Where Are They Now?

If ever there was a player who didn’t need to change his name to stand out, it is World B. Free.

Born Lloyd Bernard Free, the man also dubbed “The Prince of Mid-Air” made a name for himself on the Brooklyn schoolyards, where he first got his nickname “World” because of his 44-inch vertical leap and gravity-defying 360-degree dunks.

Free attended tiny Gulford College in North Carolina; helping the team win the NAIA National Championship as a freshman. And in 1975, he became the 23rd overall pick by the Sixers.

In 1978, Free was traded from Philly to the Clippers for a future first-rounder (which turned out to be Charles Barkley). He spent two successful seasons in L.A., averaging 30.2 ppg in his second season and placing second in the scoring title to George Gervin both years.

Free was dealt to Golden State before making his way to Cleveland in December, 1982 in a straight-up trade for Ron Brewer.

When World arrived, the Cavaliers – as a franchise – had reached their lowest point. But just two years later, propelled by Free’s swashbuckling ways, basketball was being reborn in Richfield.

The 1984-85 team embodied the organization’s rebirth. Behind rookie coach George Karl, the team started out the season 2-19 before going on an amazing second half run to clinch a playoff berth. The turning point of the season came when Karl inserted World B. Free in the starting lineup.

That season’s Cavs would go on to face the World Champion Celtics in four knock-down-drag-out postseason contests. In those games, World and Larry Bird did battle, with Free averaging 26.3 ppg in the series.

World B. Free only spent four seasons in Cleveland, averaging an even 23.0 points per contest. Overall, World played until 1987, finishing with the Houston Rockets and a career scoring average of 20.3 ppg.

World B. Free was unique enough without the name-change. The receding hairline and muttonchops. The way he curled the jumper behind his head or the jab-step he’d taunt opponents with before unleashing it. These were World’s trademarks.

But aside from the flamboyant play and unmistakable appearance, World B. Free should be recognized as something else: the man who helped save basketball in Cleveland.

In today’s “Where Are They Now?” we ask the Prince of Mid-Air what he’s up to these days, what he remembers from his battles with Bird and what he and George Karl talk about when they see each other now …

What is your title with the Sixers and what does the job entail?
World B. Free: Well, my title out here in Philadelphia is the “Ambassador of Basketball.” And basically, what that entails, is I go around to a lot of schools – colleges and high schools – and do speaking engagements. I do a lot of community center events.

It’s like I’m a jack of all trades out there. Whatever they need, I just take care of the community side for the team.

Are you have fun doing it?
Free: I have a great time. The thing about it: It keeps you out there. It keeps your name out there.

God gave me a talent to play basketball, and I love that it’s opened the door for me to get to a lot of the places I’ve been in my life. I enjoy being around people – I’m a people-person. So it’s great for me to be talking, running my mouth, and just having fun, basically.

How long have you been with Philadelphia?
Free: (I’m) going on my 15th year. It’s like when I played – I played 13 seasons and wonder where that went. And now I’m wondering where this is going.

It’s my 15th year with the team, and these guys have done a great job of taking care of me as a guy who played for the franchise.

Are you still rocking the sweet suits?
Free: Oh yeah! I’m definitely rocking the suits. They had kind of a contest up here as to what color (suit) I’m going to wear to the next game. They made events out of my suits. ‘Is it going to be plaid?’ ‘Is it going to be stripes?’ (Laughs.) It became something fun.

What was your return like when you came back in 2005?
Free: I was like a little kid in a candy store. And I was nervous.

I knew that fans were going to receive me, but I didn’t know how they were going to receive me when I came back. Campy Russell was telling me to come out there (to Cleveland). I was really nervous.

And then, I didn’t like flying at that time. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to come back to Cleveland. But I just didn’t like getting back on a plane. After I retired, that was probably one of my first flights back on an airplane.

What were your first thoughts when you arrived in Cleveland in 1982?
Free: Well, I’ll tell you: when I first came to the Richfield Coliseum when I was traded for Ron Brewer, I thought it was so far out in the boondocks. And when they were driving me out to it, I was wondering: What’s going on?

The facility, though, was amazing to me; it was a beautiful facility. It was big, it was roomy. But for the game, there were like 15 people in the stands. And when you’d bounce the ball, it’d echo all across the arena – ‘boom, boom! boom, boom!’

You could hear yourself dribbling.

I knew those guys had won something like 15 games the year before I got there, and I told a reporter at the airport when I came – (there was only one reporter at the airport) – I said, ‘Look, they won 15 games last year. But I’ll tell you one thing: I know we’re going to win 16 games this year if I have to win them by myself.’ I said, ‘Before this is all over, Cleveland’s going to be recognized as a basketball town. As a team we’re going to do it. Not me individually. But we’re going to make this thing work out here in Richfield, Ohio. We’re going to make this town hop again.’

A lot of people say that you and that team “saved” basketball in Cleveland.
Free: Well, it took hell. But it was the other guys; I just tried to lead. It was a great time to see that building from where it came from.

(Before then) the franchise was getting ready to be sold – every day you’d hear in the locker room that the franchise might just close up. That was a terrible feeling for players trying to go out every night and give it their all.

The team was on life support. I feel like I was a big part – along with my teammates – of helping save basketball in Cleveland. They were losing money and their fan base. And just to get the people to drive out to Richfield in the winter was an event in its own right. If there’s no talent and bad basketball – they’re not coming.

And we just went at it and started to gel. And the Gund brothers started investing in some talent – the Roy Hinsons and so forth – and it became fun again.

Was the 1984-85 campaign your favorite season in Cleveland?
Free: Well, that was like our ‘Miracle’ season. They had their Miracle season with Austin Carr and Campy and Jim Chones and those guys.

But it was like a Miracle again, because nobody thought that we would be anywhere near the playoffs, first of all. And then, for sure, nobody thought we’d battle Boston like we battled Boston in the playoffs that year. It was something to reckon with.

It’s that kind of season that made the NBA the NBA. We, as a team – we played from the heart. The guys in that locker room – Lonnie Shelton, John Bagley, Hinson – guys in there just didn’t want to lose.

We lost that series, but we gained respect.

What do you remember from your individual scoring battle with Larry Bird?
Free: Larry Bird had said to me before one game: ‘World, let me tell you, I’ve got a lot of respect for you. They’ve always put you in an expansion-type situation since you left the Sixers.’

And it was true. I’ve always been an expansion guy who’d come in and help build a program and then move on. Bird said, I just want to commend you, man. The way you play the game – you play the game!’

And that meant a lot. He’s younger than me. But, coming from him, that meant a whole lot to me. Everywhere I landed I tried to make the best of it. And after battling it out in that Boston series, he gained a lot of respect for me. And I gained a lot of respect for him for being who he was and opening up that way, because Bird really doesn’t open up to people.

That coming from one of the league’s great trash talkers?
Free: Yeah. But of course, after that, he did say, “We’re gonna kick
your a**.”

He told Phil Hubbard, in the game he came back, Game 4 – we were standing around the halfcourt line getting ready for the jump ball – and he said: ‘Phil, I’m gonna hit five jumpshots from right here.’

The game started and he started off with one, two, THREE jumpers. We called timeout and I said, ‘Phil – didn’t you hear that man say that he’s gonna hit five jump shots from right there?! Why don’t you make him move? You know, make him hit one from somewhere else.’

But eventually, he hit five jumpers from that spot.

Guys from the Miracle team always talk about Cavalier fans during their time. What were they like that season?
Free: The fans were unbelievable at that time. They came out in droves, they stayed late after the game. It was unbelievable, that setting. I’ll never, ever forget it for the rest of my life.

I averaged over 30 points in San Diego with the Clippers, and I thought that was one of the highlights of my career. We had won 40-some games as an expansion team and the people out there (in California) were unbelievable. But the Cleveland crowd – when they got behind you, it was STUPID!

You couldn’t believe how loud that was. I’ll never, ever forget the Cleveland fans.

A lot of fans have never heard “the helicopter story” from your free agent signing. What do you remember about that day?
Free: What happened was, I was becoming a free agent. And the Gund brothers had just got the team and said that they were going to do something special.

I was back in Brooklyn. And I remember them calling my agent and my agent telling me they’re going to send a private jet. So, I thought: ‘Private jet? I’ve never been in a private jet before.’ But if they wanted to send a private jet, that was fine. So I got on the jet that flew into Cleveland. So now I’m thinking somebody will just pick me up and drive me down to the Coliseum.

But they bring me from the private jet out to this here helicopter. I’m walking outside, looking at this helicopter – and it looked like one of those cartoon helicopters, like you’d wind a rubber band to make it fly. The propeller is going around and it’s a two-seater – me and the pilot.

The first thing I did was kiss my girlfriend. Because I didn’t think it was going to make it. (I didn’t even like flying in airplanes!)

So I’m up here in the air. I’m strapped in, the pilot and I are next to each other. And when the helicopter took off and got up in the air, I couldn’t hear the pilot, so he gave me a headset. I put it on and we’re flying over the trees – (very closely!) – and I asked him: ‘How long have you been flying?’ And he said, ‘I just got my license yesterday!’

So I said: ‘They must not want me to sign this contract – and that’s OK. Maybe you should just go back!’ But he was laughing and he said, ‘Just kidding.’

So we got there to the Richfield Coliseum and it seemed like there were a thousand people out there. So we were coming down and I looked down and saw this red carpet down there. And he landed it perfectly right by the carpet. So I jump out, walk over and down the red carpet. The reporters and everybody was out there congratulating me.

And that’s what happened. I signed my contract that day.

I don’t think anyone else has done that in NBA history! And I asked all around the league. Dr. J, Michael Jordan – they all knew about it.

Did you have good relationship with ownership while you were here?
Free: The people were very good in Cleveland to me. The Gunds were classy guys and they did a great job.

And you have a classy owner now – Dan Gilbert. He wants the best. I can see how his emotions are. That’s a man I would love to work for, because I know he wants the best. And with a guy like that, when you have somebody like that, it’s easy for you to get out there and work hard for him. Because you know he’s going to back you up.

So I know the Cavaliers are going to be good again one day soon.

Do you ever touch base with any former teammates or Coach Karl from time-to-time?
Free: I’ve spoken with John Bagley and with Roy Hinson, who now works for the league. I had seen Cliff Robinson and Geoff Houston – he runs a rec center in New York City.

Yeah, I spoke with George (Karl) when he comes through with Denver. I speak with him a lot.

We always clown on each other. He says: ‘Damn, World. I asked for a point guard, not a pulling guard.’ He thought he’d crack on me because we’ve gained a little weight. He likes to make jokes. That’s what he does.