Showman of the cagers

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If you believed everything that has ever been written about Lloyd Free, you would think that he is the world's tallest hotdog; that his game should only be played on a stage; and that he won's pass the ball unless his return address is on it.

Instead, his brand of fundamental basketball has made the Golden State Warriors one of the most improved and toughest teams to beat this season in the National Basketball Association. Free, traveling in the same All-Star guards' neighborhood these days as Magic Johnson, Otis Birdsong, George Gervin, and David Thompson somehow doesn't seem out of place.

Is Lloyd Free, the man who prefers to be called "All World" and "The Prince of Midair" really a fraud -- Heidi dressed up to look like Phyllis Diller?

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"Oh, Free is a showman and a crowd pleaser all right," explained Pete Newwell ," the Warriors' talent consultant, whose credits also include membership in Basketball's Hall of Fame and a .620 winning percentage after 22 years of college coaching. "But this is also a man who understands the game; who knows every second what is going on with everybody around him; and whose individuality doesn't disrupt anything. What most people don't see is that there is deception even in his fundamental basketball.

"There are a lot of physical players in this league who can really take the ball to the hoop," Newell continued.

"But most of them, once they've made that kind of commitment in their mind, can't change. Yet Lloyd in that same situation, if he were suddenly to see a teammate in a better position to score than he is, will somehow get him the ball. It's something that can't be taught."

Six years ago when Free had himself declared a financial hardship case, and was drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers out of Guilford College as a junior, he really did have a problem with materials values and maturity.

Most of teammates and a good portion of the press thought his mouth had been lighted by an interior decorator and operated nonstop, and that money would never stop going through his hands like water. The one man who did see a future for him was 76er coach Gene Shue, who always felt that Lloyd would be a great player just as soon as he learned to harness his game.

That would come in 1978 when Philadelphia traded Free to the San Diego Clippers, where Shue was by then the coach. There was plenty of room for shooters on that club, and for the next two years Lloyd was runnerup to NBA scoring champion George Gervin.

When San Diego fired Shue at the end of last season and replaced him with Paul Silas, Free became expendable. For one thing, Silas wanted a more structured offense, which is not Lloyd's game. For another, Free, who was locked into a longterm contract at a salary well below the NBA average, wanted his figures renegotiated, which the Clippers didn't want to do.

The result was that San Diego traded Free to Golden State, a team that had won only 24 of 82 games last season and was desperately in need of a leader. Although a lot of people still considered Lloyd a gamble, the Warriors did not. They also took a flyer on trouble-prone forward Bernard King, who had been suspended by the Utah Jazz.

But the fact is that Free and King, plus rookie center Joe Barry Carroll of Purdue, have turned the Warriors around, made them solid offensively and defensively and fun to watch. Lloyd, who was named team captain by coach Al Attles, has been averaging nearly 25 points and four assists per game.

"All that stuff about me being a great one-on-one player is true," Free told me recently in Los Angeles. "As a kid player, I came from the ghetto and playground basketball, where if you don't score, you don't stay in the game, and that's always going to be a part of me.

"For a while there I had some things to learn about life and basketball, but now I've learned them," he continued. "i'm as much a team player as anybody. But let me tell you something. There are times when every team needs a great one-one-one player that it can give the ball to in a clutch situation who will get them the basket, and I'm that kind of man.

"You know, if you have to stand out there and think the game instead of just playing it, you're in trouble. There is a timeto run; a time to shoot; a time to play the tough defense; and a time when you have to know how to go out there and break down your man physically. Well, I know when that is, and I've got the ability to do it."

Newell, however, put it a little more simply when he said; "Free has a full game, and there are times when his defense is just as good as his offense." In Philadelphia, that statement will probably surprise a few people.

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