In the 20 games that he played for the Philadelphia 76ers last season, World B. Free was an all-world disaster. His receding hairline and advancing waistline—he weighed 225 pounds, more than 20 too many—made him look like a balding tire. In his limited time on the court, he made only 31.7% of his shots, and Lord knows, his passing and defensive abilities were not going to compensate for that display of bricklaying. On March 4, Philadelphia placed him on waivers, and after nobody claimed him, it figured to be the end of a remarkable road for Free, after 12 NBA seasons. But....
"See, what nobody realized is that it will be me, nobody else, just me, who will say when I'm finished," says Free. "I knew I wasn't finished."
Free, who turned 34 on Dec. 9, has found a new home with the Houston Rockets, and barring injury or the collapse of his game, he should last the season. Through last weekend, he was playing about 22 minutes a game off the bench and averaging 12.1 points. When he has been hitting—which he has done with 45.1% frequency this season—defenses have had to come out to stop him; that, in turn, has loosened the pack around big men Akeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson.
Free says he feels great, and he looks great, too, now that his weight is down to 203. "I knew after Philly that I had to do something," he says. So Free signed a contract with the Miami Tropics of the United States Basketball League (USBL), a summer minor league. He said hello to college and high school gyms in the 100° heat and humidity, hello to trips in a cramped van, sometimes with World B. himself behind the wheel.
Free led the Tropics to the USBL championship and was their most valuable player in the playoffs, averaging 25.5 per game. But he got more out of the experience than trophies: "I said to myself, World, if you get an opportunity to get back in the NBA, you'd better make the most of it. There's a whole pack of guys who would kill for the chance!"
Few NBA teams would have killed a cockroach to get Free. Even the Rockets, who did show some interest in him, asked that he participate in tryout camps in August and October. Free's performances in those tryouts persuaded Houston coach Bill Fitch, who was desperate for guards, that Free could help the Rockets.
On Oct. 9, Free signed a one-year contract that, with incentives, could net him $350,000 this season. It's not the $750,000 he made in his last season at Cleveland in 1985-86, but it's not bad for a guy who earned about $1,250 a week as a player and occasional van driver over the summer.
At times, Free has resembled the World B. of old, the World B. who never averaged fewer than 22.3 points in the eight seasons between 1978-79 and '85-86 and who by the end of this season should be the sixth highest-scoring guard in NBA history (behind Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Hal Greer, George Gervin and Gail Goodrich) with more than 18,000 points.
At Sacramento on Nov. 12, for example, he scored 37 points in 31 minutes to lift the Rockets to a 116-114 victory. However, in Houston's next game, against Utah, he made only one of his 11 shots from the field. That dreadful shooting sent a significant message: Overuse Free one night and he may be useless the next. But the Rockets anticipated that. Fitch wants Free to be at his best in the fourth period, and, for the most part, he has been just that.
Fans always enjoyed watching Free, but they were slightly puzzled on Dec. 8, 1981, when he legally changed his name from Lloyd to World. "That's what people were calling me anyway," says Free, who once promoted himself as All-World. In any case, his new first name plus the old last one certainly defined his spirit. "There's no doubt I ran my mouth too much early in my career, and that reputation just stayed with me," he says. "I think all that talking made people overlook some things about me.
"I'm smarter now. I've got to admit that for the first time I finally realized that my game can be beautified by the great pass. I can't honestly say I ever thought that way before."
Free smiles broadly and spins a ball in his hands. "But I'm still a shooter, right? If you play the man for his age, then you're fooling yourself. You're going to pay. I can still make you pay."