‘Nobody Can Guard Me! I’m Unstoppable!’ Lloyd Free

[In December 1977, Christmas came early for third-year Philadelphia guard Lloyd Free. The 76ers tendered a five-year contract extension at $150,000 a season, and Free was suddenly in the money, spending the final weeks of 1977 thumbing through real-estate listings and imagining that his NBA future resided in Philadelphia. He even opened his own sneaker shop in Center City called the Free Throw Shoe Store.

“What I like is every time I come into a game now, it’s to help everybody around me,” Free told the Philadelphia Daily News about his better fit with the 76ers after two much-discussed seasons. “I still score, but I do more, too. Billy (Cunningham) wants me to set up, to see the open man, to call the plays myself. I guess that’s a sign of confidence. Billy’s a rookie coach, just learning his job, and, in the meantime, I’m learning from him.”

Free, still coming off the bench as the team’s third guard, finished the season averaging a solid 15.7 points per game and played well in the playoffs. But it was the show off the court that had some people talking. Free, suddenly at odds with his agent Joe Jeffries-El, sued him. The case was thrown out of court, and Jeffries-El dropped a dime on Free to tell the local press that his former client was near bankruptcy and had reached a dead-end with the 76ers. 

“Lloyd has been in the NBA three years now,” Jeffries-El spoke out of turn, “and he’s still trying to prove something to Bill (Cunningham) . . . It’s a joke. A farce. Lloyd has a six-year contract with the Sixers. Four years guaranteed. The Sixers have tried to trade him around, but nobody wants him. Unless they give him away, they’ll have to keep him.” 

In September 1978, Free broke his right ring finger at the start of preseason. He sat for three weeks. Then, a day before the start of the regular season, the 76ers finally dealt Free and his fat contract to the San Diego Clippers. 

Free at Last” blared a Philadelphia Daily News headline. The big question was: Who was actually free at last? Lloyd? The 76ers? Or both?

“The thing with Lloyd was that in all the systems he played before, the coaches ran plays to isolate him. He had to have the ball,” said Cunningham, suggesting the 76ers were breathing much easier after the trade. “This year, it wasn’t going to be that way.”

Cunningham continued:  “Somebody pointed out to me that we always seemed to have our highest production during the second quarter when Lloyd was playing. In most cases, we’d run a 1-4 or a pick and roll for him. Everybody else would stand around, though. That’s not a team. That’s an individual. It’s not his fault. We created him that way.” 

This article, from the December 1979 issue of All-Star Sports, serves one year later as Lloyd Free’s answer to the freedom question. As title suggests, Free was feeling pretty darn good about himself. The article was penned by Bert Rosenthal, better known for his track-and-field coverage.] 

The manner in which he comes out shooting has earned Lloyd Free a reputation as the fastest gunner in the West . . . the Western Conference of the National Basketball Association. 

“The only reason I got a reputation as a gunner is that I came from a small school (Guilford College in North Carolina), and guys from small schools aren’t supposed to shoot like that,” says the reborn Free, who has found a new lease on life with the San Diego Clippers after three years of frustration with the Philadelphia 76ers. 

“Actually,” adds Free, “you check the stats and you’ll see that guys like Paul Westphal (of the Phoenix Suns) shoot more than I do. And pretty much from the same areas, too. It’s just that maybe I add a little more excitement on my shots.”

Does he ever!

They don’t call him “All-World” or the “Prince of Mid-Air” for nothing. 

His rainbow jumpers, high-arching shots from 30-35 feet, are a thing of beauty, danger—and yes, excitement. They draw oohs and aahs from the crowd, opposing players—and even his own teammates. 

For most players, that kind of a shot is a low-percentage attempt. For Free, it’s routine. After all, who can fault a shooter who hit .481 percent of his shots last season and averaged 28.8 points per game—the second-best mark in the league, behind only the 29.6 average by San Antonio’s George “Iceman” Gervin, the fastest gunner in the NBA East?

Certainly not Gene Shue, the current San Diego coach and former 76ers’ coach who rescued Free from his unhappy situation in Philadelphia for the mere price of a 1984 first-round draft choice—a heist comparable to the Brinks’ Robbery.

“I think he should be the league’s most valuable player,” Shue said after the 1978-79 season in which the rejuvenated Free led the Clippers to the brink of the NBA playoffs. And the franchise, after a dismal 27-55 record the previous season in Buffalo, improved dramatically to 43-39 in its first season in San Diego. 

Free did not win the MVP (the honor went to center Moses Malone of the Houston Rockets), but he unquestionably was the player most responsible for the Clippers’ turnabout from a non-contender to a team that missed the playoffs by only two games. 

The cocky, brash, 6-foot-2 guard played in 78 of San Diego’s 82 games last season, and, in 57 of them, he led the team in scoring, including a single-game high of 49. It was no coincidence that all four games he missed, the Clippers lost.

Oddly, when it was announced—the day prior to the season—that the Clippers had acquired Free from Philadelphia, there was some disenchantment among the Clippers. “The players kind of resented it,” recalls Shue. “They knew his reputation, and they thought they were good enough to win without him. They were wrong.”

Free also felt the uneasiness. “When I joined the club,” he remembers, “Coniel (Norman, who was cut after 22 games) was the only guy who really knew me. Everybody else was giving me the cold shoulder, and it lasted maybe the first 10 games. In practice, I wouldn’t even get the ball.”

The player most immediately affected by Free’s presence was fellow starting guard Randy Smith, who was expected to be the Clippers’ high scorer. 

In Free’s first game with the team, on opening night, the disappointed Smith had one of his worst games in the NBA. He took twelve shots, hit only one and finished with four points. Afterward, he was distraught. 

Free, meanwhile, came off the bench and fired in 21 points in 21 minutes. For Free, it was the start of his most-profitable and most-satisfying season in the NBA. And for the Clippers, it marked the beginning of rekindled interest in professional basketball in San Diego, a city that had previously failed as an NBA franchise, even with the presence of such a prolific scoring machine as Elvin Hayes. 

Free’s success was a surprise to some observers, but certainly not to him. “Nobody can guard me,” he boasted in the style of a young Mohammed Ali. “I tried to guard myself once. But I couldn’t do it. I’m unstoppable. 

“I can get my shot off against anybody. When my job is to get points, I can do it.”

Free most often liked getting the ball—and his points—in the closing minutes of a close game. When the game was on the line down the stretch, Shue usually instructed his other players to get the ball to Free for the final shot. And on many occasions, the strategy worked. If such a statistic were kept, Free probably would have been among the leaders in “game-winning shots” last season. 

On the rare occasions when he wasn’t given the ball in those situations, Free was insulted. “We’ve got to know who can do it and when,” Free reasoned. “I knew I could do it. They know I could do it . . . once I’m in the middle, no man is going to play me one on one.” 

As Free’s game-winning shots mounted and he was accepted as an integral part of the Clippers, his verbosity and braggadocio increased. Not that he ever was at a loss for words, even in his dismal days with Philadelphia. But now, his verbalizing—often times accompanied by a playful wink—carried some weight, because he was showing what he could do rather than saying what he could do. 

“Just from the little bit I did in Philadelphia, I knew what I could do in 30 minutes,” said Free. “I know I can take 15 shots in a row now, miss seven of them, and still be respected by the coach.

“Shue always had respect for me. He told me I had all the talent in the world. One day in the locker room, he told me that I could play for him. Now I’ve got them bugged out (in San Diego).”

At Philadelphia, Free maintained that he was held back because of fellow guard Doug Collins. “They (the 76ers) would never let me be a starter because they knew I’d be an All-Star,” Free said. “And in that city, there was only going to be one All-Star in the backcourt, and that was Doug Collins. It was politics all the way. They were using me as a scapegoat, just as they used George (McGinnis).”

McGinnis also was traded by Philadelphia prior to the 1978-79 season, going to the Denver Nuggets in exchange for defensive-minded forward Bobby Jones and Ralph Simpson. 

And as Free had predicted, the 76ers’ fortunes suffered without him and McGinnis. They won eight fewer games than the previous season and were eliminated from the playoffs one round earlier (in the Eastern Conference semifinals, as opposed to the East’s final in 1978.) 

“They’re never gonna win because they keep choosing the wrong people,” said the outspoken Free. “They got no meat. Their starting front line averages only 215 pounds.

“Philly took three years out of my life, and this is a new start for me,” he added about his newfound happiness in San Diego. “I loved Gene Shue as a coach from the very beginning anyway. The thing about Gene is that he knows my game and he knows how to use me.”

In San Diego, Shue has made Free his no. 1 guard. In Philadelphia, Shue used—or was forced to use—Free as his No. 3 guard, behind Collins and Henry Bibby. “He’s one of the most talented players in the league,” said Shue. “It’s crazy that we even had a chance to get him for what we gave up. 

“But when I had him at Philly, we had too many offensive players. We had two offensive forwards (McGinnis and Julius Erving) who didn’t play defense. We needed Bibby in there just to pass the ball.”

Free, naturally, has forgiven Shue for the past indiscretions. “At least when I played third guard under Gene, I got my time,” explained Free. “With Billy Cunningham (Shue’s successor), well, he was never a big fan of mine. I’d go in and make one mistake, and it was see ya later. 

“Here, I know I can afford a mistake or two. The coach is behind me. The players are behind me. And so are the fans. It’s like I’ve been reborn.”

Free is so happy in his new situation that he occasionally will begin singing Born Free. “In high school (Canarsie High in Brooklyn, NY), I used to hear that song, and pretend they were singing Lloyd Free, “ he maintained with one of his characteristic smiles. “Now, I am free.”

It was in Brooklyn, in the tough Brownsville section, that Free began earning his reputation as a basketball player. And it was there, among his teenage playground compatriots, that he earned his nickname “All-World.”

When Free was there, putting on his show, the neighborhood already had produced such colorful players as Mel “Killer” Davis, Phil “The Thrill” Sellers, and James “Fly” Williams. “I was getting off on those guys with their nicknames,” said Free, remembering those loose, easy, carefree days. “But I was just Lloyd Free.”

Not for too long, however. As soon as Free learned to turn in midair with the ball, then drop it into the hoop with a flourish, he had his nickname. “I used to do 360-degree dunks,” he said. “Come at the basket, go up, turn 360 degrees and slam it. I was like a little Julius (Erving), a small doctor. I could jump and my hands were a good size for it. I had to use the skills I had. I . . . worked on that jump shot for hours. Sometimes 10 hours a day in the parks. I had nothing else to do. 

“I started taking high-arch shots because all the guys I played with were so much bigger than me. I shoot it from way back here, behind my head,” he added, demonstrating for emphasis. “It’s a good shot because it takes a while to come down and gives you time to get your own rebound.”

Then, he added with a twinkle in his eye, “That is, when there is a rebound to get. Most of the times there isn’t.”

Well, half the time anyway—and that’s not a bad percentage. 

“They tried (calling me) ‘Twirl’ and ‘All-Universe,’ but those didn’t fit, they said. Then they said ‘World,’ and that stuck with me throughout my career,” said the proud Clippers savior. “I took it to high school, college, and now the pros.”

“There is only a certain amount of ability that you have in the game of basketball,” said Shue. “It’s rare when you find a player who can beat another player either by outrunning him, outquicking him, or by outjumping him and, at the same time, be able to handle the ball. Lloyd Free can do all those things. There is no one who can stop him. I guess they gave him the right nickname.” 

Free is so proud of his nickname that he asked writers and fans who approach him to “please call me World.”

The fans in San Diego quickly picked up on his suggestion and they carried banners to the Clippers’ home games last season with the word “World” on it, in honor of their new hero. 

“In San Diego, people come right out but their seats when I do my thing,” said the Clippers’ free-wheeling and freelancing guard. “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 the 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.”

Perhaps that’s why they didn’t come out much last season; there weren’t enough teams with a colorful player like Free, a basketball player and showman combined. Oh yes, there were—and still are—some scintillating players in the league, but not enough, or at least not enough who are as enthusiastic as the turned-on Free. 

Even such a gifted player as Julius Erving, once the prince of basketball excitement, has admitted that he has deliberately toned down his act, and the former exhilarating Dr. J will now mostly be a thing of the past. In this case, it’s a shame. Because this season, basketball needs a good shot in the arm, and if anyone could provide it, it would be Dr. J.

While Erving plans to keep his game under control, Free plans to continue capitalizing on his new freedom. “I don’t know where we’d be without Free,” confessed Shue. “Lloyd had a sensational year last season, and he surprised a lot of people. In fact, he surprised a lot of coaches.”

Twenty coaches to be exact. “Twenty teams didn’t want him,” pointed out an assistant coach. 

Incredible. 

Imagine getting a player of his talent for virtually nothing!

“That IS nothing,” Shue said about the loss of the 1984 draft choice. “Lloyd is one of the most talented players in the league, and they (the 76ers) just gave him away.”

How could Philadelphia give him away so cheaply?

“It was by popular demand,” said Free. “I asked to be traded. I knew I’d never get a chance to do anything there.”

In San Diego, he’s been given a chance to roam free—and not many defenders have been able to catch him. “I’m happy, really happy, just being out there with this team,” said Free, who left Guilford college after his junior year to turn pro. “I’m really up about everything. I love it here. This team is looking to me for leadership and I’m doing it.”

Initially , there was skepticism among his teammates, because of the reputation he had acquired in Philadelphia. “Some of the guys thought I had a bigger head than Sidney Wicks, and he used to be real bad,” the extroverted, impulsive Free said. “Can you believe that? I had to let them know all the talking had taken the place of the playing.

“The guys had to respect my game coming in here from the 76ers,” he continued. “But that stuff about my being a gunner, not a team player. All they knew was what they’d read about me. Brent Musberger (the No. 1 play-by-play announcer for NBA television games) said all that dumb stuff on TV. After a while, though, I think the guys kind of said, ‘Hey, he isn’t what they said he’d be. The guy’s no monster.‘”

As much as he enjoyed shooting and playing to the crowd, Free worked on other facets of his game in an effort to benefit the team, which he was convinced could be a contender, despite a disorganized start. “Sometimes another team is looking for me to score, so I’ll change strategy and come out passing the ball,” he said. “Then if they adjust, I can concentrate on scoring in the second half.”

When he concentrated on scoring, he was most difficult to stop. “I don’t think there are guards in the league who can play Lloyd one-on-one,” said Shue. “Team defense can control Lloyd, but not individuals. He can get his shot off against anybody and he’s great at drawing fouls.”

Free will second that statement every time. 

He also may be the second, or No. 2 man on the team this season, rather than No. 1, as he was last year, because the Clippers have added center Bill Walton, who led the Portland Trail Blazers to the 1977 NBA championship. The unpredictable Walton sat out last season, then signed with San Diego. 

But Free is not worried. In fact, he said he was glad to have Walton on the club, a move that will greatly enhance the Clippers’ chances of overtaking league champion Seattle for the Pacific Division title. 

With the team-oriented Walton sweeping the boards and firing his long-range, downcourt passes to the sprinting guards, Free and Smith, the Clippers should have a devastating fast break offense. That possibly could eliminate a lot of Free’s long-distance jumpers, with easy layups taking their place. 

The anticipation should be worth the price of admission alone. And if all goes as expected, San Diego fans should be fighting to make their way into the Sports Arena. They could see one of the greatest shows on earth this season . . . and it won’t be the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus. It will be the San Diego Clippers, featuring Bill Walton and Lloyd “All-World” Free.

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