Talks with World B. Free

by Joe Gabriele Managing Editor

The word you hear most when people describe World B. Free is “gunner.” And anyone who’s seen World play – in Cleveland or Philly or Oakland or San Diego – will tell you that World never met a 25-footer he didn’t like. Brent Musburger once said that he would shoot the ball before the National Anthem was over.

But when you learned your hoops on the streets of Brooklyn and your name is World B. Free, you’re not the guy coming off the bench to grab offensive rebounds.

On Wednesday night, the artist formerly known as Lloyd Free returns to Cleveland to be honored by the Cavaliers for his contributions to the club in what could best be described as the franchise’s “lean years.”

World B. Free is the only Cavalier in team history to lead the squad in scoring for four straight seasons, averaging 23 points per game over the span of his ultra-productive career. But even Free’s gaudy numbers don’t fully explain what he meant to a franchise that was 15-67 the season before he arrived and made an improbable run to the playoffs two years later.

The Cavaliers will welcome back World on Wednesday night in what should be a special moment at The Q. caught up with World B. Free before he departed for his former home to ask him a few questions about what he’s been up to since he left and his thoughts on returning. First of all, what are you doing with yourself nowadays?
World B. Free: Basically, I’m doing public relations work with the 76ers. My title is Ambassador of Sixers Basketball and what that entails is going into the communities and going out to schools. Things like that.

I do about 120 appearances a year, just going out there. I love meeting the young people and they listen to me and I listen to them about things that are going on in this world. I learn a lot from them and they learn from me. I’m just having a lot of fun. I do a lot of basketball clinics during the summer.

I’m a very active man out here in the community. I’m going on my tenth year. Let's get it out of the way: Why have you stayed away all these years and what’s bringing you back to The Q on Wednesday night?
Free: Well the reason I stayed away for all these years – I’m going to go ahead and get it out – was the general manager that you guys had there – Wayne Embry. I didn’t get along with him and he didn’t get along with me. (But really it’s because he didn’t get along with me, because I’m a very easy guy to get along with.)

But when I was a free agent, getting ready to re-sign with the Cavs, he became the general manager and the Cavs drafted Ron Harper. And Embry basically told me he didn’t want me on the team anymore. I said I could help develop Ron Harper into a great ballplayer. But he wanted no part of it. Ever since then, I just said to myself that after the years of sweating and bleeding Cavs blood that this man is going to come in here and just tell me that I can’t be part of it.

I wanted to be part of the organization once I finished. The Cavs were my longest tenure with any team and I did some damage as a Cav and I really worked hard to bring that franchise back to respectability. I told everyone before I got there that before I leave Cleveland, there’s going to be some sell-outs back up in this bad boy. And there was. So what brought you back?
Free: It was hard for me, really, to come back because I felt that void and I just had a bad taste in my mouth.

But Campy Russell had given me a call. And I had played against Campy and I had a tremendous respect for him and I found out that the organization was changing and going in a really different direction. When I spoke with him I said, ‘Camp, you pulled a rabbit out of the hat this time, baby!”

I loved and I lost. And now I feel loved again. What was the state of the Cavaliers' franchise when you got to Cleveland?
Free: It was dead. You couldn’t say anything else but that it was dead. I mean, what transpired at that time, when we finally made it happen and made the playoffs in Richfield, basketball probably would have been no more in Cleveland. What did you think when you found out you had been traded to the Cavs?
Free: All my friends were saying, “Uh oh, World. It’s all over. They’re shipping you to Cleveland.” And I said, ‘Yeah, well let me tell you something. I’m getting ready to make Cleveland a positive instead of a negative.

And every time I stepped on that floor, with God’s help to give me the strength to do what I had to do, I just went for it and went for it real strong. And I said to myself, ‘Hey, I’m not going to let nobody stop me.’ Because this is a basketball town, here. They love basketball here. When I started in the pros in ’75, I saw that they loved basketball in Cleveland.

But when I got here, there were like 15 people in the stands and I knew every one of them by first and last name. Do you follow the Cavaliers at all?
Free: I always follow the Cavs. I followed them even after I left. I liked the teams they had with Price and Daugherty and Hot Rod and all those guys and I saw them developing into something very positive. And now with LeBron, shoot, the sky’s the limit! Is there a player in the NBA now who you would compare your game to?
Free: Well, who I believe that I would compare my game to is Allen Iverson, although I’m a better shooter. The way I look at him is he’s a guy who can get his shot off when he wants to. (I also jumped a lot higher than he does.) But the way he can create and draw fouls is something that I did a lot. How did playing on the streets of New York prepare you for the NBA?
Free: What it did for me was to give me a chance to play against all the great players who were up in New York and let me know exactly where I was as a basketball player. It was great having the opportunity to be up there and play against the best all the time.

And as I got to the pros, I realized that there were guys on the streets that were a lot better than the guys in the pros that just had bad ways and couldn’t make it because of drugs or maybe they just didn’t want to play basketball. But these guys had great basketball talents and great basketball skills. So I basically had a great time learning from a lot of the guys up in New York City.

That was like the pros before the pros. Did that experience inspire you to do so much work in the community?
Free: That’s something that I always did even before I became a pro.

I remember being from Brownsville and it was rated one of the worst places to come from at the time. And I remember the New York Knicks came out to the playground. It was Mike Riorden and Dave Stallworth and I had never seen a pro before in my life. I went to ask these guys for autographs but they said they don’t do autographs too much. And I said that if I ever made it to let kids know that autographs are just fine and to give kids a positive image when you show up. What was your proudest moment in Cleveland?
Free: My proudest moment as a Cavalier was when we had clinched the playoffs – when we beat New Jersey – me and George Karl gave each other a big hug and there was a sign that came across the scoreboard that said “WE MADE IT!” That was my favorite moment in Cleveland. That was the most touching thing I’ve ever seen. Is there anything you regret about your playing career?
Free: Just one thing. And it’s something that I did once: I would have loved to come back to Cleveland and made that place rock. How would you like to be remembered by Cavalier fans?
Free: I’d like to be remembered as a guy who never quit and as a guy who put basketball back on the map in Cleveland. That’s how I’d like to be remembered.