From Vintage Cavs, by Terry Pluto
Wayne Embry just didn’t understand.
Or maybe, the former Cavs general manager didn’t want to admit what World B. Free meant to the Cavaliers as they were coming out of the Ted Stepien Era.
Embry is an exceptional person. He was a good general manager for the Cavaliers and the Milwaukee Bucks. But when he came to the Cavaliers in the summer of 1986, one of his first big decisions was about re-signing Free.
Embry used to make fun of how the Cavaliers sent a helicopter to pick up Free at Burke Lakefront Airport on Sept. 30, 1983. Free was flown to the Richfield Coliseum, where a red carpet awaited him—leading the shooting guard to the door of the arena.
Why all the ceremony for player with a reputation for shooting too much, with the ball or his mouth?
The Cavaliers acquired Free from the Golden State Warriors on Dec. 15, 1982. They were the worst team in the NBA with a 3-19 record before he played his first game with his new team. Even worse, the Cavaliers were probably the most boring team to watch—dead last in the NBA in scoring. The few fans who did show up were there to scream that Stepien should sell the team.
Then came World B. Free.
“I remember when I got to the Cleveland airport right after the trade,” Free told me in 1986. “The people looked tired. I said I was going to pump some life into this place. ‘What Cleveland needed was World B. shakin’, bakin’, stoppin’ and poppin’. That’s what I was thinking.”
And there was more.
“When I got to the Coliseum, and wondered, where were all the people?” he said. “I remember there were games where the crowd was my girl and a couple of her friends. I’d try to give tickets away, and people would say, ‘Hey, World, don’t call me, I’ll call you.’ The team would walk through the airport and the baggage people would ignore us. It was sad.”
Free changed some of that.
“I knew World’s strengths and I knew his weaknesses,” former Cavs general manager Harry Weltman told me years ago. “And I knew his strengths were what we needed. He could put the ball in the basket. He was exciting to watch. We desperately needed that.”
Weltman didn’t worry about Free forcing a few poor shots during a game. He inherited (from Bill Musselman) a roster full of guys who couldn’t make wide open 15-footers . . . or guys who hated being in Cleveland.
Free was not a good defender, but he played hard. He signed autographs, posed for pictures, shook hands and made friends. Maybe he wasn’t the brightest star in the NBA galaxy, but he was a ray of sunshine on the Cavaliers roster.
The Cavs finished the 1982–83 season with a 20-40 record after the Free trade. They were 3-19 before.
He averaged 24.2 points and shot .458 from the field. Free was a free agent in the summer of 1983. After Gordon Gund bought the team, he green-lighted a multi-year deal for Free. Weltman signed him with the help of team attorney and salary cap expert Richard Watson.
Weltman and Watson then cooked up the idea of bringing Free to the Coliseum via helicopter, Free popping out and walking up the red carpet for a press conference to announce his new contract.
“We needed something positive, something fun,” said Weltman. “The fans wanted World back. We needed World. And we needed some good publicity.”
The helicopter landing delivered exactly that. Free was a showman. He loved talking to the media, and they had a great time listening to him.
No matter how many times this was explained to Embry and others who dismissed Free’s time with the Cavaliers as a strange sideshow, they refused to grasp the state of the game in Cleveland when Free arrived.
“I swear, they didn’t even have all the lights on in the Coliseum during my first year,” said Free.
That’s a stretch. But basketball was in the dark ages in Cleveland until he began to light up the scoreboard.
* * *
My introduction to World B. Free was in the spring of 1974.
I didn’t actually meet him. But I was with the Hiram College baseball team. We were on a spring trip and playing a few games at Guilford College near Greensboro, N.C.
We were sleeping near the gym. Many of the Hiram players had gone into town. It was night time. I heard a basketball bouncing. I went into the gym and saw a player shooting around. I loved pickup basketball. I walked over, talked to him for a while. His name was Billy Highsmith. He was a freshman on the basketball team.
This was the Guilford College basketball team that had won the 1973 NAIA national title. The Quakers—yes, that’s their nickname—were led by a young man from New York named Lloyd Free.
Highsmith and I played a lot of 1-on-1 that night. He won every game. But he spent a lot of time practicing his jumpers rather than simply driving around me to make layups. He talked about Lloyd Free, how Free was going to play in the NBA.
I’d never heard of Free until that day.
Highsmith and I were playing in a shoebox of a gym. It was hard to imagine anyone from that small school and that tiny gym becoming a star in the NBA.
But Highsmith was right. Not only did Free play in the NBA, but so did his teammates M.L. Carr and Greg Jackson. Free was a second-round pick by Philadelphia in 1975. Carr and Jackson were future NBA fifth-round picks.
Highsmith would play four years at Guilford, averaging 10 points per game.
But the story didn’t end there.
In the summer of 1977, I was hired to my first full-time newspaper job with the Greensboro News-Record. One of my assignments was covering small college basketball, which included Guilford. I met Jack Jensen, the basketball coach. He was an engaging man, a story-teller with a young reporter willing to listen.
He talked about going to Brooklyn to not only recruit Free, but Greg Jackson and others.
In the 1960s and 1970s, there were no AAU shoe-company sponsored summer tournaments for the nation’s best high school players. They tended to stay near home. In the summer, they played on the playground, or perhaps in legendary settings such as the Rucker League in Harlem.
Free remembered playing against the asphalt legends such as Phil “The Thrill” Sellers, who became a star at Rutgers. There was Earl “The Goat” Manigault, who could have been a star but battled drugs. He was revered on the New York playgrounds.
Free talked about Nate “Tiny” Archibald, another New York playground star who was terrific in the NBA. There also was Connie “The Hawk” Hawkins and so many others—virtually all with nicknames.
“So I had a nickname dating back to junior high,” he said.
He was called “World,” short for “All-World.” He had a 44-inch vertical leap, whirling dunks and a global sized ego. Like many New York playground stars, he also talked lots of trash to opponents.
Jensen heard about Free and some others. Free was not exactly a star student. This also was a time when some major Southern schools didn’t recruit black players, or at least were keeping an unofficial quota when it came to African-Americans on their roster.
The saying about how to use black players at some schools was “play one or two at home, three or four on the road . . . and five if you were in trouble of losing.”
Jensen convinced Free to come to Guilford, and it was a place where he could play as many minorities as he wanted without worrying about public pressure.
Free didn’t have a lot of other options. The same with Jackson, who teamed up with Free in the backcourt to win the 1973 NAIA title. Jackson would only play a single season in the NBA. He returned to Brooklyn and was well-known for his work with young people at the Brownsville Recreation Center, where Free played as a youngster.
I recently ran into Leonard Hamilton, the veteran coach from Florida State. He began his college career as an assistant at Austin Peay. We began talking about James “Fly” Williams, another playground star from Brooklyn and the Brownsville Recreation Center. Hamilton convinced Williams to come to the university in Clarksville, Tennessee.
Williams played there for two years, then turned pro.
But the point is college basketball was a much different place in the days of Lloyd Free. Those young men from the mean streets of New York and the small colleges in the South had to battle their way to the NBA. They weren’t anointed “The Chosen One” as LeBron James was at the age of 17 when he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Shoe companies weren’t recruiting young teenagers to attend camps that funnel them to the college basketball powers.
As Hamilton and Jensen told me, so much of the scouting was word of mouth. Someone knew someone who knew of a good player who needed a college.
“I know what it means to come from nothing,” Free told me in 1986. “My father (Charles) was a longshoreman. His work wasn’t steady. But the man always found something for us to eat. There were six of us and we lived in a one-bedroom place. We stuffed towels in the windows to keep the cold out. When my father worked, it went day-to-night-to-day. These long shifts. He’d come home and be about dead.”
Basketball was Free’s ticket. He shot his way out of New York to a small college in North Carolina. Then he shot his way into the NBA. And he kept shooting, kept scoring, kept talking.
“It started for me on the playground,” said Free. “When I was a kid, Nate Archibald was the guy in Harlem. It was me in Brooklyn. Sometimes, I’d go there for games. Sometimes, he’d come to Brownsville. It was Nate the Skate vs. World the Thrill. It was like the Old West. Who was going to be the top gun? When we took the court, it was time to hook up your holsters, pull out your guns and see who could shoot each other’s brains out.”
Free told me that in 1986, it wasn’t common for people to show up at playgrounds and start shooting with guns. He was talking about jump shots, dunks and layups. He was talking playground basketball as it once was, before AAU teams and shoe companies moved everything indoors and turned it corporate.
“I remember when I was one of those boys, sitting on the sideline, waiting to get into a game,” he said. “I used to shoot left-handed. But no one shot left-handed, so I switched to the right hand.”
Free could indeed shoot left-handed. After Cavs practices, he’d go to the foul line and make free throws with his left hand. His form was perfect. Then he’d practice his right-handed free throws.
His jump shot came from almost behind his head with a high arc.
“You learn that if you don’t want it blocked,” he said. “I learned that from some other guys on the playground.”
He was cocky. He was relentless. He was a player and an entertainer.
“I didn’t have the same advantages as a lot of guys,” he said. “There was no big name school for me. No NCAA tournament. I had to make my way the hard way to the NBA.”
Free said he has pictures of himself as a young player with the Sixers.
“I have my first pair of tennis shoes from the NBA,” he said. “They are an old pair of canvas Converses, the Chuck Taylor model. I never knew who Chuck Taylor was, but I wore his shoes.”
In the 1970s, few players had a shoe contract worth mentioning.
“People would take me to a fancy restaurant, and I’d order a cheeseburger and Budweiser,” he said. “I remember being a rookie and going out to a place where they served oysters and lobster. What did I know about oysters and lobsters? How was I supposed to eat that? I asked the waiter to bring me some ketchup. The waiter looked at me and said, ’Sir, what did you say?’ I told him to forget it. That was one of those embarrassing moments when I felt like I didn’t belong with people with money. I felt so low, I could have walked out of the room without bothering to open the door.”
* * *
I didn’t cover Free and the Cavaliers until the 1985–86 season. But I saw games with Free.
“He was the only guy we had who the fans wanted to see in those years,” said Joe Tait. “You had to be here to fully understand what World meant to this franchise. He was unfairly labeled, and too many people held things against him from when he was a younger player.”
The World B. Free who showed up in Cleveland on the cold December day in 1982 was 29 years old. He was in his eighth NBA season. He made an All-Star team. The previous four years, he had been a 20-point scorer. In 1979–80, he averaged 30.2 points per game.
He was not a young, insecure second-round pick from small Guilford College outside of Greensboro, N.C., who joined the powerhouse Philadelphia 76ers.
He used to call himself “The Prince of Midair” because of his leaping ability. But that changed when he arrived in Cleveland at the age of 29. He was not the World who could dunk with ease. He was a polished pro, a jump shooter from long range with 3-point accuracy (.378 with the Cavs).
One of my first conversations with Free led to him asking, “Do you know how hard it is to get 20?”
“Twenty points?” I asked.
“No, 20 shots a game,” he said.
Free was serious. He explained how defenses were set up to stop players like him, scorers on bad teams. The goal was to keep the ball out of his hands. And when he did have the ball, he often faced two defenders. It took strength, energy and ingenuity to get off 20 decent shots a game.
“It can wear you down knowing you have to carry the offense for your team,” he said. “But I did it, year after year.”
Critics of Free, such as Embry, ask, “What has World ever won?”
* * *
After three years with the Philadelphia 76ers, Free was traded from bad team to bad team. In his first full season as the starting shooting guard, those teams showed an average improvement of 15 victories.
“There was always an owner out there who knew I could help his team win,” said Free. “Maybe he liked some other players better, but he knew World could bring their team alive.”
It happened in San Diego, where the Clippers went from 27-55 to 43-39.
It happened in Golden State, where the Warriors went from 24-58 to 39-43.
It happened in Cleveland where the Cavs were 3-19 when he finally played and 20-40 after that.
In 1984–85, the Cavs started the season at 2-19 under rookie coach George Karl. He was trying to run a share-the-ball, passing game style offense. That was not going to work with a starting lineup of John Bagley, Roy Hinson, Phil Hubbard, Lonnie Shelton and Free. Those guys were more defensive-oriented players and not strong outside shooters—Free being the exception.
When Karl allowed Free to control the offense, the team began to win. The Cavs finished with a 36-46 record—34-27 once Karl turned Free loose. They made the playoffs and lost to Boston 3-1 in the best-of-5 first round series. Their three defeats were by a combined seven points.
Free averaged 26.3 points and 7.8 assists in the series against the Celtics, shooting .441 from the field.
He played well. The Cavs overachieved that season.
But the next year, GM Harry Weltman and coach George Karl went to war on a variety of fronts. Karl had two years left on his contract, but wanted a new deal as a reward for making the playoffs. Weltman did offer to change his contract a bit, but Karl wanted more.
In the 1985 draft, Weltman had a chance to pick Karl Malone. He had the future Hall of Famer in town for nearly two days. But right before the draft, Weltman instead selected Keith Lee. Karl dueled again with Free about playing more defense and having him share the ball more on offense.
It was a clash of egos.
I covered the team that year, my first on the NBA beat for the Akron Beacon Journal. Karl was 34 and immature as a coach. Free was 32 and had little respect for Karl. The two had played against each other in the late 1970s. Karl was a journeyman, a 6.5 point scorer in his career in the NBA and ABA. Free remembers having little problem scoring against the man who now was his coach.
By the end of the 1985–86 season, Karl and Weltman had been fired. The Cavs had drafted Ron Harper as shooting guard. Embry didn’t believe Free would be content to come off the bench. His career with Cleveland ended at the age of 33—despite averaging 23.4 points and shooting .455 from the field (.420 on 3-pointers) in 1985–86.
He played two seasons after that with little success. It was almost as if the rejection by the Cavaliers broke his basketball heart. He is now a “basketball ambassador” for the Philadelphia 76ers, meeting with fans at games and other events.
He has often said Cleveland was the favorite time of his career. The attendance rose from 3,916 to 9,533 per game in his four seasons.
It’s hard to explain World B. Free. You had to experience it. And Cavalier fans had the best version of Free from 1982 to 1986. In 275 games, he averaged 23 points, shooting .454 from the field.
“It drives me crazy when I hear people take shots at World,” said Joe Tait. “Only those who followed the franchise back then understand what World meant to the team. His No. 21 should be hanging from the rafters. He was that good and that important to the Cavaliers.”