December 15, 1980
He had always been a showman, so it was no surprise when the basketball player formerly known as Lloyd went for the flashy finish. Playing in a New York City legends tournament in the fall of 1997, World B. Free, then 43, found himself alone on a breakaway. Boring layup or trademark whirling dunk? "With the game I was having, I was thinking about signing a 10-day [ NBA] contract," he says. "I got my slam off, but the rim knocked me back and I broke my wrist."
Free, a 6'3" guard, was no less spectacular in his 13 seasons with the Philadelphia 76ers, San Diego Clippers, Golden State Warriors, Cleveland Cavaliers and Houston Rockets between 1975-76 and '87-88. He averaged 20.3 points and reveled in his image as a skywalking, jive-talking hot dog. He was a pioneer of the 360-degree dunk and the high-arching outside shot. "I was the original gunner because my shot, my rainbow, looked so different," says Free. "I made Michael Jordan rich by making it O.K. to be a showman. I was before my time." He was also one of the great storytellers in league history. "Need anything else?" he once told a group of reporters. "If you do, I'll make something up."
Even his first name. Free legally changed it from Lloyd to World on Dec. 8, 1981. "Everybody had a nickname in the ghetto," he said at the time. "My game is my nickname—World." He developed that game on the blacktop in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, learning schoolyard skills with neighborhood legends Fly Williams and Phil Sellers. Free took Canarsie High to two New York City titles before heading to Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C., and leading the Quakers to the '73 NAIA national championship. He was named to the NAIA's golden-anniversary team in '87 and was inducted into the New York City Basketball Hall of Fame in '97. He still feels the sting, however, of being passed over for the NBA's 50th-anniversary team. "Me and Bob McAdoo, we deserved to be on it," he says. "But if I could do it over, I'd do it the same way. Besides, I'm happy with my place in life now."
Free has worked for the 76ers since 1994 and is currently Philly's community-relations representative. Part of his job is to give clinics and talks to youth groups. "What I do now is like my biggest shot in a game," says Free. "I feel such satisfaction. When I first started going to places, the kids had no clue who I was. But I bring a tape from when I played, and we have a ball watching it. When I was young, nobody of my magnitude dropped by. Mom and Pop kept me going, but I never had a celebrity come down to give a glimmer of hope. I just want to give back."