In 2000 I went down to Philly and interviewed World B. Free, then the Sixers community Relations man, for a Slam Old School. Slam recently posted it and I really enjoyed re-reading. This is a contendor to be my favorite story ever. It ran in SLAM 60 (June ’00).
Whatever the reason, everyone knows World B. Free. So should you.
By Alan Paul
World B. Free seems to know everybody in Philadelphia’s First Union Center. Fans call out his name. Ushers run up to shake his hand. Players break out of their warmups to give love. In the inner hallways of the arena, the Sixers dancers halt their practicing to offer hugs.
The stocky, 48-year-old Free, clad in a one-of-a-kind collarless, sparkling purple suit, takes it all in stride, laughing, signing autographs, and dispensing handshakes, hugs and high fives with flair and endless good cheer. You couldn’t ask for more from an NBA community relations rep. It’s a long way from the selfish reputation Free had when he was shipped from the Sixers to the San Diego Clippers in ’78 after three years of providing instant offense off the Philly bench.
Free blossomed in Cali, going off for 28.8 and 30.2 ppg in two seasons with the Clips, finishing second in the League to San Antonio’s George Gervin both years. He scored his points with a mix of long-range bombing—he would launch his behind-the-head jumper from anywhere over the halfcourt line—and gritty inside work. His 44-inch vertical leap allowed the 6-3 guard to soar over taller opponents for dramatic dunks and unhindered jumpers.
For all his scoring prowess, Free was probably best known as one of the game’s great characters—he legally changed his name from Lloyd to World while with Golden State in the early ’80s. But he displayed equal charisma on the court with an unorthodox and often unstoppable offensive game. And, despite his rep as purely a gunner, he averaged a balanced 24.8 ppg, 4.4 apg and 3 rpg on 45-percent shooting during his eight-year prime after leaving Philly, all the while helping turn around a handful of God-awful teams.
SLAM: You were one of the first to bring playground style to the NBA. Tiny Archibald always says that the problem with playground players is that they try to look good, when the goal is to score.
WBF: Good for him, but I like to look good and score. [laughs] I fed off the crowd and liked to get them involved. In Philly, we had the bomb squad on the bench and our thing was to spark the team and excite the crowd. It was me, Harvey Catchings, Darryl Dawkins, Steve Mix and Joe “Jelly Bean” Bryant. Our second unit was almost better than the first, though we lacked experience.
SLAM: Let’s talk about Darryl Dawkins.
WBF: Darryl was like a Baby Huey, a huge young man who was just the nicest guy with the biggest heart. We were rookies together and he invited me to live with him the very first time I met him because he had signed his deal first. People he didn’t even know would come grubbing, saying they were behind in their rent and he would peel off money and give it to them. Being from Brownsville, Brooklyn, the bottom of the ghetto, I was a little more street smart and I tried to explain to him that he couldn’t save the world. I became his big little brother and started stepping in. He also had incredible clothes—like a lime green suit with matching shoes and hat—which inspired me to start dressing.
SLAM: What about on the court?
WBF: Darryl had a nice little jumper, which he relied on too much at first, because he could have overpowered anyone. I was the opposite—a little guy who would take you to the hole. Darryl saw me doing these types of things and also started understanding his strength. He progressed until he became “Chocolate Thunder” and started breaking off dunks on people left and right. But he never reached his full potential, which I think he would have had he just had a year or two of school.
SLAM: Then, in your second season, Dr. J arrived.
WBF: That was a thrill, because I had watched the guy in the ABA with absolute awe. Same with George McGinnis. No one dunked on people the way Doc did. One time at Washington, he took off from the foul line and soared over both Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld and threw it down, and the sold-out crowd—their crowd!—went wild. We all fed off the incredible energy Doc exuded.
The first time I fully realized the power and authority of Dr. J was when I was driving him from New York to Philly. We were late and I was flying, with Doc stretched out sleeping in the passenger seat. I got pulled over and told the officer, “Excuse me, but I’m on the Philadelphia 76ers, I got the Doc with me and we are late for practice.” He goes, “Doc who?” And I said, “Dr. J. That’s him. Look at his afro.” He goes, “Damn, that is the Doc. Wake him up so I can say hi.” I’m like, “Nah, the Doc needs his rest,” and the guy goes, “OK, Free, but slow down.” Doc had juice! [laughs]
SLAM: Who was the toughest man for you to guard?
WBF: George Gervin could score 45 in a half without sweating. I loved guys to post me up because I could get the shot off a guy five inches taller than me, but I hated running through screens all the time, which George was a master at. And he could finger roll it from anywhere! I chased him for two scoring titles, but he could score at will. If I scored 50, he’d get 52.
SLAM: When you went from Philly to the Clippers, your scoring exploded from 15.7 to 28.8 per game. Did you prefer being a good player on a great team or a great player on a good team?
WBF: This League wanted me to be a good show, but they would not put me on a good team. Only the bad teams would touch me, and I helped them improve. The Clippers went from 27 to 43 wins. Golden State went from 24 to 39. I couldn’t do as much with Cleveland, but we improved and actually created some excitement. They went from getting 1,500 people to selling out. I became a household name in all these places, but only rebuilding teams would take a chance on me.
SLAM: Because you had a reputation as a gunner.
WBF: Exactly. My reputation was so bad. I was blackballed from the All-Star Game, which I only made once. On the Sixers, I was young and headstrong and ran my mouth, which I thought was the only way to get attention coming from tiny Guilford College and playing with superstars like George McGinnis and Doc. And on the Clips I shot so much because that’s what my coach wanted me to do. Same with Golden State. Al Attles said, “Put the damn ball in the basket.” When George Karl came to Cleveland he said he wanted to make me into an all-around player and I averaged over 20 while upping my assists and rebounds.
SLAM: You weren’t the only guy on that Sixers team who liked to shoot.
WBF: Everyone from the first man to the 12th wanted to shoot on that team. There weren’t enough balls to go around and that’s one of the reasons we lost to Portland [in the ’77 Finals]. They played more team ball.
SLAM: You guys were up 2-0 when Maurice Lucas took Darryl out, which seemed to take the wind out of your sails. You were swept from there.
WBF: It has an impact when the bully from your block beats up the bully from my block. I thought Lucas was overrated as an enforcer, but he made it clear he wasn’t going to be buffaloed—and those other guys damn sure was. [laughs] The next day we were on our practice floor, which we had until 11:00. At five to the hour, Portland showed us no respect, strolling right onto the floor. Much to my shock, my teammates walked away, which was not the Brownsville thing to do. Right then they knew they had us.
SLAM: At Golden State, you played with Bernard King and…
WBF: God damn! Bernard King! That guy was incredible. I seen some players in my time, but I’ll put him up there with anyone. Bernard had this ugly little push shot, but it went in. The dude would shoot 18 for 20. I never seen a person more serious and focused in my day. Bernard would walk into the locker room nice and mellow. Then he took this bee pollen pill to gain energy and his whole demeanor changed. He would just sit there scowling and grumbling. Then he went out there and ran like a son of a bitch, non-stop. I was like, “Yo, give me some of that stuff,” but I just got a headache. [laughs]
SLAM: You had one of the longest-range, most unorthodox shots ever.
WBF: I got that from my brother Joe. We were very competitive and I noticed how I could never block his shot even though I could out-jump him. So I figured that if I could get that behind-the-back form combined with my jumping ability, I would be unstoppable, and I worked night and day on perfecting it. They had to put guys five inches taller on me to even have a hope of stopping that shot.
SLAM: Why did you change your name to World B. Free?
WBF: First of all, no one called me Lloyd from the day I was tagged “World” by this dude Herb Smith, who gave everyone in Brownsville names. It was due to my penchant for doing 360-degree slam dunks on people’s heads. In a game against a team from Bed-Stuy, I was on a fast break with a 6-8 guy in front of me. We both jumped, and I was fixing to do a freaky move on him, and I felt myself going, going, and I went all the way around him and dunked. Herb started screaming, “World! World! You are all world, Lloyd!” And that became my name, but when I changed it officially I was making a statement. I’m sort of a deep, political dude and I really did want the world to be free and for people to think about that every time they said my name.
SLAM: Who was your favorite player coming up?
WBF: I loved Earl Monroe’s shake and bake, but my favorite was Clyde Frazier, because of the pressure he put on people. I used to sit outside with my little transistor radio struggling to hear the playoff games and root for Clyde. But then dude broke my heart. When I was about 14, I snuck into a game and sat in the very top row of the Garden. Afterwards, I went and stood in the pouring rain to get an autograph. I saw Spencer Haywood and everyone else but I only wanted Clyde, who was the last one out. He was super bad, wearing a cape and a big ol’ sombrero hat and big black shoes. I walk up and go, “Mr. Frazier, can I please have your autograph?” He goes, “I can’t sign right now,” and walks on the bus, leaving me standing in the rain, heartbroken.
About seven years later, I’m in the NBA and play against him for the first time. And, man, I took it to him—came off the bench and gave him 20 quick and hard ones. I did that every time we played and he finally asked me why I played him so damn hard, and I told him. He just looked at me, sort of shocked. That’s one of the reasons I love signing autographs. You never know who those kids are going to be.