June 23, 2016
One of the more colorful personalities to ever put on a 76ers jersey, World B. Free, only played four of his 13 NBA season in Philadelphia, but it’s also the city that drafted him and the one he still calls home.
Throughout his career, one in which he average over 20 points, Free was likely best known on the court for his high-flying athleticism and ability to shoot from outside, no matter who was guarding him. And it’s likely no coincidence that his lone All-Star appearance (when he was with Cleveland) came the same year the NBA introduced a controversial new rule: the three point shot.
Off the court, it was that aforementioned personality that helped endear him to the fans.
Now a community ambassador for the Sixers, the former 23rd-overall pick of the 1975 NBA Draft not only likes the direction in which the franchise is headed, but may be more upbeat about their long-term outlook than even some of the most optimistic fans.
PhillyVoice recently caught up with Free to talk about his draft-day experience, his career — including some of his best (read: funniest) memories from his time with the Sixers — and the current state of basketball in this city for our latest edition of The Q&A.
So I have to ask right off the top, are you in Cleveland for the championship parade?
“No, unfortunately. I was asked to be there, but with all the stuff we have going on here, I wasn’t able to make it. Even though I’m a big part of [Cleveland winning] — at least I feel like I had a part in that, helping them just to get there.”
Well I was going to save this question for later, but since we’re already there, let’s dive right in: Two of your career stops, Cleveland and Golden State, back-to-back years playing in the NBA Finals, were you rooting for one over the other?
“I was rooting for the Cavs [both years] because the fact I remember when I was first traded from the Golden State Warriors to the Cleveland Cavaliers, they had like 1,500 people, fans, at the Richfield Coliseum [for games] because the franchise was in turmoil. And they were getting ready to sell the franchise to some other city, and I was a big part of helping them keep basketball alive in the city of Cleveland. I was one of the guys who was a big part of that, and that’s always stuck with me. It’s also probably one of the longer tenured teams I’ve stayed with in my career.
“Then when we made the playoffs that year [1984-85] with George Karl [as coach], then the fans started to turn out. It was unbelievable. It went from 1,500 to sellout crowds with the playoff appearance that year. It brought basketball back to Cleveland.
“So when they won it, I felt a part of that. Even though I had nothing to do with them winning the championship [this season], I feel like I played a big part in keeping the team in the city.”
Seamless transition here, but let’s go back to the beginning of your career real quick, specifically the day you were drafted. What was that like for you? Was it what you expected? Or something completely different?
“First of all, I was nervous, because I was coming a little school called Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C. that had just 1,000 students in my school. I knew all the big name guys coming out like David Thompson and those guys from NC State. I just didn’t know what was going to happen and I took that chance to come out my junior year.
"So I waited around, and just waited until I was told — I didn’t even know they drafted me until, well, they drafted me. I was so shocked. I didn’t really know what to expect, so I was in awe when they told me I was drafted to the 76ers in the second round with the 23rd pick. I was like, ‘Huh?’ I was just in another world. And it was cool, because I was from New York, and it was close enough for me to go back to New York and commute back and forth sometimes.
"It was a great thing for me. But I was so nervous. Because I just didn’t know if they were going to pick me or not.”
And the person who the Sixers took in the first round that year—
Did that sort of bond you throughout your career, coming in at the same time?
“Oh, yeah. Darryl Dawkins, when I first came, he signed his contract first and I was commuting back and forth to New York. And there was an age difference of about three years because he was 18 and I was 21 then. And he didn’t know me and I didn’t know him. All we knew was that he was No. 1 and I was No. 2.
“But we became buddies — I mean, more like, blood brothers — throughout our time together. He took me in, like when I didn’t have a contract, he told me I could stay with him, which I did until I got myself together.
“We were like best of friends. We were like ‘Mutt and Jeff.’ Any time you see him, you see me. Any time you see me, you see him. It was a great time with the big fella.”
You mentioned coming from a small college. What was the transition like from that to not only living in a big city, but also becoming a professional player?
“To tell you the truth, I know I said I came from that small school, but the god-given talent that I had, I realized that was bigger than my school. And I know I could play basketball. That was something that I knew I could do, and once I got the opportunity to show it after Gene Shue drafted me with the 76ers — and I knew we had a lot of good players like Billy Cunningham, Freddy Carter, all the guys that were on the team — I knew they were all veterans, I knew that my talent was just as good or better. I was young. And I had confidence in myself that I knew I could thrive at the next level once I got in [the NBA].
“Basketball is something that I just love to do. I would’ve done that even if I wasn’t getting paid for it. I was just having fun with the game.”
That’s interesting because you said you were nervous on draft night, but seem pretty confident in your skills. Was that because when (and where) you went in the draft was largely out of your hands?
And he drank that mustard and in about two seconds, the white part of his eyes turned red. Tears started coming down his face. I’m looking at this guy like he’s ready to explode.
“Exactly. I didn’t know what else I would do if I didn’t get drafted. I just didn’t know where else my life was going to go from there because I was so 110 percent into basketball. I wasn’t even realizing the aftermath if something went wrong. I never had another plan besides playing, and I put everything into that. So that’s why I was so nervous about that particular time.
“I wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, as far as the smartest guy, but I knew I had to do something else if basketball didn’t work out. And that was a scary time for me.”
Well it seems like it worked out just fine for you. You have to have some good stories from your time with the Sixers…
[Laugh] “Well I remember when me and Darryl Dawkins, we were roommates [on the road] and I bet him that he couldn’t eat this hot mustard from this Chinese restaurant we were at. And he said, ‘I can eat that Chinese mustard.’ I said, ‘That Chinese mustard will burn you up, D.’ He said, ‘Nah, I can eat that!’
“So we made a bet. He bet me $100. I said, ‘You’re betting me $100 that you’re going to drink this whole mustard down?’ He said, ‘I’ll do it, I’m a big man.’ Big man, ha. So I bet him, I said, ‘OK, Darryl. Drink the mustard then.’
“And he drank that mustard and in about two seconds, the white part of his eyes turned red. Tears started coming down his face. I’m looking at this guy like he’s ready to explode. [Laugh] Next thing you know, we go upstairs to the hotel room and he goes right into the bathroom.
“Now, he hasn’t said anything the whole time in the elevator on the way up. Sweat was just beaming down his forehead, like a waterfall. He still wasn’t saying anything. Eyes bloodshot red. He got in that bathroom and he screamed like ‘Ahhhhhhh!’ You could hear it from here to New York.
“It was worth giving him that $100. I had never seen anyone do something like that before. This guys was unreal. But that’s Darryl Dawkins. Double-D.”
Did you give him a hard time about that afterwards?
“Oh, all the time. But he got me back one time. It was him and Caldwell Jones. So I’m like the little guy compared to those two. They’re both like seven-footers.
“Anyway, we were at the airport and we’re getting a couple beers before our flight. So they were like, ‘Come on, World. We’re going to see if you can hang out with the big fellas.’ I’m like, ‘Man, I can hang with you guys.’ Like it’s nothing. I had a bit of a Napoleon syndrome.
“So I’m drinking with them. Next thing you know, they’re starting to pass me. I was right with them for the first six beers, and I was good. But that seventh one, started feeling a little woozy. They were still just throwing them down. And next thing I know, Caldwell Jones told Darryl, ‘Hey, little fella’s not looking too good.’ And I wasn’t feeling too good at that point either, after that seventh beer.
“Next thing you know, I was in the bathroom, pretty much doing the opposite of what Darryl was doing [in the hotel after the Chinese mustard]. It was amazing. Those guys. It was a good time back then. We had a lot of fun with what we were doing. No one tried to hurt nobody. It was just good innocent fun.”
That’s like something out of a movie, you guys playing jokes on each other like that.
“That’s just how it was though. And Darryl was always into something. I’ve seen him get into a Corvette, and he’s like 6'11", 275-280. Getting into a Corvette? He’d have his arm out the window, with all those rings on, and I’d tell him, ‘Darryl, put your arms in man. You’re going to start a fire.’ [Laugh] His arms are so long they were pretty much dragging on the ground. What’s he doing in a Corvette. And he’d be all like, ‘Come on, World!’
"Yeah, we used to race up to New York from Philadelphia and get there in like 15 minutes. [Laugh] We were nuts. But we had fun.”
[Simmons] got that Magic Johnson handle, you know? He can get up and down. He’s 6-9, he’s a big man ... He looks really good.
In terms of on the court stuff, shooting was probably you’re biggest strength. And given that there’s been such a shift to perimeter offense, how do you think your game would’ve translated to the modern NBA?
“My game would’ve been like, off the charts. I’m not trying to blow my own horn or nothing, but I was before my time with the game we were playing back then. I remember coming onto the court when I first came into the league with Billy Cunningham and guys like that. My game was so different and advanced. And I did a complete 360-spin in the air on a two-on-one fast break. The crowd was like, ‘Whoa!’ Billy Cunningham took me to the bench and said, ‘Don’t you ever do that again, rookie.’ [Laugh] Like, he ain’t ever seen that before. Now it’s a regular part of the game.
“And also with today’s game, I had a 44-inch vertical leap so I could really get off the ground. Today’s game, you can’t touch anyone. If they touch you it’s a foul. I would’ve fared very well in today’s game.”
With this draft class, what do you think the Sixers will be able to accomplish on Thursday night?
“The game of basketball has changed so much. The day of the Shaquille O’Neals, the Willis Reeds, the big guys who just clog the paint — that day is over. You’ve got the guys now that are like 6-9 and they’re playing center and running the floor. It’s just a totally different game.”
So with plenty of big guys already, what would you like to see them do in the draft?
“I believe we should look for a nice point guard. We have the centers. Right now, Joel Embiid, if he’s healthy, the sky is the limit. He’s looking fantastic out there now and he’s been cleared to play five-on-fives now. So we’ve got that part covered. And at power forward you have Noel who can block shots and grab boards.
“So I would focus on the guard part now, because they need someone who can set these big guys up. Someone who can control that offense. Let them know when to run and when to slow it down and set up. Stuff like that. So I would look for a point guard.”
All the reports out there have been about Ben Simmons being the pick. Have you seen him play, and if so, what do you like about his game?
“Just at the workouts. But he has a real good handle. He’s got that Magic Johnson handle, you know? He can get up and down. He’s 6-9, he’s a big man and put on about five-10 pounds since college just from working out. He looks really good.
“He’s young. He’s saying the right things. And I can’t wait for this guy to start. With him and a couple of veteran free agents — like how J.R. Smith and those guys went to Cleveland, if we can get some vets behind [Simmons] — we might have something here. And the Colangelos, Jerry and Brian, they can get it done because they know how to do it. They’re basketball people.
“Sam Hinkie put this franchise in a good position with what he did.”
I agree. Just look at all the options and different ways they can now play things. I believe the word was “optionality.” And given that they have so much of that — which may make answering this question slightly more difficult — what do you think about the Sixers long-term outlook? When can they compete? Contend?
“I’m looking at it like this: I feel like this team, if we get the right pieces — but I have to see what pieced they put in before I can really answer it — they’ll win a lot more games next year than they did this year, especially with Embiid there. I think in two years, they should go ahead and start making the playoffs — that’s what I would be looking for. And then the third year, I think they should be able to start making a run.
“A lot depends on who they draft, who they sign. Once I can look at all the names on paper and see who they’ve got, I can tell you how far I think that team will go.”
If you could give these rookies that they draft one piece of advice — and I don’t know if you do talk to them at all — but whether it’s about the city, being a professional, whatever, what would you tell them?
“My advice to them would be this: ‘God gave you a talent. Use your talent as well as you can. Don’t forget where you came from. Don’t lose yourself in the hype. Be a professional. Go out and help people, because you have a gift.’ And I would tell them to have fun. Have fun and enjoy yourself but at the same time, realize this is a business. And you can’t have rabbit ears, meaning you can’t listen to everything everyone says.
“Do that, and you’ll be alright in Philadelphia. It’s a hard-working place. It’s a hard-helmet kind of town. So if you come in prepared to go to work, this town will accept you. If you come in to play [around], you might as well go somewhere else.”
Follow Matt on Twitter: @matt_mullin