World B. Free never met a shot that he didn’t like. At least that was the reputation he garnered in his 13 years in the NBA. Born Lloyd Bernard Free in Atlanta, GA, Free changed his name legally to World B. Free on December 8, 1981. Free grew up playing at Rucker Park, in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. One day Free amazed the other players by doing 360 degree dunks, causing boyhood friend Herb Smith to dub him as “World”. Free’s 44-inch vertical leap and great mid-air agility had earned him a playground name, which meant that you were a special talent, likely to go far. Maybe even as far as all the way to the NBA or ABA.
Free played his college ball in North Carolina for a small Division III school, in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference, Guilford College. Guilford had produced NBA All-Star players Bob Kauffman in 1968 and M.L. Carr in 1973, in spite of its tiny size. As a freshman, Free led the Guilford basketball team to victory in the NAIA National Championship, being named MVP of the tournament. The 6-3, 190-pound guard averaged 23.6 points per game and 6.5 rebounds per game in three seasons at Guilford, capturing the attention of several NBA scouts.
Free was drafted in the second round, 23rd pick overall, of the 1975 NBA draft by the Philadelphia 76ers. In his first season, Free paid his dues, sitting the bench behind the Philadelphia’s trio of All-Stars – George McGinnis, Doug Collins and Fred Carter. Free did manage to average 8.3 points per game in his limited playing time.
Before the next season, the New York Nets sold the contract of Julius Erving to the 76ers. “That memory right there is one of the greatest from my life,” Free says of being on the talent-laden squad. “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 lay-up line. Our lay-up line was like the dunk shows that they have now at halftime at the All-Star Game. Playing with Doc made me grow. Playing with George McGinnis, another superstar, was unbelievable”, Free told David Freedman of Hoops Hype.
That season, Free finished fourth on the team in scoring, averaging 16.3 points per game in less than 29 minutes per game. Free scored a game-high 27 points as Philadelphia eliminated the defending champion Boston Celtics, 83-77, in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. In the next series against Houston, Free suffered a collapsed lung, but the team held on to advance to the championship round, where they lost 4-2 to Bill Walton and the Portland Trailblazers.
Free was acquired from Philadelphia in 1978 for a first-round draft pick (Charles Barkley), and would go on to lead the Clippers in scoring with an average of 28.8 points per game, on their way to a 16 game improvement in the standings. In his lone All-Star season, 1979-80, he averaged 30.2 points and finished second to NBA scoring leader George Gervin of the San Antonio Spurs for the second straight season. The Clippers had high expectations for 1979-80 after they signed free agent Walton, however Walton only appeared in 14 games that season, suffering from foot injuries which had plagued him throughout his career.
With team owner Irv Levin’s expectations not being realized, and second-year guard Freeman Williams blossoming into a deadly scorer, Free became expendable. He was traded to the Golden State Warriors prior to the 1980-81 season for Phil Smith and a first round pick that turned into Lancaster Gordon. The next two seasons, Free averaged 24.1 points per game and 22.0 points per game, but each season the Warriors finished one game out of the playoffs. Early in the 1982-83 season the Warriors traded Free to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Ron Brewer. Cleveland had been the worst team in the league in 1981-82 at 15-67.
Free remarked later that he had said to himself, “I’m going to help this organization.” People had said to him that when you go to Cleveland that’s the last stop on the totem pole, and he wasn’t finished yet. That year, Free ranked ninth in the NBA in scoring with 23.9 points per game and 22.3 points per game the following season, as the Cavaliers improved to 28-54. In 1984-85, Cleveland hired rookie coach George Karl, and the team started the year 2-19, but went 34-27 down the stretch to earn a playoff berth. Free scored 22.5 points per game, discovering a new fascination with the three-point shot. He ranked second in the league in three pointers made and seventh in the league in three-point field goal percentage.
The Cavs fell in the first round to the Boston Celtics who had posted a league best record of 63-19. It was a hard fought battle by the Cavs who lost the best of five series 3-1, by three, two and two. Free was exceptional in a losing effort, scoring 26.3 points per game and averaging 7.8 assists. The next season the team fell to 29-53, in spite of Free scoring 23.9 points per game and the team decided to rebuild. The Cavs fired Karl and opted not to renew Free’s contract. Free would land back in Philadelphia where he appeared in just 20 games before being waived. Free finished the rest of the season in the USBL, winning the Man of The Year award for 1987, as the Miami Tropics won the league championship.
The next season he bounced to Houston, playing in his final year of pro basketball. The highlight of that season was November 12, 1987, when he scored 38 points against the Sacramento Kings at Arco Arena and brought the Rockets back to win the game. He finished his 13-year career averaging 20.3 points per game, 3.7 assists per game and shooting 45.6 percent from the field.
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. In this role, he greets fans at 76ers home games in his colorfully flamboyant wardrobe. He also travels to schools, recreation centers and playgrounds to speak to young people about basketball and life. Free’s warm and engaging personality is perfectly suited for this role. More recently he has served as Director of Player Development, traveling with the team and helping the coaches and scouting staff with players preparation.
On November 30, 2005, Free was honored as a Cleveland Cavaliers Legend at halftime of the Cavaliers’ game against the Los Angeles Clippers. If you go to Sixer’s games early, you can see Free on the court, still shooting his high-arcing jumpers with deadly accuracy.