George Karl, the Cleveland Cavaliers' rookie coach, and his star, the redoubtable World B. Free, were shooting unguarded 20-footers recently in a game of Buy Back. The rest of the team had been eliminated, and it was down to the two cockiest Cavs for the $50 pot.
Karl and Free have come a long way in their personal relationship—about as far as the playoff-poised Cavs have since starting the season at 2-19. So, after practice in a Los Angeles high school gym the day of a game with the Clippers, the former antagonists could slam egos safely. "Oooh, don't be so mean," cracked Free after swishing his fourth consecutive high-release jumper. "You know I got that rhythm."
"Don't be talkin' so big, World," said Karl, who delights in hustling greenbacks from his players but knew he was in tough with the Prince of Midair. Not that he was about to admit it, of course. When Karl finally missed the shot that gave Free the pot, he ran off the line screaming, "How could I choke!" as if he had been the favorite.
But Karl was as happy as anyone to see Free win. His first big decision as the youngest head coach in the NBA—he's 33—was to ask Free to change the old World flavor of his game. Not long after that, his first lesson was to find out that with a little freedom the 31-year-old veteran could be a brave new World.
Karl, Free and a gritty mixture of veterans and young players have led Cleveland to the greatest turnaround the NBA has seen since Elvin Hayes's jump shot. The Cavs haven't made the playoffs since 1978, and just when it looked as if they would never rise from the rubble created by the three-year mismanagement of former owner Ted Stepien, they began a steady surge that included back-to-back victories over the Philadelphia 76ers and a blowout of the Bucks in Milwaukee. With victories last week over the Knicks, Bulls and Pacers, Cleveland's record as of Sunday was 31-43, good for a two-game lead over Atlanta for the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
In a league that turns coaches into tight-lipped zombies, Karl, who replaced Tom Nissalke to become the Cavaliers' eighth coach in seven years, is an aberration. His features dance boyishly, and he's as likely to laugh as yell in late-game huddles with his players. Constantly thinking basketball, he keeps a notebook by his bed in which to draw up plays that might occur to him during occasional bouts of insomnia.
Karl won two Continental Basketball Association Coach of the Year awards with the Montana Golden Nuggets before going to Cleveland as director of player acquisition in 1983. A 6'2" guard who made All-America at North Carolina before graduating in 1973, Karl played for five years with the San Antonio Spurs in the ABA and NBA. He averaged only 6.5 points a game but accumulated three knee operations and nearly 100 stitches in his face from elbows and loose-ball dives. He's still hustling. Three weeks ago he took $15 from forward Phil Hubbard on a blind half-court shot released while facing away from the basket.
Before the season, Karl attempted an even longer shot: convincing Free that he should spend more time passing and defending and less time dribbling, shooting and, for that matter, playing. Free interpreted it as a sign he was being phased out in this, his 10th, season. No confrontations ensued, but the tension was thick.
"We had no respect for one another," says Free, who played against Karl when Free was in Philadelphia and known by his given name—Lloyd—and Karl was at the end of the line in San Antonio. "All he did was fall down to fake a charge," Free says with a smile. "I couldn't let him get away with that, so I'd kick him in the chest when I took my jumper."
Says Karl, "I remember it being a little lower than that."
With Free playing limited minutes and being benched late in games for defensive purposes, the injury-ridden Cavs lost their first nine games. In the 10th, Free pulled a groin muscle. When he returned on Dec. 15 the team was 2-19. Karl gradually saw that Free in a limited role left the Cavaliers without an offensive leader. It wasn't easy, but Karl publicly admitted his mistake in asking Free to change his game.
That was all Free wanted to hear. "It takes a hell of a man to admit that he's wrong," said the 6'3" guard, who scored his 15,000th point this season. "He respects me, and I play my butt off for him."
Guard Paul Thompson went down with a stress fracture of the shin on Jan. 22, and Free became a starter. In 34 games since then he has averaged 25.4 ppg, five assists and 37.5% on three-point shots. Although none of the fans who chanted "We want World!" early in the season really cares, Karl is pleased to say that what Free is, is basically what he wanted in the first place.
"Once I started getting into the flow, I would look over at the bench and see George," says Free. "His face looked like a pumpkin, it was so lit up. I could just hear him thinking, This guy can still do it. He can still do it."
More important, the team is doing it. Eight Cavaliers average more than 20 minutes a game. Free and point guard John Bagley are primarily spelled by Johnny Davis, and Karl rotates forwards Roy Hinson, Hubbard and Ben Poquette and centers Mark West, Mel Turpin and Lonnie Shelton.
Turpin, a gifted shooter, has been erratic, but Karl is most concerned about his rebounding. The consistent thing about the 265-pound rookie has been his percentage of body fat. It has stayed between 17% and 18% all season. Unfortunately, under the terms of his contract, Turpin is fined a portion of his $560,000-a-year salary for every game his body fat exceeds 14%. No one will say what the running total is, but Karl claims the team is planning a postseason trip to the Bahamas with the fine money.
The explosive 6'9½" Hinson is No. 6 in the league in blocks, with an average of 2.26. To open up the power-forward spot for him this season, Cleveland willingly traded Cliff Robinson and his 17.8 points and 10.3 rebounds a game to Washington, getting the draft rights to Turpin in return. Hinson has responded by improving his scoring average from last season's 5.5 to 16.1—the biggest point-production leap by any NBA starter this year. He is also pulling down 7.9 rebounds a game and gaining a reputation as a slam-dunk master.
Free recently took it upon himself to choose the Cavs' theme song for the playoff drive, and no one minded that it was a tinge self-aggrandizing. "I go crazy when that song comes on," he admits. The title? What else? We Are the World.