by Ben Osborne
Back in the ’70s and early ’80s, when, in general, the NBA’s dress code could best be described as “flashy” and “funky,” one player still managed to stand out: World B. Free. A personal favorite of mine from his latter days with the Cavaliers, his charisma and flair made the Brooklyn-born streetballer one of the League’s most colorful personalities.
A 6-2, 185-pound scoring guard who was born in 1953 and attended Canarsie High in BK before small Guilford College in NC, Free would go on to put up nearly 18,000 points over a 13-year career spent with the Sixers, Clippers, Warriors, Cavs and Rockets. Free was a deserving All-Star in ‘79-80, when he averaged 30.2 points, 4.2 assists, 3.5 rebounds and 1.2 steals for the San Diego Clippers. But even as one of the NBA’s top scorers, he was the type of player who was more than just the sum of his stats. His rim-rattling dunks, scorer’s mentality and opinionated persona put the man born Lloyd B. Free in a, well, world of his own.
These days, besides working for the Philadelphia 76ers, Free is a recently signed endorser of K1X. As the German-based, street-friendly hoop brand put it in a recent press releats, “For K1X, basketball should always come with a little extra mustard. So teaming up with World B Free for the possibly illest hoop collabo ever was a no-brainer. With a main ingredient like World B Free and K1X to add some spice, it’s no wonder our exclusive 09 summer line got game like winner-stays.”
The line includes clothes and footwear, both of which you’ll be seeing even more of on the site and in the mag in coming months.
But our friends at K1X didn’t just hit us with a press release—they gave us a great q+a too. Enjoy.
K1X: Can you take us back to Brownsville and tell us how you grew up there and how that made you the person that you are today?
FREE: Brownsville is a world of its own, as you know. You’ve been out there, too. It’s a place that either made you or broke you. So either you were going to be someone or you wasn’t. I always followed a couple of guys that were older than me. And they didn’t let me play basketball until I was in 11th or 12th grade. A lot of the guys who got out there were a lot younger than I was. I didn’t have that great skills at that time but I had great elevation with my jumpshot. So the older guys would always teach me more about the game, beat me up, pound me on the court. They would treat me like a rookie and I would learn from that. And as I got better and better I started to teach that to the younger kids.
In Brownsville you had just one basket and the ball had no frills, it was bald as my head right now. And I was just in there, I just loved the game. It was great. You had to come out in the snow and rain and we did that. That‘s what it was all about.
K1X: What was the New York streetball scene in general like back then?
FREE: Back then, when you lost a basketball game that was it. It was all over. You might not play again until 10 at night. The court was so crowded and everybody wanted to show their stuff. There were people coming from all over. We were in Brooklyn, so people from the Bronx, Manhattan, Queens and Staten Island came to Brownsville, to a court that we called Sixty-Six Park back then, because that’s where legends were made. And everyone wanted to go to that park to be somebody. They had the Rucker Pros up in Harlem but we had Sixty-Six Park.
K1X: Tell us who played in that park.
FREE: We had guys like Jim McMillan, Doc played there, too. We also had guys like Connie Hawkins, Nate “Tiny“ Archibald. We had some of the best players to ever play this game.
K1X: What other tournaments were there in the city besides Rucker and Sixty Six Park?
FREE: There was a tournament at St. John’s Recreation Center that was big. But you could basically go to every basketball court in Brooklyn at that time and find that the court was full. It’s not the same anymore. When you drive by the parks you won’t see that many kids out there anymore.
K1X: You are not the biggest basketball player when it comes to height. Tell us how you changed your shot to overcome that.
FREE: My thing was that I had a 44″ vertical leap and I was very strong. I used to shoot straight in front of my face when I brought the ball up. But I realized that that shot got blocked every time. So I started to put the ball up to the side of my head and combined with my vertical I could shoot over the defenders.
K1X: I heard you also started shooting over a ladder.
FREE: Yeah, I did that to create a higher arc for my shot. I actually did a lot of those things because the guys back then were pretty much jumping out of the building. So if you didn‘t want your shot to be smacked all the way to the other end of the court you better come up with something. That’s a lesson you learned for the rest of your life.
K1X: You’ve probably told the story a million times but we need to hear it again: Where does “World” come from?
FREE: That name comes from a guy by the name of Herb Smith. This is a guy who is also from Brownsville who introduces everybody who he thinks will come into the NBA, in his mind. So he will give you a nickname. He named guys like Julius “Dr. J” Erving, Connie “The Hawk“ Hawkins, Phil “The Thrill” Sellers. He called me “All World” one time because I was doing 360 slam dunks in games. And I remember, it was in a league game, about two seconds on the clock and I stopped, bounced, did a whole 360 and dunked the ball. And Herb just yelled “All World.” That rang around the whole gym and every since then I was called “All World.” And that was just in junior high.
K1X: What made you change your name legally as well?
FREE: “Lloyd B Free” was the name given to me by my father. So I just changed the Lloyd to “World.” I said to myself that if I should make it professionally in the league with this name that was given to me I would go ahead and wish that the world could be free one day.
K1X: But there was a lot of turmoil going on at that time after the war in Vietnam and the Cold War. Was there something philosophical about that name? Were you like a hippie?
FREE: No, no, no. What I was was a person that wanted good for everybody. My mom and dad raised me to be kind to everyone, no matter what color or race you are. And at that time I was just hoping that the world could be free. So if people would speak about me they could keep it in their head that the world be free.
K1X: What is your take on the whole commercialization of streetball? You know, all the interest that the sport gathers from sponsors and the media these days.
FREE: The NBA and streetball are two totally different games. The players on the streetball courts have their own unique set of talents. But the level of attention they receive now helps some of them to get into the league. And that‘s a good thing.
K1X: You were playing professionally in a time where it was hard not to get in trouble sometimes. Teammates smoking and drinking in the locker room. But today you are teaching the kids not to do those things. Did you, back then, sometimes feel that you were on the wrong side of the track?
FREE: Let me put it this way. Temptation was there. But with me coming from Brownsville and playing only my first and second season in the league I was a nobody basically. So when I looked at all the guys I was strong enough to know that it wasn‘t for me. I said to myself ‘I‘m going to make it.‘ and I went 13 years in the NBA.
K1X: While you played actively, the league was very different from today. People would go outside for a smoke break in between games. Tell us about that era.
FREE: Yes, you are right. When I was a rookie with the Philadelphia 76ers they had beers in the locker room, they were actually smoking cigarettes in the locker room. It was a totally different time back then. But when I was a rookie I played with some of the greatest players who ever played this game, eventhough some of them were already in their thirties. And they did the things they did and I could never understand that. But they were no doubt dedicated to the game.
K1X: You played with some of the most interesting characters to ever play the game. Just let me know what goes through your mind when you hear the different names…Let’s start with Julius.
FREE: Julius Erving was a special basketball player. If you wanted your kid to look up to one person for what that person did on a basketball court that person would be Julius Erving.
K1X: Darryl Dawkins.
FREE: The Character. And also one of the best friends I’ve had in the basketball world. Great guy, great individual. He was a man to himself because he was the first one I knew who could put somebody on “Lovetron.” You’ve never heard of that before in basketball. That was until Darryl Dawkins came in right out of high school making up names. A great guy.
K1X: How about Charles Barkley?
FREE: He was a different character. Charles Barkley was the beast of the east. If it wasn’t his way it was no way.
K1X: And everybody was scared of him.
FREE: Yeah, he would bully you.
K1X: Talk about the layup lines back when you were with the 76ers.
FREE: Man, you are talking about something very special right there. I mean, people got mad when they missed the Sixers warmup. They rather missed the game than miss the layup line. The World would go first. After that Darryl Dawkins with a Chocolate Thunder Dunk. Boom. And then Doc soaring in from the free throw line. Boom. Then I would throw it of the glass and finish with a tomahawk. That layup line was our trademark when we came to the building. We had some guys that could do unbelievable dunks. The layup line alone was a dunk show.
K1X: How do you think the best five players of your era would fare against the best five guys of today‘s era?
FREE: I believe that the best five players from my era would wear today’s guys out. And I’m not just saying that because I was part of that era. I believe that we were more physical, that we were more skilled in our profession and in what we did on the basketball court. Nowadays they hype the game a little bit different. I’m not saying there is no talent out there. There is a lot of talent, I just think that the skill factor is a little bit different.
K1X: You were one of the players who brought the slam dunk to the NBA. Who took that torch from you? And who do you enjoy watching today when it comes to aerial assaults?
FREE: In my active days it was Julius, of course, and Michael Jordan. I also liked Connie Hawkins, but also the little guys like Spud Webb, coming out there and doing the incredible at 5-7. I watched a lot of different players and everybody put something different into their dunks.
K1X: You played in the League with Mike, so you brought several generations together. You were there for the generation of the Ervings and then you were there for the generation of the Jordans. How was MJ as a player?
FREE: As you can imagine, he was one of the greatest players to ever play the game. In his first four years in the League Michael and I went head to head. In his book, Come Fly with Me, he was asked who he respected the most in the League for doing to him what he had done to the other guy, and he said World B Free. That was an honor for me. I just knew that he was something special once I saw him. The same was true with Magic Johnson. I was playing when Magic came into the League, broke him in his first game. And I knew right then that he was going to be something really special.
K1X: I was going to ask you about that. Magic was the most hyped Rookie coming into the league that year and in his first game you dropped 46 on him. Did you think that all the hype was for nothing?
FREE: No, no. I didn’t think like that. I was still a young buck at that time. When people are looking somewhere they are not looking somewhere else. So I wanted to catch their attention. I was the underdog at that moment…and that’s when I’m dangerous.
K1X: Who was the best player you went up against? You mentioned that MJ listed you as one of the toughest players he went up against. What about you?
FREE: George “Iceman” Gervin. He was one of the best players I ever played against. When this man was rolling, and this was like every game, he could get 50 on you in a half—and not even break a sweat. And that’s why they call him “The Iceman.” I asked him about that and he just said “World, I just scored 60 on you, and I’m not even sweating.” [Laughs]
K1X: What about your own quote, “passes don’t get paid”?
FREE: Uhh, I got that from Fred Carter. When I was a rookie he came to me and said, “Rook, let me tell you something: In this League, passes don’t get paid. Passes do not get paid.” And that stuck with me as soon as I stepped on the basketball court. It wasn’t my own theory, though. I got it from a veteran. There could be five guys open and he would still not pass it to you. [Laughs]
K1X: How confident were you as a player?
FREE: As a player? Very confident. I knew that I could get my shot over anybody on the basketball court because of my jumping ability and I had ballhandling skills. I could go either left hand or right hand. I was very confident in my offensive game.
K1X: When you look back at your NBA career you were an All Star and you were one of the big stars of the NBA. Do you have any regrets? Do you think you have been conceived by the fans and the media in the way that you should have been?
FREE: I don’t have any regrets. If I had to do it all over again, believe me, I would do it just the same way because I know that what I did helped guys like Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson and Magic Johnson become who they are, even though they would never say it. The reason why I say that is when I shot the ball 20 times a game, I was called a gunner. Today players like the three guys I mentioned can shoot the ball 30 or even 40 times per game and will be called a great player because you average 25 points. It allowed them to step out of that shadow of being called a gunner for taking that many shots. I helped that and I feel good about that.
K1X: You say you don‘t have any regrets about your basketball career. Do you know what I would regret? The fact that I didn’t play 20 years later and make $20 million a year.
FREE: [Laughs] But you know what? You can say all that and it’s all good. To put your mind there would be just wrong when you are a real basketball player. I would have to be really selfish. When George Mikan and Bob Cousy played the game they made like $25. So who am I to demand that more money than they made?
K1X: How do you feel about your place in basketball history. I read that you were a little disappointed that the Cavaliers have not retired your number.
FREE: Yeah, because the franchise was family and when I got to Cleveland there were like 16, literally 16, people in the stands. And by the time I left my teammates and I had helped turn that into a basketball place once again. And for being a big part of that success you might think about retiring my number. It was a good place for me, though.
K1X: Tell us about what you’re doing with the 76ers these days.
FREE: I’m the 76ers’ Players Development Coach. That includes teaching these young guys, who suddenly make a lot of money, how to react in certain situations. They have people coming into their lives now, women coming into their lives. And I help them deal with all those things. So if the players don’t want to talk to the regular coaches, they can come talk to me.
I’m also very involved in the community. I’m working on several projects right now as the Community Relations Leader for the Sixers. That includes going to high schools as well as colleges and talking to kids there about drug awareness and also the different ways to succeed in life.
K1X: You look like you are still in shape. Do you still play ball or maybe hit the streetball scene?
FREE: I shoot with the team. I broke my foot last year but I’m getting back there. I’ve been playing with the guys before and I was beating them up. [Laughs] They said, “Come on World, you keep playing that old men’s game!” And I said, “No, that’s the game! You will have to just learn it. So when you get fouled out there you won’t even recognize you got fouled.”
K1X: Who is your favourite player in the game today?
FREE: I do like Allen Iverson and I also like Andre Iguodala a lot. He is starting to get there now.
K1X:I see you got the Sixers flavor in there.
FREE: Yeah. It’s great to be around these guys every day, and having gotten to witness AI up close. The real special thing to me with the players today is the kind of respect that they show me. Nobody turns their nose up to me, not even the biggest star in the League. And that means more than money to me.
K1X: As the player with maybe the greatest name in the history of the NBA, who do you think has the best nickname in the league today?
FREE: I like Allen’s nickname, “The Answer.” When he first came into the League they asked him what he was called. He said, “Some call me Bubba Chuck. Some of my friends call me The Answer because when I’m on the court I will answer every bell that rings.” And ever since then, for 13 years, he has been up there. So I like that name very much.
K1X: You mentioned the other day that you played with Joe “Jelly Bean” Bryant and that Kobe used to join that team at practice sessions. Can you tell us a little bit about young Kobe?
FREE: At that time Kobe was a freshman in high school and he was playing against our guys as we had a pick up game going. I knew Kobe because I watched him play at Lower Merion High School. So I knew that he had game. But what I didn’t know was how good he had become from playing in Italy where he played against a lot of guys who were older than he was. And he also played with his father every day. And his father used to beat him up on the basketball court. Kobe would drive past him and Joe just kept hacking his son and fouling him. And I was like, “Man, that’s a foul!” But Kobe just kept playing. I knew that Kobe was going to become something really special because he didn’t whine or cry about nothing. And the guys on our team knew as well. He’d wear them out. I think Vernon Maxwell was the only guy Kobe didn’t light up.
K1X: Tell me why style is important in basketball. What do style and basketball have to do with each other?
FREE: See, it’s just like a great one-on-one basketball player. You’re talking about the Michael Jordans, the Magic Johnsons, the Larry Birds, the World B Frees of this world. What we do is we come out on the court and we play with a special style. And when you play like that you’re likley to celebrate your style off court, too. And that’s why it’s important what you wear. So when you come out on the court or out on the street, people will see that’s what seperates us from the others.
K1X: Would you say that Allen Iverson is like the World B Free of this era because he brought a whole new kind of style to the game and made it his own?
FREE: I would say that Allen Iverson would be a good second World B Free for what he has done in basketball—other than the thug life. He is an icon for young people. His clothes and the way he wears them, and also his wearing braids early on. He has his own type of style.
K1X: How many shoes do you have at home?
FREE: [Thinks] I would say more than a thousand pairs of shoes.
K1X: Man, how much space does that take?
FREE: Well it does take up a lot of space. I have one of these clean houses and a closet where you just push a button and it goes round and round until you get to the style you like. A good friend of mine made this one for me and he did a really good job.
K1X: You played in the NBA from the mid-’70s all the way to the late ’80s and you were always leading the League with your style. What kind of reactions did you receive for your whole World B Free style?
FREE: I was always a trendsetter. When I saw someone wearing stuff that I liked I always tried to do it a little bit different. If someone wore his socks either high or low I would wear mine in between. I never wanted to be the same as the next person. I wanted to be World B Free. So I wanted the people to say, “Wow, when World B Free wears something then it has to be something different.” That’s what I wanted the people to know about World B Free.
K1X: You guys were wearing your gold chains during the games and everything. Tell me your honest opinion about the NBA dress code.
FREE: My opinion on that doesn’t really mean anything. But I believe right now that the players should wear suits and ties. When you are a professional and you go out to the public you dress accordingly. When you get home from the game and you wanna get comfortable you can relax. But when you are doing your profession you should pay attention to the fact that there‘s kids looking up to you.
K1X: What was your reaction when you were approached by K1X several years ago to create whole line based around “World B Free”? What were you thinking?
FREE: When they first came to me I was elated by it. I’ve had companies come at me before, big guns too. But I never really felt it. Then my son told me one day ‘Dad it would cool to have your own line. You should go ahead and do something like that.’ And a year later K1X approached me about the possibility a second time after first bringing up the ideas at the All-Star Game in Philly back in 2002. You know, God is good in all kinds of ways. I think it’s a great thing because, like I said, I’m a stylish guy, a trendetter. And I only try to wear the best. And this is what K1X has put out for me, the best.