It’s an early season matchup against Division 3 Emerson College, but BU senior guard Kamali Chambers is playing like it’s tournament time. He’s reading the defense and commanding his teammates for a play. The 5-11, 180-pound Chambers finds freshman forward Fletcher Tynen (CAS) for a wide-open three-pointer off a pick-and-roll.
It would be misguided to assume that his intensity in a low-meaning game is only because the longtime walk-on, now playing on scholarship for the first time, averages less than seven minutes of play over his career. The truth is that Chambers (CGS, COM) knows only one way to play—like a pit bull, as fellow captain junior Tyler Scanlon (CAS) puts it.
“He’s not as good a scorer as Isaiah Thomas, but once Thomas was on the Celtics, he was just a smaller guy, always running around, bumping into people, running through things, yelling and screaming at the other team,” Scanlon says. Kamali’s “a very passionate guy.”
Growing up with older brother Siyani, a star point guard at Harvard who went on to play in Europe, competition always came naturally to the Golden Valley, Minn., native. The brothers weren’t allowed to play one-on-one growing up, because “it was like three-points scored and maybe a fight,” Chambers says.
“My dad shut that down,” he says. “He actually didn’t want us guarding each other when we played pickup because it was essentially the same thing…. We still compete really, really hard, and I love it because it made me a better person, a better player. I just love competing for anything I do.”
Growing up in Minnesota, an emerging hotbed of basketball talent in recent years, Chambers faced top competition playing at Hopkins High School—but this was still a few years before the outside world got a taste of it. “If you’re not from Minnesota, you don’t really get how competitive it is until you go to some of the games,” he says.
With not much interest coming from colleges as his high school career wound down, Chambers decided to go on to a leading basketball prep school, New Hampshire’s Brewster Academy, after senior year. Hopkins had had future Division 1 stars, but at Brewster the competition was a step up, and Chambers would compete alongside the likes of Donovan Mitchell, now a Utah Jazz star.
“I didn’t really like the college looks I had coming out of high school, so I wanted to get more experience,” Chambers says. “Being away from home for the first time, it was different. It really allowed me to get older, be more mature.”
By the end of the 2014-15 season, Chambers still drew offers from mostly Division 2 and 3 schools. But while at the NCAA Tournament with Siyani, whose Harvard team had made it to the tournament, Chambers got a call from BU men’s basketball head coach Joe Jones, who invited him as a walk-on. Once he visited the campus, he decided BU would be his home for the next four years.
Confidence, plus hard work and dedication, rewarded
Chambers arrived at BU with classmates Kyle Foreman and walk-on forward Brandon Johnson, but by the start of the 2017-18 season, only Chambers remained.
Now the lone senior on a team with six freshmen, Chambers commands the attention of his teammates. “He brings so much knowledge and energy to us without even playing a second sometimes, and that’s very underrated,” redshirt freshman guard Alex Vilarino (CAS) says. “He’s been a huge part of our team, and I don’t think a lot of people understand that.”
Vilarino, a transfer from Texas Tech, says that what draws the Terrier players’ attention isn’t Chambers’ age or the fact that he’s the team’s only senior—it’s his demonstration of knowledge of the game.
“Every time I come off the court, I always ask him what he sees out there,” Vilarino says. “Every single time, because I know he’s gonna give me a good answer. He’s gonna tell me the truth if I’m not making the right reads or making the right plays…and he’s gonna give me examples of other things I can do to make better plays out there.”
And on the court, Scanlon says, Chambers adds a spice of competition. His fellow captain describes Chambers as someone who leads by both words and actions. “He’s a guy who comes to practice—pretty much every day for the past four years—brings it hard every day, and you just never really question whether he’s gonna bring it.”
But as hard as Chambers works, he does his share of trash talk, too: “It’s a constant chatter in your ear, like, ‘You can’t guard me. You can’t guard me. You can’t make a shot today,’” Scanlon says. “He never crosses the line and makes things personal…. It just helps guys focus in and treat every play as important because he’s making the stakes higher.”
At one point Scanlon posed this question to Chambers: “Can anybody on the team guard you?”
“No,” Chambers said. “I don’t feel like anybody can.”
“Everybody says you want to work on your skills and whatnot,” Chambers says. “I think if you can work on your mind, all of that will come. If you have a different level of confidence and not just false bravado—if you have real confidence in yourself and your abilities, a lot of that stuff will work itself out.”
And after three and a half seasons as a walk-on, Chambers’ confidence was rewarded—last December he finally received a scholarship. The moment he learned about it was captured in a 90-second video by his teammates, and the players’ emotion as Chambers read the BU letter demonstrates just how much he means to his teammates.
“When I look back on this season, he’s clearly gonna be a bright spot for me,” says Jones, who reached out to Chambers early in the season to tell him that the young guys on the team would be playing a lot to gain experience. “He told me he would do anything he could to help the group, and he’s been absolutely amazing.”
With less than a month of college basketball left to be played, Chambers, who will be honored Saturday at the team’s annual Senior Day game, has obvious hopes of winning the Patriot League Tournament and making it to the NCAA Tournament. He has yet to reach that goal since joining the team, but has gone to the NCAAs several times with his brother.
“I know what the tournament’s like from a fan’s perspective,” Chambers says. “I want to experience that as a player, because it’s a very, very different atmosphere than even the conference tournament.”
Chambers is in “season mode,” so he has yet to give much thought to the end of his college career. But in the remaining months, he’ll be considering whether he should pursue basketball overseas like his brother did, or his ultimate goal of starting his own company.
The team’s only senior hopes to be remembered at BU for his character, he says, and as someone who cares about people. His teammates say that’s a given.
“I’m gonna miss him when he’s gone,” Vilarino says. “I’m glad I got the opportunity to meet a guy like him.”
The BU men’s basketball team hosts Navy tomorrow, Saturday, March 2, at noon, at Case Gymnasium, 285 Babcock St. The game is also the team’s annual Senior Day. Admission is free for students with a sports pass, $5 for students without a sports pass, $7 for faculty and staff, and $12 for the general public. The Patriot League Network will broadcast the game live.