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It is a strange goodbye for Tom Chambers.

Whatever happens to the Phoenix Suns in the NBA Finals, it will be a bittersweet ending for Chambers, their former marquee player.He has been the star, the center of attention, since his high-school days in Boulder, Colo. Now, he sits on the bench and watches his replacement, Charles Barkley, lead the Suns against the Chicago Bulls in the championship drama.

He wants nothing more than to be out there taking the big shots, the way he used to. Increasingly, Suns coach Paul Westphal doesn't want him out there.

He turns 34 on Monday. He's a free agent July 1 if the Suns don't pick up his $3 million option for next season. There's every indication they won't. They're pursuing Italian center Stefano Rusconi as a replacement.

You might figure Denver a poetic place for him to finish his career. But poetry doesn't win basketball games.

"He is not a guy that we have talked about at all," said Nuggets general manager Bernie Bickerstaff.

No one wants to be too direct about it, but Bickerstaff described the qualities he's looking for in a veteran big man:

"In terms of what we want to bring to the table, the rebounding, the toughness, I think those areas are what we're looking for. Rebounding, defense, those types of things."

Alas, Chambers is more the gunner than ever, his declining foot speed reducing his defense to a churning windmill of hand fouls. Without consistent playing time, even his scoring is erratic. He was 1-for-9 from the floor in the Suns' Game 4 loss. He made only a cameo appearance in the Game 5 triumph. His only statistical contribution was a turnover.

This is not the way it was supposed to be.

"I was happy for his arrival," Chambers recalled of the trade for Barkley last summer. "I thought that I would start at the small forward or the big forward, whichever one he didn't play at. We did that all through training camp and exhibition season, and then Charles decided he wanted to be the power forward.

"Paul is more of a conventional coach and wanted to go to a true small forward, didn't feel that I was a true small forward, and put me as a backup."

The 6-10 Chambers is a proud - some say self-centered - fellow. He's a career 20-points-a-game scorer, a four-time NBA All-Star, most valuable player of the 1987 All-Star Game. But he says being a backup was not the problem.

"I don't mind being a backup to anybody - people like Charles, people like Mark West, people who have proven themselves and worked hard and deserve to be on the floor," Chambers said. "I don't have a problem backing people up, and I don't have a problem coming off the bench or being a role player.

"But I feel slighted sometimes when I get three minutes or four minutes or five minutes and shoot 0-for-2 or whatever and am criticized for that. That's unfair because I don't think anybody could do a better job doing what I've done this season. It's been an extremely tough situation, and I think that I've done a very good job at it. I've done whatever they've asked of me, and I'm going to continue to do that."

For Chambers, a career starter, the inconsistency of the playing time has been the most aggravating factor.

"When we played against Seattle or somebody, I didn't even play in the whole first half," he said, referring to the Western Conference finals. "And then I got in for the second half and played well and we ended up winning the game.

"But it's really hard being 33 years old, doing what I've done, and sitting there for an hour and a half before you go in the game and trying to be loose and trying to come out and trying to play hard and give it everything you've got when your body's tightened up and you're not quite ready to do that."

In the Finals, Chambers has no idea how much he'll play for the Suns. He played three minutes in Game 1, 26 in Game 2, 27 in Game 3, 23 in Game 4, one in Game 5.

"I don't expect anything," he said. "Every time I expect, things don't happen. But I hope I play. I hope that I've shown that I can play. In fact, I know that I have. Now it's just a matter of Paul and the matchups and whatever he sees fit. It's not for me to really know, and he doesn't really say because he doesn't know himself."