In Free's third season, Shue was fired and replaced by Cunningham, who used Free, but only because of an injury to Collins. On the eve of the following season, Cunningham traded Free to San Diego, where Shue had become coach. "When I first got traded I needed to go out and prove what I could do because in Philadelphia I had talked so much about it," says Free. "The opportunity was wide open for me. Gene gave me that shot. He said, 'You're going to help this team tremendously with your scoring.' I didn't think so, because of the way the guys there were looking at me. I could almost hear them thinking, 'The ball's going to disappear when it touches that man's hands.' After two months, Kermit Washington said, 'Hey, you're not like what those guys say you're like. I thought you were a terrible guy, and here you are, one of the best players in the league. People just don't know the real you.' Well, that was one of the best things anyone ever said to me. Then, Kevin Kunnert, Freeman Williams, even Sidney Wicks started looking to me as the leader." And that he was, averaging 28.8 and 30.2 points a game as the Clippers' main scoring threat.
But even as he was emerging as an offensive star, the financial problems that had been plaguing Free finally came to a head. He felt he deserved more money. The Clippers didn't think so, but Golden State did, which explains precisely why Free is now a very happy Warrior. Golden State tore up his original long-term contract for a maximum salary of $160,000 a year, well below the league average, and replaced it with one worth much, much more.
"You know, I came out of a nobody school with no name, so I didn't expect to make a great amount of money," Free says. "I didn't know nothing. I didn't even know how to open a checking account. But once I started playing, and playing well, I felt I ought to start getting paid more. Then they told me I was locked into my contract. There I was in San Diego, scoring George Gervin-type points, and getting nothing for it. I'm a so-called troublemaker, and I've got money problems. With a rep like that I could've disappeared from the league. I was getting real weak. I forgot about all the hard work I'd done, all the fun I'd had. That's when I started losing my hair. My folks helped me a great deal. And there I was last summer, back home, knowing that I'd promised to get my mom and dad out of Brownsville. Well, things hadn't worked out the way I'd planned."
When Golden State completed the trade with San Diego, Free hired Los Angeles attorney and former UCLA star Fred Slaughter as his agent. Slaughter began the arduous task of "trying to unscramble Lloyd's finances" while negotiating a new deal with Stirling. "Lloyd's contract was the most messed-up thing I'd ever seen," said Stirling. "I know that most clubs are against adjusting existing contracts, and so are we, but if anyone ever deserved to have a contract redone it was Lloyd Free." And so it was.
If he hadn't made it with the Warriors, it might have been all over for Free, and it's here that the credit goes to Attles. "Coming to the Warriors, I was very self-conscious," says Free. "Lucas was the head honcho, Parker and Short were coming back as the top scorers, Bernard and Joe Barry were coming too, and I was afraid they'd think I wanted to take over the whole show. And I was replacing Phil Smith, who went to the University of San Francisco and was very popular here. So at the start of the season I took only 12 or 13 shots a night. I would get 20 points in the first half and then not shoot in the second. I wanted everyone to know that the guy who averaged 30 points could give it up for the team."
But as Attles soon realized, Free was sacrificing himself to the detriment, not the good, of the Warriors. "We overreacted," says Attles. "We drummed the team concept into him and started to structure him too much. We got beat at San Diego one night and I went back to the hotel and thought, 'We've got all these high-powered offensive guys and we're 6-5 and only scoring 104 points a game. We got one of the most dangerous guys in the league and he's only taking 12 or 15 shots a game.' So I went to World and said, 'Look, you've proven to me that you can do all things we ask. You pass the ball, you're even playing defense. Now I want you to do what you do best.' "
That's all the coaxing World needed. He went out in the next game, against San Antonio, and made 16 of 25 shots and 36 points and racked up five assists. That was the turning point for the Warriors, who went on to win five of their next six and 10 of 17 to make their record 16-12 at week's end and put them in third place in the Pacific Division. After those 17 games, Free had increased his shots per game from 15 to 18.5, his percentage from 43.7% to 48.6%, his scoring from 20.3 to 27.7, his assists from 4.5 to 5.1. In San Diego, he averaged 22 shots a game and 4.7 assists. Far from griping, his Warrior teammates are ecstatic. "It's great to play with him," says Lucas. "As long as he wants the ball, I'll do what I can to get it to him."
"My game is like my nickname—World," says Free. "A world is round, a full circle. And I have turned my whole self around. I can throw the ball in from anywhere; I'm coachable, a leader, a winner, and just a hell of a player, although I don't feel I have to say that anymore. I'm also lucky, because I go back to Brownsville and see guys like Fly Williams, Phil Sellers and Larry Fogle, guys who are out of the league because they never got the breaks. I was almost out of this league, too. I know that. But now, playing under Al, my game has made a world turn, and all Al has to do is tell us how to win. You won't hear World saying Al doesn't know what he's doing." At the moment, nobody would.