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."