MANILA, Philippines – Sean Chambers was 22 years old when he first came to the Philippines in 1987 as part of the Los Angeles Jaguars squad that won the PBA-IBA World Challenge Cup. He triumphed in the slam dunk contest over Bobby Parks and crowd-favorite Billy Ray Bates.
After the tournament, he was asked in an interview what his opinion of the PBA was. He replied that it was a good league that could be better if not for the penchant of local players to intentionally hurt their opponents with cheap shots.
His straightforward comments ruffled some feathers and hurt the amor propio of basketball officials and fans who were not used to seeing their beloved league criticized by an outsider.
Fast forward to 2001. The Alaska organization held a retirement ceremony for Chambers. Friends and former foes gathered and honored one of the league's best imports.
“I was blown away. Everyone of my dearest, closest teammates showed up. It was incredible,” said Chambers.
“Frankie (Lim), Jolas (Jojo Lastimosa), Abet (Guidaben), Dondon (Ampalayo), they were all there. It brought tears to my eyes.”
No longer was Chambers considered an outsider. They all came to salute a valued teammate and worthy adversary who became the gold standard for PBA imports in the last 3 decades.
Chambers played 15 straight years in the Philippines, including 13 spent with Alaska. He won 6 championships, the most among imports, and still ranks 2nd in total games played next to Norman Black, and 3rd in the all-time scoring list after Black and Parks.
His ability to deliver consistent outstanding performance, year in and year out, is a testament to his discipline and commitment to Alaska.
“In my first two years in the Philippines, I felt I was home,” said Chambers. “I wanted to build a legacy there. So every time I was back in the States, I prepared for the PBA and trained really hard.“
“I knew you could not start off a conference with a losing record or you would be in trouble,” he added. “So my main focus was that I was dedicated to Alaska and I owed it to them to come back in the absolute best shape possible.”
It was in 1989 when Chambers first joined Alaska. He led the team to 3rd place in the Open Conference. Little did he know that the partnership would go on for another decade.
“During my first stint when they found out I was listed under 6’1, everybody got excited. I did not understand it at first,” he recalled.
“Then I learned that it meant that I could play in pretty much any conference regardless of the height limit.”
Chambers came back that same year for the Reinforced Conference and led the team to another 3rd place finish. Before he could leave the country, Alaska signed him to come back the following year.
Chambers had a successful collegiate career with the California Polytechnic State University Mustangs. He was awarded league MVP and was an All-American.
“I became pretty popular back home. It was a small town,” he shared. “People would know me when I went around.”
This level of recognition, though, could not compare to the scale of adulation he encountered in the Philippines.
“In Manila, people did not just recognize me. They wanted to talk to me and reach out to me,” Chambers narrated.
“When I was in Cal Poly, I was quite well-known. But nobody would go in to a restaurant just to watch me eat. No one would follow me around the mall. I was not prepared for that.”
“People in Manila wanted to see how you behave, whether you are mayabang (arrogant) or you are nice," he added. "They just wanted to see what kind of person you are.”
Chambers’ style of play earned him the admiration of fans: nothing fancy but highly efficient which resulted in lots and lots of victories for Alaska.
What made Chambers’ game unique was that he was one of the rare few his size who made his living in the low block. It was a facet of his game that he mastered while at Cal Poly.
“I was a big fan of Mark Aguirre, Charles Barkley, and Adrian Dantley. Those guys were so effective in their post-up games despite their size,” he said.
“One of the faults of my game is that I do not like to miss a lot. When I was in junior college, I shot over 60% from the field. When you step away from the basket, you take more chances of missing. I played closer to the rim and developed a go-to post-up game when I was in Cal Poly.”
Playing near the basket was made easier because of Chambers’ background in athletics. He competed in high jump back in college. His agility and leaping ability helped him outwork bigger frontliners.
In 3 of Chambers’s first 4 years in the PBA, he averaged at least 37 points and close to 14 boards a game. He won one championship but had to do a lot of heavy-lifting.
“It was practically Jolas and I doing 60% of the scoring,” he said. “When I first came into the league, I was a big fan of Jojo. He was tough, skilled, and played the right way. I was so thrilled when we traded for him.”
Around 1993, the team installed a new system called the triangle offense. They then drafted someone Chambers considers the best Filipino point guard ever.
“When Johnny Abarrientos was in college, I probably watched around 15 of his games. I was so amazed at how good he was,” Chambers shared.
“So when we drafted him, then we got Bong Hawkins, Poch Juinio, and Jeff Cariaso, I thought we had something really special.”
In a 12-conference stretch beginning in the 1994 3rd conference until the 1998 2nd conference, Alaska bagged 8 championships.
Chambers was part in 5 of those, including the two titles in 1996 when Alaska won the Grand Slam.
“I always felt that if the height limit for imports was 6’5 or 6’7, I could still compete and be successful," he said. “He won two titles in big import conferences.”
What made Chambers keep on coming back was the sense of kinship he built with Alaska.
“Tim Cone and I have became like brothers. Jojo, Bong, Johnny, and the rest of the guys are family to me. I am ninong (godfather) to some of their kids,” said Chambers.
“The Uytengsus (Alaska team owner) always treated me well. I was never worried about my contract. I love and appreciate the Uytengsus like family. They support me even after my retirement and they continue to make sure I stay part of the Alaska family."
"That is how Filipinos are," he added. "Once you become part of the family, they will truly love you and care for you. They will support you through the good and the bad times.”
It is this deep connection not only with Alaska but with the culture and the country that makes Chambers still visit the Philippines every year.
There are some offers on the table for him to come back here for work that he is seriously considering.
“I still think I will retire in the Philippines eventually,” he revealed.
When that happens, Chambers would be flying back to the place where his legacy will be hard to equal, a place where he is respected not only for him game, but more so for his character.
Chambers will be coming home to a country that considers him one of the greatest of all time and a people who consider him one of their own. – Rappler.com