George Karl, the Cleveland Cavaliers' rookie coach, and his star, the redoubtable World B. Free, were shooting unguarded 20-footers recently in a game of Buy Back. The rest of the team had been eliminated, and it was down to the two cockiest Cavs for the $50 pot.
Karl and Free have come a long way in their personal relationship—about as far as the playoff-poised Cavs have since starting the season at 2-19. So, after practice in a Los Angeles high school gym the day of a game with the Clippers, the former antagonists could slam egos safely. "Oooh, don't be so mean," cracked Free after swishing his fourth consecutive high-release jumper. "You know I got that rhythm."
"Don't be talkin' so big, World," said Karl, who delights in hustling greenbacks from his players but knew he was in tough with the Prince of Midair. Not that he was about to admit it, of course. When Karl finally missed the shot that gave Free the pot, he ran off the line screaming, "How could I choke!" as if he had been the favorite.
But Karl was as happy as anyone to see Free win. His first big decision as the youngest head coach in the NBA—he's 33—was to ask Free to change the old World flavor of his game. Not long after that, his first lesson was to find out that with a little freedom the 31-year-old veteran could be a brave new World.
Karl, Free and a gritty mixture of veterans and young players have led Cleveland to the greatest turnaround the NBA has seen since Elvin Hayes's jump shot. The Cavs haven't made the playoffs since 1978, and just when it looked as if they would never rise from the rubble created by the three-year mismanagement of former owner Ted Stepien, they began a steady surge that included back-to-back victories over the Philadelphia 76ers and a blowout of the Bucks in Milwaukee. With victories last week over the Knicks, Bulls and Pacers, Cleveland's record as of Sunday was 31-43, good for a two-game lead over Atlanta for the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
In a league that turns coaches into tight-lipped zombies, Karl, who replaced Tom Nissalke to become the Cavaliers' eighth coach in seven years, is an aberration. His features dance boyishly, and he's as likely to laugh as yell in late-game huddles with his players. Constantly thinking basketball, he keeps a notebook by his bed in which to draw up plays that might occur to him during occasional bouts of insomnia.
Karl won two Continental Basketball Association Coach of the Year awards with the Montana Golden Nuggets before going to Cleveland as director of player acquisition in 1983. A 6'2" guard who made All-America at North Carolina before graduating in 1973, Karl played for five years with the San Antonio Spurs in the ABA and NBA. He averaged only 6.5 points a game but accumulated three knee operations and nearly 100 stitches in his face from elbows and loose-ball dives. He's still hustling. Three weeks ago he took $15 from forward Phil Hubbard on a blind half-court shot released while facing away from the basket.
Before the season, Karl attempted an even longer shot: convincing Free that he should spend more time passing and defending and less time dribbling, shooting and, for that matter, playing. Free interpreted it as a sign he was being phased out in this, his 10th, season. No confrontations ensued, but the tension was thick.
"We had no respect for one another," says Free, who played against Karl when Free was in Philadelphia and known by his given name—Lloyd—and Karl was at the end of the line in San Antonio. "All he did was fall down to fake a charge," Free says with a smile. "I couldn't let him get away with that, so I'd kick him in the chest when I took my jumper."
Says Karl, "I remember it being a little lower than that."