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  • Budd Bailey

Braves New World: Jerry Chambers

Updated: Nov 13, 2023

(Budd Bailey and Greg D. Tranter have written a book called "Buffalo Braves From A to Z," published by St. Johann Press. Early in the writing process, they wrote good-sized biographies of all 71 men who played a regular-season game for the Braves during their time in Buffalo from 1970 to 1978. Publishers weren't so enthusiastic about all of that material, so most (59) of the biographies were shortened to about 500 words. However, the authors hated to waste all of that material ... so they are presenting it here. It will appear three times a week. A bibliography is available upon request.)

Jerry Chambers needed to keep his bags packed when it came to his pro basketball career. He was on the roster of seven different teams, even if he didn’t actually play for all of them. It’s no surprise that one of them was the Buffalo Braves, since that franchise churned through a number of players during certain times in their existence.

Jerome Purcell Chambers was born in Washington, D.C., on July 18, 1943. He stayed in that area throughout his childhood, and soon picked up a love of basketball. Hall of Famer Dave Bing tells a story about how he and Chambers would practice shooting baskets while waiting for a ride to a youth baseball game together. Jerry first attended Spingarn High School. However, Chambers was cut from the basketball team, and he took off for Eastern High School.

Chambers had a successful stay as a Rambler, earning All-American honors. “We had one of the best all-time high school teams in Washington, D.C. … Everyone came from all over to see us play,” he said. However, he needed more time to be ready for college. Therefore, Jerry enrolled in 1962 at Trinidad State College, a junior college in Colorado. Chambers finished his two-year stay in 1964, and it was on to the University of Utah – mostly because a teammate was going there as well.

Coach Jack Gardner was waiting there. He had coached at Kansas State from 1939 to 1953, finishing with seven straight winning seasons. Then it was on to Utah, and after one losing season Gardner returned to his winning ways. He eventually stayed through 1971, and never had another record under .500.

Chambers proved to be an immediate help. As a junior, the 6-foot-5 forward scored 19.5 points and grabbed 10.7 rebounds per game – with both numbers leading the team. Utah started off with 10 straight wins, including victories over Michigan State and Iowa. A 104-94 loss to eventual NCAA champion UCLA altered the trajectory of the Utes’ season. They finished the season with a 7-9 run to fall to 17-9 (3-7 WAC). Off the court, Chambers learned about Bob Dylan (“I had never heard of him until then”) while introducing Motown music to his new friends in Utah.

A year later, Chambers and the rest of the Utah squad picked up its game a few notches. The team won its first seven games, lost three of four to finish its non-conference schedule, and then roared through the WAC. he Utes went 7-3 to win the league title, and finished 23-8. Chambers was the star of the team, averaging almost 30 points and 12 rebounds per game. “We were trying to win the conference and everything,” Chambers said later in a video. “I told them, get out of the way. We are going to win. Just get out of the way. When things come down to the wire, some people just have to have the rock. … In the last 25 games of my college career, I never scored under 30 points.” He eventually was named the player of the year in the conference.

It was on to the NCAAs. The team made short work of Pacific, winning by 83-74; Chambers had 40 points – setting a record at Pauley Pavilion, UCLA’s home court - and 11 rebounds. A day later, Utah defeated Oregon State, 70-64. Jerry was “held” to 33 points. The Utes moved on to Cole Field House at the University of Maryland for what would be known as the Final Four. Yes – that was the same place where Chambers ended his high school career. “That was the funniest thing,” he said. “It was like my homecoming. I had told everyone in the summertime that we were going to be in the Final Four.”

There the dream of a national title in 1966 perished. The Utes played Texas Western in the national semifinal game, and the Miners are remembered as the first NCAA champion to start five black players. “We had as many brothers on our team as Texas Western, but our coach wouldn’t play those guys. The two white boys had to start,” Chambers said

Chambers scored 38 points and grabbed 17 rebounds, but Texas Western did a good job of defending the rest of the Utes. Chambers “only” scored 13 points in the final 20 minutes of an 85-78 win by the Miners. Utah moved on to the consolation game, and lost that game to Duke, 79-77. Chambers went 11 for 16 from the field and 10 for 12 from the line for 32 points, and he added 18 rebounds. “I made one mistake,” Chambers said later. “My dream, my goal, was to make it to the Final Four, and not win the championship. I should have raised it up and said we’re going to win it, but I was just thinking that we made it back.”

For his efforts, Chambers was named the Most Outstanding Player of the tournament. He had scored 143 points in four games of the tournament, setting a record. It was the first time that a player from the fourth-place team was named the MOP of the event. “You don’t do that. He was by far the best player on the whole planet,” teammate Lyndon MacKay said. Since a consolation game is no longer played, Chambers’ distinction will last forever. More importantly, Jerry was almost guaranteed a long look by professional teams.

It was a good year at the top of the college draft by the NBA that season. The first six players spent at least 10 years in the league, headed by Cazzie Russell and Dave Bing as the opening picks. Chambers went No. 7 to the Los Angeles Lakers. He joined a team that had come within one game of capturing the NBA championship, losing to the Boston Celtics. He signed for a $15,000 bonus and a new Buick. Jerry’s contract was worth $26,500 in his first season.

The problem for Chambers was that it was going to be tough to contribute much at his natural position of small forward. The rookie was stuck behind Elgin Baylor, a future Hall of Famer. Chambers was on the bench a lot in 1966-67, averaging only 14.7 minutes - 11th on the team.

Jerry didn’t get a chance to improve on those numbers right away, as he served a two-year stretch in the Army. Jerry was inducted on October 20, 1967. During that time, Chambers was traded on July 9, 1968. He was sent to Philadelphia with Archie Clark and Darrall Imhoff for center Wilt Chamberlain. About six months later while stationed at Fort Belvoir in Virginia, Jerry was traded again. The 76ers dealt him to Phoenix for George Wilson. By the summer of 1969, Chambers must have been very anxious to get back to basketball.

Yet there was another roadblock in Jerry’s way in Arizona. Connie Hawkins had won his fight to play in the NBA, and he ended up in Phoenix before the start of the 1969-70 season. Hawkins could play either forward spot, but with Paul Silas filling the power forward position, Hawkins took over at small forward. Connie played 41 minutes per game, again leaving little playing time for others. “He makes us go,” Jerry said at the time. “Connie’s real great to play with.” Chambers scored 8.3 points in 14.4 minutes per game. The Suns improved from 16 wins to 39 and made the playoffs, only to lose their first-round series. Phoenix’s playoff run ended on April 9, 1970, and Chambers could relax … for a month. Then he was picked by Portland in the NBA Expansion Draft. Jerry never played for the Trail Blazers either. On June 17, he was dealt to the Atlanta Hawks for Gary Gregor. At that point, Chambers had played for two of his NBA teams and not played for three others.

At least the Hawks used him once in a while. Jerry played 18 minutes a game for Atlanta over 65 games, averaging 8.9 points per game. He set a career high by scoring 34 points against San Diego on October 30, 1970. But the Hawks stumbled to a 36-46 record. Atlanta needed to alter its roster significantly, mostly because Pete Maravich needed the ball to control play. The obvious move was to deal the former point guard, Walt Hazzard. That’s exactly what happened on July 26, when Hazzard and Chambers went to the Buffalo Braves for Herm Gilliam and Don May. While Jerry was waiting for something to happen, he spent the summer as player-commissioner of the Los Angeles Summer Basketball League. Chambers averaged about 30 points per game against some good players.

In hindsight, the trade to Buffalo should have been a good opportunity for Chambers to show his talents. The Braves needed a small forward with May gone, as Elmore Smith, Bob Kauffman, John Hummer and Cornell Warner weren’t a good fit for the position. However, Randy Smith came out of nowhere (seventh-round draft choice) to make the team at small forward. Chambers was out of luck again. He only played 14.2 minutes in 26 games, averaging 6.8 points per game. The Braves released Chambers on January 9, 1972, and his NBA career was over.

However, there was another league playing by that time. The American Basketball Association was always looking for talent, and the San Diego Conquistadors signed Jerry on September 9, 1972. Chambers did pretty well in his 43 games there, averaging 11.9 points per game (a career best) even though he was eighth on the team in minutes played per game (20.6). San Diego finished 30-54 and was swept out of the playoffs by Utah in the first round.

Chambers was dropped by the Conquistadors after that season, but he received an invitation to try out for the San Antonio Spurs in training camp in September, 1973. Jerry made the team, and hung around for slightly more than half the season. Chambers was waived on January 24 after scoring 5.9 points per game in 38 appearances. He had run out of places to play. Jerry finished with 320 pro games on his resume, with 2,667 points.

In the spring of 1975, Chambers was named the commissioner of the short-lived World Basketball Association, which was located in Southern California. Jerry also made an appearance on the 1980s television show, “Fame.” It seems that a plot line involved someone teaching a basketball team ballet, and Chambers was recruited along with Rick Barry, Happy Hairston and Norm Nixon. He had done a little work in television production in the late 1970s.

Eventually Chambers found a second career in Los Angeles, as he worked in that city’s parks and recreation department for many years. He helped a great number of young athletes along the way. The experience helped him overcome a pair of tragedies that sidetracked him earlier in his post-basketball life. “It was very therapeutic,” he said later. “I had a son, and my son died playing basketball. He passed away right on the floor. It was a really sad time in my life. My wife had died six months after my son was born. And then 13 years later, my son was gone. I was virtually by myself, and it was virtually thrown to me to work with kids.”

Still, his basketball accomplishments were not forgotten. He was inducted into “The Crimson Club,” a Hall of Fame of a Utah athletics group, in 1989. Jerry and the rest of that Final Four team were saluted in a ceremony at Utah in 2017.

“I just have to say,” Chambers said, “it’s about time.”

(Follow Budd on @WDX2BB)

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