Skeptics, skeptics," mused Lloyd Free of Golden State with a cocked eye and a cocky smile. "I've been dealing with skeptics all my life. I love 'em. Especially when they come around to my side."
And lately they've all been coming around, though few so slowly as John Bach, the Warrior assistant coach. Bach is a tough Brooklyn-born former Navy officer who was a no-nonsense coach for 28 years at Fordham and Penn State before coming west a year ago to help his friend Al Attles. When Free, a 6'3" guard, joined the Warriors this fall after being traded away by the San Diego Clippers, Bach didn't quite know what to make of him.
"He wanted me to call him World," says Bach. "Can you imagine? All-World? A 27-year-old guy in the NBA, All-World?"
"It was fun," says Free. "He couldn't bring himself to do it. I'd always call him Coach Bach. 'Yessir, Coach Bach,' I'd say. 'You know best, Coach Bach.' And he'd say, 'That's right, Lloyd, that's right.' Well, I was trying to show him. Al Attles was calling me World. Al said, 'You call me Al and I'll call you World.' 'Anything you say, Al,' I said. 'You know best, Al.' "
Bach and Free held their positions for a couple of weeks, until a game against San Antonio, during which Free lit up the Oakland Coliseum Arena for 36 points, including a run of seven ceiling-scraping mortar lobs that hit nothing but net. After that game, Bach went to Free in the locker room and said, "You know something? Maybe you are All-World." To which Free responded, "It took you this long to figure that out?"
And that was pretty much the end of Lloyd Free. Now he's simply World. He signs autographs that way, answers his phone that way, had WORLD printed on the back of his warmup jersey.
A little more than five years ago World (a/k/a The Prince of Midair) came out of Guilford College to the Philadelphia 76ers, with a running mouth and a rainbow jumper, both of which seemed to go beyond the limits of human performance and human decency. While the shot may have been shut down by team politics, the mouth kept flapping, and World's reputation as a troublemaker grew. There were problems even when he was traded to San Diego and averaged nearly 30 points per game for two seasons. His reputation for selfishness increased, and off the court he was beset by calamitous financial problems and gnawing insecurities. This season, however, the NBA has discovered a new World. He and another resurgent son of Brooklyn, 24-year-old Bernard King, have joined with the very grown-up son of a Newark railroad worker, Attles, to create an exciting, winning team the likes of which the Bay Area hasn't seen since Rick Barry led the Warriors to the NBA championship in 1975.
Like Free, King has found a new life. Three years ago he was a rookie sensation as a forward with the New Jersey Nets; one year ago he was suspended by the Utah Jazz after being arrested—and subsequently convicted—for sexually abusing a Salt Lake City woman. The arrest was King's second in three years as a pro and his sixth since his sophomore year at the University of Tennessee. King, who has blamed most of his problems on alcoholism, shared Free's fear that he might soon be returning to the Brooklyn playgrounds, his career ended.
Now Free's and King's prospects are revived. They are the cornerstones of a rebuilding project that includes 7-foot Center Joe Barry Carroll, rebounding wizard Larry Smith, defensive specialist Billy Reid and Center-Forward Rickey Brown—all rookies—playmaker John Lucas, scorers Purvis Short and Sonny Parker, and wily 31-year-old Center Clifford Ray. Together they've become the most improved and one of the most exciting teams in the NBA.
Attles says that it was the happy accident of tearing his right Achilles tendon during a practice last year that gave him the opportunity to recognize what the Warriors needed and persuaded him to coach another season. "I guess I'd been too close," he says. "While I was sitting in the stands, recuperating from my injury, I could see why we'd been out of the playoffs for three years. What we needed was an athlete who could make the great play for us and a forward who would run, pass, shoot and rebound the way Rick once did. Lloyd Free and Bernard King were perfect. We knew they were both risks, but we did our homework. We heard a lot of negative things about World, that he was selfish and uncoachable, but then I talked to some people I knew in Philadelphia, especially [76er Assistant Coach] Jack McMahon, who really loves him, and all I heard around there was that World is a great basketball player."