It was one of those hot summer days in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. A group of teen-agers held the court at what was known as 66 Park—the best address in the neighborhood for a basketball player—and were doing some amazing things. Fly Williams was there and so was Phil (The Thrill) Sellers. Both would become big neighborhood heroes. All-Americas and ABA and NBA players for a brief time. And then there was a little 15-year-old named Lloyd Free. Just plain Lloyd Free, who couldn't shoot or dribble well but who could jump higher than anyone there.
"I was getting off on those guys with their nicknames," says Free, 10 years later. "But I was just Lloyd Free." That is, until he performed a midair 360-degree spinning dunk, the standard qualifying the executor for playground legendhood.
"World!" yelled Herb Smith, another player. "World! Hey, Lloyd needs a name, and I'm naming him 'World' cause the world keeps spinning round and round."
Lloyd Free wants to clear the record. He did not name himself. And he would not become "All-World" until he had played on a city championship team at Canarsie High, an NAIA national championship team at Guilford College—where he set a school career scoring average record—and made the Philadelphia 76ers as a second-round draft pick in 1975. To the gang at 66 Park, the Croskey brothers, the Smith brothers and his own brother Joe in Brownsville, All-America was not enough. To them Lloyd Free was All-World.
January 22, 1979
"They promoted me," says Free. And once in Philadelphia Free promoted himself. But in three years there, before he really got a chance to do it on the court, he did it mostly with his mouth, like the young Cassius Clay. "Now," he says, "I'm doing it with my act."
And so he is. Performing for the San Diego Clippers, he is averaging 28.2 points per game and is the NBA's No. 2 scorer, just 1.3 points behind last year's champion, San Antonio's George Gervin. He has topped 30 points 17 times, seven times in his last eight games, during which he shot 58% from the field. Saturday night during a 124-119 loss to Atlanta he scored a career-high 46 points. All-World is what he seems to be.
But as appropriate as that moniker may be, is it any more appropriate than his own surname? Is there anyone in the world better described by his name than Lloyd Free? He is free with his play, free with his words and free with his feelings. Not to mention the fact that the Clippers, the team he has made respectable, obtained him virtually for free.
"In high school I used to hear that song"—Free begins singing Born Free—"and pretend they were singing Lloyd Free. Now I am free." He is shooting an average of 20 times a game—more often than anyone except Gervin and Pete Maravich—but he is hitting 50% of his shots. Small children still come up to him and say, "Free, you're a gunner," but he's passing the ball off as well—at least as often as his San Diego backcourt partner, Randy Smith. As for Free's defensive play, no one is saying anything about All-World.
In Philadelphia, Free trumpeted his virtues to the press, demanded to be traded, brazenly equated his talents with those of established superstars such as Julius Erving and George McGinnis, and called himself "The Prince of Midair." It was often suggested that he would be happiest playing alone, with a mirror, so he could watch himself.
To be sure, Free had his moments in Philadelphia. There were sudden, unconscious outbursts of whirling, flying, impossible shots from 30 feet out. And there was the memorable seventh game of the 1977 Eastern Conference playoff semifinal against Boston, the defending league champion, when, Free says, "I messed up their banners." Free came off the bench and missed his first six shots. He then went on to hit 10 of his next 21, winding up with 27 points to help win the series.
But at other times there were disastrous strings of missed shots, air balls and turnovers. It didn't seem to matter whether he was hot or cold, he made purists cringe. And inevitably Free would be yanked back to the bench.
Gene Shue, who coached Free and the Sixers before being fired six games into last season, says, "I never had any doubts about Lloyd's ability, and often when the game was on the line I would go to Lloyd, not Doc or George. But sometimes there just weren't enough basketballs. It got to where we thought about posting a signup sheet for the ball." And when Billy Cunningham took over the team, it was clear that there would be little space left for Free's name.
Shue, watching from exile, knew this. He also knew that when he accepted the job as coach of the Clippers, who moved west from Buffalo last summer, he would be inheriting a strange mixture of players from the 27-55 Braves and the 32-50 Celtics, who had made a multiple-player deal. "When you look at your group and see players like Sidney Wicks and Swen Nater," says Shue, "you know that they are there for some reason. I knew we couldn't win. But I also knew that Lloyd Free was a winner."
When the Clippers put in a call to Shue's former employers about obtaining Free, the 76ers didn't exactly drive a hard bargain. They let Free go for a first-round draft choice—in 1984. That is almost nothing. "That is nothing," says Shue in pure astonishment. "Lloyd is one of the most talented players in the league, and they just gave him away."
"There must be something wrong with Free," said one assistant coach last week. He was scouting the Clippers in New Orleans in a game in which Free hit on 11 of 21 shots and 12 of 14 from the foul line. "Twenty teams didn't want him." And as San Diego cemented a 114-107 victory over the Jazz, the same man said, "Hey, they're no slouches. That's a good team out there."
The idea is shocking those people around the league who insist that the Clippers are no more than a one-man, one-on-one circus. But the team has won nine of its last 16 games, and even though the Clippers are in last place in the Pacific Division, the NBA's toughest, seven of the league's 22 teams have worse records than San Diego.
The Clippers get almost 50 points a game from their starting guards—Smith, a two-time All-Star, is averaging 21—and their third guard, rookie Freeman Williams, last year's NCAA scoring champion from Portland State, is beginning to come on. They are also the second-best rebounding team in the NBA. Studious Kermit Washington, who is well read in Oriental philosophy, is the league's best offensive rebounding forward. The center tandem of Nater and Kevin Kunnert is good for a combined 16 points and 15 rebounds a game. And the small forwards, Nick Weatherspoon and Wicks, two of Shue's reclamation projects, are playing solidly, scoring in or near double figures and moving the ball out to the speedy guards. "This team represents a mesh of players from different backgrounds," says Wicks. "What a mesh."
The unanticipated success of the team has made a happy return for pro basketball to San Diego, where it had failed three times. In 1975, when San Diego had its last team, crowds averaged 2,616 at the Sports Arena; the Clippers are now pulling in an average of 8,013 a night. And the big promotions—the Laserium light show and the Great Jell-O Jump, in which 25 people will simultaneously wallow in an enormous Dempster Dumpster full of blue Jell-O for keys to new cars—are still to come.
Free thinks he is all the promotion the Clippers need. "I'm their card," he says. "In San Diego people come right out of their seats when I do my thing. Right out. Basketball's crazy. People talk about winning, but it's not really about winning. Times have changed. Today it's a show. People want to see that razzle-dazzle—guys taking crazy shots and hitting them. You have to have some jazz in the game, 'cause if you don't, people won't come out."
Shue made it clear from the day Free joined the team, Friday the 13th of October, that Lloyd was his man. This would have caused problems on many teams, but the Clippers understood their needs. "We had to believe he'd help us, no matter what we read or heard about him," says Washington.
"Cripes," says Free. "Some of the guys thought I had a bigger head than Sidney Wicks, and he used to be real bad. Can you believe that? I had to let them know that all the talking had taken the place of the playing."
"Frankly," says Shue, "I don't know where we'd be without Lloyd." The answer was made clear last week. Free missed a game in Milwaukee with a bruised back, and the Clippers lost 104-93. They beat New Orleans with him, but he missed the next game in San Antonio and the Clippers were blown out 140-111.
That day Free was in the Philadelphia Common Pleas Court for a hearing in his lawsuit against his former agent, Joseph Jeffries-El. Free contends that Jeffries-El mismanaged funds he earned while playing in Philadelphia. Jeffries-El, according to Free's attorney, Richie Phillips, received Free's salary and was supposed to pay his bills. Jeffries-El, Phillips said, set up a corporation called All World Enterprises, of which Free was president. One of the corporation's main properties was The Free Throw, a sporting-goods store. When the store went out of business last October it was in debt for more than $100,000 and back rent was owed and there were defaulted mortgages on a home that had been purchased in the corporation's name. In testimony last week, Jeffries-El said that Free was to blame for his own financial problems, claiming that Lloyd "was living over his head."
The relationship between Free and Jeffries-El goes back to Brownsville when Lloyd was 14, and Jeffries-El came around to the playground introducing himself as a Muslim minister.
"We were young then," says Free. "I had never thought about pro ball, but obviously Joe-El did. One day one of my friends showed up in a brand-new Cougar. 'You stay with me and Joe-El and you can get a car, too,' he said. I fell for it. I sold myself for a car. When I started college Joe-El gave me a Grand Prix. Then I started to get money. I figured, hey, I don't have any, this man's giving it to me, so why not take it."
When he was drafted by Philadelphia. Free looked for an agent. He came from a strong family, and his parents wanted him to stay away from Jeffries-El. "But then he did one of those 'After all I've done for you' numbers," says Free, "so, you know, I felt obligated."
Free hopes to get his financial problems solved with the help of Phillips. "All of the money that's gone, I say 'later' for it," says Free. "The old rep I had for being a bad guy, I say 'later' for that, too. Right now I'm like I was in college. No one can stop me."
"There is only a certain amount of ability that you can have in the game of basketball," says Shue. "It's rare when you can find a player who can beat another player either by outrunning him, outquicking him or outjumping him and at the same time be able to handle the ball. Lloyd can do all those things. There is no one who can stop him. I guess they gave him the right nickname."