World B. Free: The Man Who Saved Professional Basketball in Cleveland

Steve TaterCorrespondent IMay 16, 2009

Clevelanders, as you enjoy this run by LeBron James and the Cavaliers this season, take a moment to remember a man somewhat forgotten in the annals of Cleveland sports history.

Many current Cavs fans jumped on the bandwagon once The King started leading the train.

Others became Cavs fans when the Daugherty-Nance-Price era provided some hope.

Yet one more group entered the fray long ago during the Miracle of Richfield years in the mid-1970s.

But most will forget (or choose to forget) the mess the franchise was in between those Miracle of Richfield and Mark Price-led teams.

The truth is that the Cleveland Cavaliers were close to being extinct in the early 1980s.

Ted Stepien, the eccentric owner of the Cavs during that time period was running the team into the ground.

A series of ill-fated personnel moves and cost-cutting decisions were putting the franchise in danger of being forced to move to some other city.

People began to question whether or not it was a good idea to have a basketball arena 30 minutes from the City of Cleveland in the middle of yet-to-be developed Richfield, Ohio.

During the cold and blustery winters of northeast Ohio, many in the inner-ring suburbs who supported the Cavs’ team just did not want to make the trek south.

The teams’ play on the court was ugly and the attendance figures were even uglier.

It was only a matter of time until the NBA cut the cord on Cleveland.

But in stepped what seemed to be an odd savior at the time, World B. Free.

World was one of those “characters” of the early 1980s basketball. He legally changed his name from Lloyd to World and played with an undeniable flair.

Free was initially given the nickname “World” by a friend on the Brooklyn playgrounds because of his ability to hit shots from "around the world." In addition to his incredible range, Free had a spectacular 44-inch vertical leap and a wild array of dunks.

He twice finished second to George “The Ice Man” Gervin for the league scoring title, once scoring over 30 points per game in the 1978-79 season with the San Diego Clippers.

Despite his prolific scoring averages, Free bounced around from Philadelphia, to San Diego, to Golden State before arriving in Cleveland in his eighth season in the league.

By the time he reached Cleveland in December of 1982, his incredible jumping ability was gone. He became better known as a selfish gunner than anyone who could possibly lead this miserable team out of its doldrums.

By 1984, the Cavaliers were the laughing stock of the league. They had not made the playoffs since 1978.

The team had undergone numerous coaching changes. One, Bill Musselman, would not even make it through a single season.

They lost 52, 45, 54, 67, 59 and 54 games from 1979 to 1984.

To make matters worse, Stepien had traded the No. 2 pick in the draft to the Los Angeles Lakers for Don Ford, who would play only 85 games in two years for the Cavs.

That No. 2 pick would turn out to be future Hall of Famer James Worthy.

The league office had to institute what many called “The Stepien Rule” because he traded away first-round picks to the Dallas Mavericks in 1983, ’84, ’85, and ’86. NBA officials would have to approve any trades made by the Cavaliers.

Burt Graeff (writer for the Cleveland Press and co-author of the book CAVS From Fitch to Fratello) reported that then-Dallas coach Dick Motta “said that he was afraid to go to lunch because he would miss a call from Ted Stepien.”

Even after trading for Free, the Cavaliers were a disaster. He would lead the team in scoring at nearly 24 per game in 1982-83, but it never translated to wins.

A year earlier, Stepien would sell the team to George and Gordon Gund. The Gunds attempted to change the whole culture of Cleveland basketball.

They hired a young George Karl to coach the team, and even changed the team colors to orange and blue (from their standard wine and gold).

In that 1984-85 season, Free would carry the team on his back to the playoffs after a wretched 2-19 start. He would average 22.5 points and 4.5 assists during the regular season.

Although they would lose to Larry Bird and the powerful Boston Celtics, he brought excitement back to northeast Ohio. Each game would be a nail-biter decided in the closing moments.

World would score over 26 points and dish out nearly eight assists per game at the age of 31. Nearly all of those points would come from long-range (before the NBA instituted the three-point arc).

Helping the team make the playoffs for the first time in seven years was not his only contribution to Cleveland Basketball. More importantly, it was the way he played the game that got people to actually become fans of the Cavs.

After years of attendance figures more suitable for junior high sports, the Cavs were selling out seats for the first time in years.

He would only play one more season in Cleveland, but his play almost single-handedly saved the franchise from moving to another city.

World B. Free now spends his time as a great ambassador for the game and is a front office member of the Philadelphia 76ers.

Among his many duties, Free runs basketball clinics and does public speaking, helping young children learn the game of basketball as well as the game of life.

If or when the Cavaliers hang a National Basketball Association Championship banner from the ceiling of Quicken Loans Arena, the team should hang the jersey of World B. Free right beside it.

Were it not for Free, Cleveland fans might not be watching the exploits of MVP LeBron James right now.