Born Free, but Not 'World,' The Warriors Sharpshooter Has Brought His Game Down to Earth
Nomenclature aside, the 6'2" Free, a seven-year NBA veteran, has been more subdued this year than ever before. During his first three seasons in the league with the Philadelphia 76ers, he was competing for attention with such authentic stars as Julius Erving and George McGinnis. "I ran my mouth more than I played," he admits. All-World was a nickname he had picked up on the playgrounds of the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. One of seven children—his father was a longshoreman—Free spent as many as 13 hours a day on those outdoor courts, shoveling them off if it snowed. "Anybody who was anybody in Brownsville had a nickname," he recalls. "We already had a Kangaroo Kid and a Helicopter, so All-Mayberry Street wouldn't have sounded like much."
Joining the 76ers after three years at Guilford College in North Carolina, Free gained a reputation as a scorer and talker, but not the respect accorded good all-around players. Unhappy with a salary that was reported to be around $100,000—low by NBA standards—he demanded a chance to renegotiate, and in 1978 was traded to the struggling San Diego Clippers. There he was reunited with his old 76er coach, Gene Shue, and in the next two seasons he averaged an impressive 28.8 and 30.2 points per game. But he was still playing under his 76er contract while spending lavishly. Soon harassed by creditors, he filed suit against his first agent, accusing him of mishandling funds (the case was later dismissed). Not until he was traded to the Golden State Warriors before the 1980-81 season and given a new three-year contract paying an estimated $350,000 annually did his game settle down. Says veteran L.A. agent Fred Slaughter, who took Free on as a client in 1979, "His finances were messed up. What it took to straighten out his life was someone who took an interest in him."
Free himself credits Shue and Warrior coach Al Attles with helping him round out his game. Anxious to prove his unselfishness, World at first deliberately cut down on his scoring. "It took the team out of its rhythm," he explains. "Al finally told me, 'You've shown me you can be a team player. Now show me you can shoot the ball.' I said, 'Right on, Al.' " Attles designated Free as team captain, and he has responded by leading the Warriors in assists as well as averaging nearly 23 points a game. "Some players you have to yell at to motivate," says Attles. "Others you have to pat on the back. World is sensitive. We were on a local sports show together and the host slipped and called him Lloyd. He leaned over to me during a break and whispered very seriously, 'Tell him to call me World, Al.' "
For now, at age 28, His Worldness lives alone ("I want to give all the ladies a chance") with his sound equipment and collection of video games in a condominium community 20 miles south of Oakland. His neighbors call him World too, which makes it almost—but not quite—unanimous. "To your mama, you're always her little boy," Free says with a grin; for Earlene Free, he still answers to Lloyd.