From Rucker Park to the NBA Finals
World B. Free did not just decide to call himself “World”; he earned the name on the playgrounds of New York.
“That name was given to me by Herb Smith,” Free explains. “This guy named a lot of guys at the Rucker. I was doing 360 slam dunks and once he saw that he said ‘All-World’ and the crowd really got into it. So, you had a ‘Helicopter’ (Herman Knowings) and now you had a ‘World.’ It came from the streets – like James ‘Fly’ Williams, Phil ‘the Thrill’ Sellers. This guy Herb Smith was naming everybody. When you got a tag, then that meant that you had a chance to go far.”
Free – who legally changed his name from Lloyd to World – led Guilford (North Carolina) to the 1973 NAIA Championship, winning Tournament MVP honors. The 6-3, 190-pound guard averaged 23.6 ppg and 6.5 rpg in three seasons before being drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers in the second round as the 23rd overall pick in the 1975 NBA draft. Free contributed 8.3 ppg in limited playing time as George McGinnis (23.0 ppg), Doug Collins (20.8 ppg) and Fred Carter (18.9 ppg) led an outstanding three-pronged offensive attack.
The NBA and ABA merged prior to the 1976-77 season and when the New York Nets could not agree to terms with three-time ABA MVP Julius Erving, they sold his contract to the Sixers.
“That memory right there is one of the greatest from my life,” Free says of being on a talent-laden squad with Erving, McGinnis and Collins. “That was one of the greatest teams ever assembled, on paper. We had a dunk show before the game started. People got mad if they were late to the game and missed the layup line. Our layup line was like the dunk shows that they have now at halftime and at the All-Star Game. Playing with Doc made me grow. Playing with George McGinnis, another superstar, was unbelievable.”
The Sixers were only 12-9 on December 3, but they took over first place in the Atlantic Division soon after that and never looked back, finishing with the best record in the Eastern Conference (50-32). Erving (21.6 ppg), McGinnis (21.4 ppg) and Collins (18.3 ppg) each made the All-Star team. Free finished fourth on the team in scoring, averaging 16.3 ppg in less than 29 mpg. During the Sixers’ season-best seven-game winning streak in January, Free was the team’s high scorer three times, including a 39-point outburst versus the Houston Rockets, the team’s second best individual scoring effort of the season (Erving had one 40-point game).
Free poured in a game-high 27 points as Philadelphia eliminated the defending champion Boston Celtics, 83-77, in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
“That was a heck of a night for me,” Free says. “I was unconscious. My thing with Boston was when I watched them on TV – I was a Knicks fan because I’m from New York – I used to always see Dave Cowens and Jo Jo White and John Havlicek in the Garden, so I just got into it when I was in the playoffs. The game was on CBS and I was like, ‘This is a chance for the people in Brownsville to see World B. play!’ I just played out of my mind.”
Free was a key contributor throughout the Boston series, averaging 15.3 ppg in only 20.3 mpg.
Philadelphia outlasted Houston 4-2 in the Eastern Conference Finals, but Free’s production plummeted after he suffered a collapsed lung during that series. Free missed three of the games versus Houston. He returned to action in the NBA Finals against Bill Walton and the Portland Trail Blazers, but he was clearly not at full strength, missing one of the games and averaging just 16 mpg in the others. Still, it looked at first like the Sixers might win the title anyway as they raced to a 2-0 lead. Portland regrouped with two blowout victories at home and won the next two as well to claim the title.
That result inspired the Sixers to run the infamous “We Owe You One” ad campaign. A lot has been written and said about the flaws of that Sixers team, but if Free had been healthy in the Finals the Sixers may very well have beaten Portland.
In an interview with the New York Times’ Sam Goldaper shortly after the Finals concluded, Erving said, “I think we would have won the championship if Free and Steve Mix would have been healthy… A healthy Lloyd Free just can’t be stopped offensively.”
In 1977-78, Philadelphia again had the best record in the Eastern Conference, but the Sixers fell to the eventual NBA champion Washington Bullets in the Eastern Conference Finals. Free again finished fourth on the team in scoring (15.7 ppg in 27 mpg) but the Sixers traded him to the San Diego Clippers. Free responded by averaging 28.8 ppg (second in the league behind George Gervin) while leading the NBA in free throws made and free throws attempted. The Clippers improved from 27-55 to 43-39 but did not qualify for the playoffs. Free made the All-NBA 2nd Team.
The Clippers had high expectations for 1979-80 after they signed Bill Walton, but the 1977 Finals MVP had been dogged for years with injury problems and was unable to stay healthy, appearing in only 14 games. He showed tantalizing flashes of his skills, averaging 13.9 ppg, 9.0 rpg and 2.7 bpg while only playing 24 mpg.
“Playing with Bill Walton was the ultimate – even though I didn’t get a full year to play with him,” Free says. “If it had been a full year, we would have done something really special out there in San Diego, but he was injured. Just the little bit of time that I played with Bill Walton showed me that when he was healthy he was one of the best ever.”
Portland received Kermit Washington and Kevin Kunnert as compensation for the Clippers signing Walton. Since Walton missed most of the season, San Diego had difficulty overcoming the loss of two inside players who had combined for 1,369 rebounds in 1978-79. Swen Nater led the league with a 15.0 rpg average but the Clippers still got outrebounded overall and fell to 35-47. Second-year guard Freeman Williams blossomed into a deadly scorer, averaging 18.6 ppg in only 25.8 mpg and scoring 51 points in one game.
“Freeman Williams was just as good as anybody in the game offensively,” Free declares.
The NBA added the three-point shot in 1979-80 and the Clippers led the NBA in three-pointers attempted and made that season. Many people expected Free to nail the first three-pointer in NBA history, but Chris Ford of the Boston Celtics earned that distinction. Free only attempted 25 three-pointers all season, making nine.
Although fans to this day still fondly remember his high-arcing jumpers, Free’s game was actually based more on going to the basket and drawing fouls. In 1979-80 he led the league in free throws made for the second consecutive season while finishing second in the league in scoring (a career-high 30.2 ppg) to George Gervin. Free earned his first and only All-Star selection that year.
The Clippers traded Free to the Golden State Warriors prior to the 1980-81 season. He averaged 24.1 ppg that year (ninth in the league) and led the Warriors to a 39-43 record, three games ahead of the Clippers, but one game out of the last playoff spot. Free scored 22.9 ppg (10th in the league) in 1981-82 and the Warriors improved to 45-37 but again missed the playoffs by one game. Early in the 1982-83 season the Warriors traded Free to the Cleveland Cavaliers, which had been the worst team in the league in 1981-82 (15-67).
“When I first came (to Cleveland) the team had Phil Hubbard and a couple of other journeymen,” Free remembers. “There were about 12 people in the stands. That is what I remember from when I first came in the place, being traded for Ron Brewer. I said to myself, ‘I’m going to help this organization,’ because people said to me that when you go to Cleveland that’s the last stop on the totem pole – and I wasn’t finished yet, you know what I mean? It wasn’t going to beat me down.”
Free ranked eighth in the league in scoring (23.9 ppg).
He averaged 22.3 ppg in 1983-84 (14th in the league) as the Cavaliers improved to 28-54. The Cavaliers fired coach Tom Nissalke and hired George Karl, who had never coached in the NBA and was Cleveland’s seventh coach since 1979-80. The Cavaliers started out 2-19 in 1984-85, but Cleveland went 34-27 down the stretch to earn a playoff berth. Free scored 22.5 ppg (15th in the league) and for the first time in his career he really utilized the three-pointer as a weapon, ranking second in the league in treys made and seventh in the league in three-point field goal percentage.
Cleveland faced the defending champion Boston Celtics in the first round. The Celtics had the best record in the NBA (63-19) but Free and the Cavaliers gave them a run for their money before losing 3-1. The two teams scored exactly the same number of points in the series and Boston’s wins came by three, two and two points. Free averaged 26.3 ppg and 7.8 apg in the series.
The 6-3 guard averaged 23.4 ppg in 1985-86 (11th in the league) but the Cavaliers slipped to 29-53 and decided to completely rebuild, firing Karl and not electing to re-sign Free, who ended up rejoining the 76ers. He played in 20 games for them and then appeared in 58 games for the 1987-88 Houston Rockets before retiring. He did not get a lot of playing time in his final two seasons, but could still score when given an opportunity – as he showed on November 12, 1987 when he shot 15-21 from the field and scored 37 points in 31 minutes in a win over the Sacramento Kings. Free scored 17,955 points in his career, averaging 20.3 ppg.
Looking at Free’s production, it does not seem like too many defenders bothered him, but he recalls two who played him very well.
“Dennis Johnson was a tough matchup for me because he was 6-4, had long arms and he was strong,” Free says. “Maurice Cheeks had something in there, too, because he was little, but he always bothered the ball – and one thing about offensive players, they don’t little guys jabbing at the ball all the time because it throws their rhythm off a little bit. Those two were pretty tough.”
As for the other end of the court, it is not surprising that Free singles out the man who beat him out for two consecutive scoring titles.
“George ‘Iceman’ Gervin by far was the toughest guard that I ever had to guard,” Free declares.
Free was inducted in the New York City Basketball Hall of Fame in 1997. He served for two years as the 76ers strength and conditioning coach before becoming the team’s Ambassador of Basketball. He travels to schools, recreation centers and playgrounds to speak to young people about basketball and life. The warm and engaging Free is perfectly suited for this role. This year he has additional responsibilities as the Director of Player Development, traveling with the team and helping the coaches and scouting staff prepare the players.
If you come to Sixers games early and see Free on the court, you will notice that he still shoots his high-arcing jumpers with deadly accuracy.
David Friedman’s work has appeared in Hoop, Basketball Digest, Sports Collectors Digest and Tar Heel Monthly. He wrote the chapter on the NBA in the 1970s for the anthology Basketball in America: From the Playgrounds to Jordan's Game and Beyond (Haworth Press, 2005). Check out his basketball blog at 20secondtimeout.blogspot.com
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