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Born Free and living up to his name
John Papanek
January 22, 1979
Lloyd Free, Philly's gift to San Diego, is the most spectacular show in town
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January 22, 1979

Born Free And Living Up To His Name

Lloyd Free, Philly's gift to San Diego, is the most spectacular show in town

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It was one of those hot summer days in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. A group of teen-agers held the court at what was known as 66 Park—the best address in the neighborhood for a basketball player—and were doing some amazing things. Fly Williams was there and so was Phil (The Thrill) Sellers. Both would become big neighborhood heroes. All-Americas and ABA and NBA players for a brief time. And then there was a little 15-year-old named Lloyd Free. Just plain Lloyd Free, who couldn't shoot or dribble well but who could jump higher than anyone there.

"I was getting off on those guys with their nicknames," says Free, 10 years later. "But I was just Lloyd Free." That is, until he performed a midair 360-degree spinning dunk, the standard qualifying the executor for playground legendhood.

"World!" yelled Herb Smith, another player. "World! Hey, Lloyd needs a name, and I'm naming him 'World' cause the world keeps spinning round and round."

Lloyd Free wants to clear the record. He did not name himself. And he would not become "All-World" until he had played on a city championship team at Canarsie High, an NAIA national championship team at Guilford College—where he set a school career scoring average record—and made the Philadelphia 76ers as a second-round draft pick in 1975. To the gang at 66 Park, the Croskey brothers, the Smith brothers and his own brother Joe in Brownsville, All-America was not enough. To them Lloyd Free was All-World.

"They promoted me," says Free. And once in Philadelphia Free promoted himself. But in three years there, before he really got a chance to do it on the court, he did it mostly with his mouth, like the young Cassius Clay. "Now," he says, "I'm doing it with my act."

And so he is. Performing for the San Diego Clippers, he is averaging 28.2 points per game and is the NBA's No. 2 scorer, just 1.3 points behind last year's champion, San Antonio's George Gervin. He has topped 30 points 17 times, seven times in his last eight games, during which he shot 58% from the field. Saturday night during a 124-119 loss to Atlanta he scored a career-high 46 points. All-World is what he seems to be.

But as appropriate as that moniker may be, is it any more appropriate than his own surname? Is there anyone in the world better described by his name than Lloyd Free? He is free with his play, free with his words and free with his feelings. Not to mention the fact that the Clippers, the team he has made respectable, obtained him virtually for free.

"In high school I used to hear that song"—Free begins singing Born Free—"and pretend they were singing Lloyd Free. Now I am free." He is shooting an average of 20 times a game—more often than anyone except Gervin and Pete Maravich—but he is hitting 50% of his shots. Small children still come up to him and say, "Free, you're a gunner," but he's passing the ball off as well—at least as often as his San Diego backcourt partner, Randy Smith. As for Free's defensive play, no one is saying anything about All-World.

In Philadelphia, Free trumpeted his virtues to the press, demanded to be traded, brazenly equated his talents with those of established superstars such as Julius Erving and George McGinnis, and called himself "The Prince of Midair." It was often suggested that he would be happiest playing alone, with a mirror, so he could watch himself.

To be sure, Free had his moments in Philadelphia. There were sudden, unconscious outbursts of whirling, flying, impossible shots from 30 feet out. And there was the memorable seventh game of the 1977 Eastern Conference playoff semifinal against Boston, the defending league champion, when, Free says, "I messed up their banners." Free came off the bench and missed his first six shots. He then went on to hit 10 of his next 21, winding up with 27 points to help win the series.

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