LOOKING BACK: 1978-79 CLIPPERS, THE FIRST SEASON IN SAN DIEGO
Legendary Clippers broadcaster Ralph Lawler once referred to flamboyant guard World B. Free, a flagship member of the 1978-79 Clippers, as “bigger than life.”
Free, who played with San Diego for two years, was somewhat immortalized by his name change (from Lloyd to World B.); long sideburns that were seemingly etched into the side of his cheek; blithe demeanor; and a sensational ability to score the ball.
He jumped like a 6-foot-2 Julius Erving, earning the nickname the “Prince of Mid-Air.” And when he averaged 28.8 points per game in ’78-79, good for second in the NBA, it further proved the Brooklyn native’s game matched his personality.
In just two seasons, Free became one of the Clippers’ most memorable players and along with Randy Smith, another high-scoring guard, he helped distinguish one of the most entertaining and peculiar teams that rarely anyone saw play. Anyone, that is, except Lawler.
THE 1978-79 CLIPPERS: SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED
“It was a glorious, if largely unnoticed, joy ride,” Lawler said. “The team had been tossed together in hurried order. The roster was a hybrid of the 1977-78 Boston Celtics and Buffalo Braves rosters and draft picks. It all resulted from the bizarre franchise swap by the owners of those two teams.”
Bizarre it was.
Irving Levin, a Los Angeles film magnate and then-owner of the Celtics, agreed to exchange franchises with John Y. Brown, who owned the Braves for one season. Effectively, Levin wanted to get closer to his entertainment base in Southern California, and moving the cold-weather Braves to temperate San Diego was appealing, while Brown had always dreamed of owning the Celtics.
Lawler remembered it well. “Brown was enamored with the thought of owning the storied, but recently downtrodden Boston Celtics,” he said. “It was unthinkable to move the Celtics who were easily the winningest franchise in NBA History at the time, so the swap was theorized, discussed, and accomplished.”
The NBA Board of Governors overwhelmingly approved the swap and the relocation of the Braves to the West Coast by a 21-1 vote. In addition, Levin and Brown also completed a complex trade of personnel that included seven players and two draft picks.
On July 8, 1978, upon completing the transaction, Levin told the Associated Press, “San Diego in the last two or three years has just grown tremendously. Not only that, but the type of people who moved there are from big cities back east and potential fans of the San Diego team.”
The County’s population increased by more than 500,000 residents between 1970 and 1980, but it was evident basketball was a low priority in San Diego’s sports and entertainment landscape. The Clippers’ arrival marked the third attempt at professional basketball in the city, with the NBA’s Rockets and ABA’s Conquistadors/Sails failing earlier in the decade.
“Little was expected of that Clipper team,” Lawler said. “Twice burned, San Diego was wary of the round-ball sport. Some of the early crowds were, well, not crowds.”
The Clippers drew roughly 313,000 fans, and on some nights, according to Lawler, there were fewer than 2,000 in attendance. Worse yet, it was football season when the team took the floor at the San Diego Sports Arena for the first time Oct. 15, 1978.
“October, November and December were NFL months in San Diego where quarterback Dan Fouts was in the middle of a Hall of Fame career with the Chargers,” Lawler said. “Nobody even knew the Clippers were in town until January or February. None of the games were on television.”
The Chargers may have garnered the most interest, but they were arguably less interesting than their powder blue and orange city mates.
Lawler called the Clippers’ roster of Free, Smith, Kevin Kunnert, Swen Nater, Kermit Washington, Sidney Wicks, Freeman Williams, and others a “rag-tag bunch.” But they played hard, and thanks to a 13-1 stretch in March, they were on the cusp of an improbable playoff berth in a competitive Western Conference.
“[Head Coach Gene] Shue had the team playing solid basketball,” Lawler said. “Nater and Washington controlled the boards. Smith and Free were the game's highest scoring guard tandem, while Kunnert and young gun Freeman Williams were quality contributors off the bench.
“The club was shockingly in the playoff race going into the season's final weeks and sleepy San Diego was being awakened from its hoop slumber.”
What amounted to a two-month joy ride, however, did not have a happy ending. A four-game losing streak, which included a 156-119 loss to the Lakers in Los Angeles, sent the Clippers reeling. With four games remaining, they needed at least three wins to have a shot at the West’s sixth and final playoff seed.
Behind a 68-point second half, the Clippers and Free, who had a game-high 28, toppled the Knicks in San Diego in front of 8,371 fans, but they lost three nights later to the eventual NBA champion Super Sonics. That defeat was followed by a heart-breaking 118-117 loss to the Suns in Phoenix where they blew a nine-point fourth-quarter lead and were eliminated from postseason contention.
A night later, the overachieving Clippers got a well-deserved ovation from the some 11,000 in attendance at the Sports Arena as they closed out the season with a four-point win over Phoenix. Free threw in a dazzling 36 points, finishing 0.8 points per game behind San Antonio’s George Gervin for the league lead.
In their first season in San Diego, the Clippers wound up 43-39, two spots behind sixth place Portland. Free was a second-team All-NBA performer, and Smith added his fourth consecutive season of more 20 point or more. For the people who were most intimately involved, though, it was less about records and on-court performance than it was about coming together as a family.
Larry Roberts, the team’s trainer in its first three seasons in San Diego, told the Union-Tribune, “It was an incredible time…a real interesting time.”
Free has also talked about how much he enjoyed his two years with the Clippers.
"The fans in San Diego, we had them off the chains. People loved that team. It was unbelievable," Free told the Los Angeles Times in February. "It was like a family in there. What I loved about it, it was such a close-knit thing with the players and the fans."
And Lawler, who was hired in 1978 by then-Clippers General Manager and talk-show icon Irv Kaze, added: “It was one of my more memorable seasons. It was filled with so many unknowns and so much uncertainty. It was a rag-tag collection of players and our entire (14 people) traveling party became a very close and tight-knit group. Simply, it was great fun.”