He was born Lloyd Bernard Free in the winter months of 1953. The hoops folk lore penned by the East Coast states and those who watched Free tear up the courts in Brownsville, however, stated that trivial accolades like All-Conference or All-State were not nearly grandiose enough to encapsulate just how good this whirling dervish of a player truly was. Packing a 44-inch vertical leap, Free was no stranger to the 360-degree dunk, breaking it out in Brooklyn gymnasiums and on concrete slabs well before guys like Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady were even born. Thus, in the year 1981 following an name change the day before his 28th birthday, World was officially born.
Let us not, as the kids say, get things twisted—Free was going by “World” well before that flimsy piece of government-printed paper indoctrinated him as such. A second-round pick in 1975—which, back then, was the 23rd-overall selection—World B. Free wasted little time in making his eyebrow-rasing moniker a household nickname. Over the course of two consecutive seasons in the late-197os, Free, with his no-fear approach to launching the basketball, finished second in scoring, both times behind the legendary George Gervin, or, the “Iceman,” given this nickname-laden story. His early successes, both on the playgrounds as a child and through his first few seasons in the NBA, led to what many would deem today to be an entitled athlete with an ego that seemed to fill up every square inch of surface area taken up by his trademark afro.
“At first, the NBA and people thought it was a “self proclaimed” name,” Free would later say. “That name was given to me from the streets of Brooklyn, in the Brownsville section, for being one of the talents from there they thought might have a chance to make it in the NBA. Anyone who had a little bit of greatness about them back then, they would nickname.”
That step-to-the-left jumper that is reminiscent of a mid-90s Allen Iverson? Free was pulling those off in traffic. That 360-degree lay-in done so often by Tony Parker and Kyrie Irving today? Free was peeling those off with his eyes closed. He was, after all, also named the “Prince of Midair” thanks to a wide array of up-and-under moves and in-air decision making that would leave defenders heads spinning like a freaking top, his gold No. 21 blowing by effortlessly.
As a member of the Cavaliers from 1982-1986, Free was well-paid given the time and place—he would net $750,000 in his final season with the team—which seemed just due given that he is often credited as the man who saved professional basketball in Cleveland, wrestling the attention away from then owner Ted Stepien. In the early 1980s, the Cavaliers appeared destined to be dismantled, the Miracle of Richfield long in the rearview. However, following several transactions over the course of a few years—including the trading for Free, the sale of the team to Gordon Gund and the hiring of George Karl—the man known as World B. led the Blue and Orange (also a key change) to their first playoff run in almost a decade, doing so after a woeful 2-19 start.
Heading into what would be his final season with the Cavaliers, he never averaged fewer than 22.3 points per contest. As a member of the Cavs in 1985, Free became the 39th player in league history to surpass 15,000 career points. By the end of his 1986-87 season with the Philadelphia 76ers—one which included incredible weight gain and a hair line that was seemingly racing away from his forehead—Free was in line to be the sixth highest-scoring guard in NBA history (joining great company alongside Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Hal Greer, Gervin and Gail Goodrich) with more than 18,000 points. Even more incredible: Many of these points came from long-range in a day where the three-point line did not even exist.
Fans loved watching Free play. The way his high-arching floater would splash through the net, barely touching any of the nylon, was more art than science. His penchant for turnaround jumpshots would go from cringe-inducing to outright elation in less than a second as they would somehow find their way through the orange cylinder. Yet Free was only an All-Star once, in 1980, just one season after his first (and only) nod as All-NBA when he was named to the second team. What was it about him? Was it his flashy style of play? Could it have been his staunch desire to go by a name that wasn’t his?
If there was a contract issue or if Free felt he had been unfairly reprimanded by the coach, he would sit out a game with a “back injury.” Ralph Lawler, the long-time television and radio voice of the Los Angeles Clippers recalls one night at the old Fairgrounds arena in Phoenix against the Suns. Free had one of his back problems which served as a protest a move by then head coach Gene Shue a game earlier. Shue gave Freeman Williams the start and he, in turn, exploded for 51 points. Free’s back ailment was miraculously cured by the next game.
During a game in Dallas, after the national anthem, the public address operator called out the starting five and announced World as “Lloyd B. Free.” He didn’t get off the bench.
“There’s no doubt I ran my mouth too much early in my career, and that reputation just stayed with me,” Free told Sports Illustrated’s Jack McCallum back in 1987. “I think all that talking made people overlook some things about me.”
It also didn’t help that Free, who would lead with his knee or a fully extended foot at times, rarely backed down from a contested shot, seemingly thriving on taking a player one-one-one. All of this scoring was great, but it also meant that Free didn’t do much in the way of passing the basketball (his assist percentage topping out at 23.5) and rarely bothered to corral a rebound off of a missed shot—Free’s total rebound percentage, over his entire career, was just 4.8 percent (Muggsy Bogues, at all of 5-foot-3, had a career rebounding rate of 5.1.).
Unfortunately for Free, he realized this a bit too late, telling McCallum, in that same 1987 interview, that he had grown as a player.
“I’m smarter now,” Free said. “I’ve got to admit that for the first time I finally realized that my game can be beautified by the great pass. I can’t honestly say I ever thought that way before.”
There’s no telling what World B. Free’s biography would look like if he focused on more than scoring. His 1985-86 season would be his last shining moment in the NBA. He averaged over 23 points per game at age 32. He was a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Header image via Blak4est, t-shirt image via HOMAGE