enough." Athleticism is in his genes, no doubt about that. Three generations of Chambers men—Doane (Tom's grandfather), Ken (Tom's father) and Rob (Tom's older brother by two years)—played for the Smithfield Blue Sox, a well-known semi-pro team in Utah. Ken was also an outstanding football player and track man, and because he was only 20 when Tom was born, he actively played sports with Tom and took a particular interest in his athletic career.

Between his sophomore and junior years in high school—after the family had moved from Ogden, Utah, to Aurora, Colo. (in Tom's senior year they moved again, to Boulder)—Chambers sprouted eight inches, from 6 feet to 6'8". Yet he never showed a trace of awkwardness, possibly because he sharpened his skills in playground games at Aurora's Del Mar Park. A broken wrist before his senior year forced him to work on shooting with his left hand—he's a natural righty but can still match 15-foot lefty jump shots with almost anyone—and he is perhaps the league's best ambidextrous dunker. And while we can easily envision Bird counting out a few hundred lefthanded shots on a moonlit Indiana playground, we tend to assume that the gift arrived by Express Mail one day at Chambers's doorstep.

Wrong, says Tom: "I worked on my game. Anybody that says I didn't doesn't know me."

Aside from some resentment over his natural ability, there are other reasons why folks have not taken to Chambers. For one thing, his game is not strong in the little things that bring appreciative smiles to a coach's face. He sometimes loafs getting back on defense, frequently when he's protesting a call at the offensive end. He usually doesn't dive for loose balls or dive into seats. And, as even he admits, he has not been a good practice player over the years, something that is changing this season.

The most common criticism of Chambers's game—that he shoots too much—needs to be examined more closely, however. Quite often during his career at Seattle he has forced shots because he felt he was being frozen out of the offense. The two greatest offenders, in his mind, were guards Henderson and Ricky Sobers—both of whom are now former Sonics.

Chambers gets out on the break about as well as any forward in the league other than Dominique Wilkins and James Worthy, but there were many nights when all he got out of it was an aerobic workout. "If Sobers was in trouble in the backcourt with a 10-second violation about to be called," said one front-office person who asked to remain anonymous, "he still wouldn't have passed to Chambers."

Henderson responds by saying, "Every story about this starts from Tom Chambers's end. As far as a conspiracy against Tom Chambers, no there wasn't one. We couldn't get any ball movement out of Tom. Ricky had been in the league 10 years, and I had been in the league for about five or six years, and we knew what we had to do to win."

Last season Chambers took fewer shots than teammates Dale Ellis or Xavier McDaniel, and the trio became the first in NBA history to average more than 23 points per man per game. Granted, Chambers does lose a lot of field goal attempts because he is fouled so often—his 630 free throw attempts last season put him behind only Michael Jordan, Wilkins, Moses Malone, Adrian Dantley and Magic Johnson—but that is a positive, not a negative; Chambers has averaged 83% from the line over the last four seasons. He should shoot a lot. He can score on the break, square up and shoot the jumper or use his height to post up. (Of course, he has already told us that.) The problem is, he sometimes takes bad shots at bad times, and that has never increased his popularity with his teammates. Chambers does the impossible—like hitting a 20-foot jumper with three men on him—often enough that he thinks he can do it every time.

More than anything, though, Chambers is an unpopular man for the way he carries himself on the court. "He's got a lot of Ralph Sampson in him," says one Western Conference coach. Which means that he whines at refs, has a history of fighting with opponents and plays with a kind of chip-on-the-shoulder joylessness. Chambers provides a curious kinetic contrast when he steams downcourt on the wing and slams down a hellacious dunk, only to trot back to his defensive position, his arms close to his side, face in a frown, eyes cast downward. Everything about him says "uptight." Everything about him makes a fan want to scream, "Hey, Chambers, loosen up!"

Friends suggest that his upbringing had much to do with his demeanor. The family isn't rich—Ken Chambers makes his living as a business manager for a car dealership—but Tom was pampered. Life in the Chambers household revolved around Tom's athletic ability, and at the same time his father added to the pressure by setting high standards for him. It's not an unusual American scenario, but it seemed to affect Chambers more than it does most athletes.

The subject is one that Chambers finds difficult to discuss, perhaps because he hasn't yet puzzled it out for himself. He speaks slowly and carefully: "My father was always critical of my play. There were times, I guess, when I played just to impress him. He could be very, very critical, even after wins." Perhaps that's one of the reasons why Tom etched a scowl on his face early in his career and kept it there.

"He wants desperately to be accepted by others," says a friend, "but because he's been misunderstood, it's fostered a great frustration. I can tell you this: The way Tommy Chambers plays ball is 180 degrees removed from how he really is."

On most days during the summer Chambers can be found on the 22,000-acre horse ranch he owns with nine other men in Promontory, Utah, near his off-season home in Ogden. After signing with the Clippers in 1981 he became one of the few NBA players ever to buy a horse before he bought a car. He rides long distances, usually alone.

"It's like going back to the early 1900s on the ranch," says Chambers. "No electricity in the bunkhouses. No plumbing. You can go a week without seeing anybody." Not even a critic.

Chambers is living something of a solitary life these days, too. While he stays in Bellevue, his wife, Erin, and three children, Erika, 7, Skyler, 4, and Megan, 1, are back in Ogden, where Erika is in school. Chambers says they plan to join him at Christmastime.

With the family in Utah, Chambers sometimes finds himself spending part of his free time at a ranch owned by some friends. Chambers loves animals. Through much of his college career he kept two hamsters and a mutt named Nat in his dorm room. He reflexively identifies any bird that flies overhead, and dozens of wildlife paintings hang in his homes.

On the other hand, he's also a hunter. It is Tom Chambers's lot to be inconsistent. "After I bring an animal down it always bothers me," he says, "but I guess not bad enough to stop. It's something I've always done." Not surprisingly, he is an excellent shot.

"I wanted to get a bumper sticker that says SHOOT IT," he says. "That would pretty much cover everything."

Actually, Chambers has been shooting it less this season because he's on the bench more; coach Bernie Bickerstaff's 12-deep system has taken substantial time away from all of Seattle's starters. Bickerstaff and Chambers had an un-harmonious first season together in '85-86, but they seem to be on the same wavelength now.

"You've got to lay it on the line to Tommy Chambers," says Bickerstaff. "There is no doubt that he has a lot of athletic ability. Now he must make that next step to be the kind of superstar player who makes his teammates better. But there are several misconceptions about Tommy. From my experience, he works hard on the court and plays exceptionally hard. I've seen a definite change in him. The guy is making an effort."

His teammates see it, too. "I heard all the stuff about him," says guard Sam Vincent, who came to the team in a preseason trade with Boston. "All I can say is that I haven't seen it. He's an excellent teammate." Says Ellis, "I felt there were many times last season when he only looked for the shot. I think he's matured." He glances at Chambers, who is looking apprehensively in Ellis's direction. "Now he knows, for example, that he's only the second-best-looking Sonic." Chambers smiles. The give-and-take that goes on between Ellis and Chambers is a good sign, because Chambers has always had trouble being one of the boys. "Life with Tom Chambers," says Ellis, "is getting better and better."

With the encouragement of Erin—"Show some teeth," she tells him—Chambers is trying to make it better and better on the court, too. (As of Sunday, Chambers was averaging 16.7 points per game, and the Sonics were off slowly at 2-4.) Nevertheless, the great expectations others have for him have produced frustrations. His limitless potential has yielded limitless disappointment.

"I guess I'm not real happy," says Chambers. "It's got a lot to do with the criticism. I have to put on this crust. I have to be a hard guy. It's the only way I know to protect myself. I strike first, so they don't hurt me.

"Do people think I don't care, that I don't listen to this stuff? I've lost a lot of sleep over the criticism. It doesn't just roll off my back.

"People will never know how hard it is to play on losing teams. Even Magic wouldn't be smiling. I admit that there have been times I've only been concerned with myself. I've been on teams that were out of it late in the season, and I've gone for stats. Everybody does."

But not everyone would admit it.

"I'm a survivor," says Chambers. "But I'm telling you, happy times are here in Seattle. With a winning team, everything is going to be different."

He cracked open a fortune cookie and grinned. The fortune read: "You will win success in whatever calling you adopt."

"See?" said Chambers.

PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHOA friend's horse shows what Tom's wife, Erin, has been asking of him: more teeth.PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHOThere has never been any doubt that Tommy Gun can put it up with the best in the NBA.PHOTOANDREW BERNSTEIN/NBAChambers was king for a day when he won the All-Star MVP award in the Kingdome.PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHOChambers, playing Dallas's Roy Tarpley, is trying to get leaner and meaner on defense.PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHOBickerstaff, the Sonics' coach, says at times he has to "lay it on the line" to Chambers.PHOTOCARL IWASAKIErin rides out part of the season near Ogden with the kids: Erika (left), Skyler, Megan.PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHOBack in Bellevue, Tom has time to ponder how to better court some of his teammates.