World B. Free might very well have saved basketball in Cleveland.
When Free arrived in a 1982 trade with Golden State, the Cavaliers were owned by Ted Stepien, who had turned the team into a laughing stock of sideshows and horrible basketball.
Stepien had allowed management to trade draft pick after draft pick away, many to the Dallas Mavericks. It got to the point that NBA Commissioner David Stern later implemented a rule to prevent other owners from jeopardizing their team's future they way Stepien did in Cleveland: no team can now trade first-round draft picks away in consecutive years.
Stepien tried to move the team to Toronto the year Free arrived. If not for an on-air tongue-lashing by legendary Cleveland sports yakker Pete Franklin, he might have succeeded.
Then Free arrived, George and Gordon Gund bought the team, and suddenly things looked up again.
Free was to the Cavs of the 1980s what LeBron James is to the current Cavs: a star, a drawing card, a franchise savior.
In four years with Cleveland, Free succeeded in returning the Cavs to respectability. Armed with a great outside shot and the cockiness to lead, he helped the Cavs rebound from a 2-19 start in 1984-85 to make the playoffs. His presence turned the vibe around the organization to a positive one, and helped make the Cavs an attractive place for accomplished NBA executive Wayne Embry and top-flight coach Lenny Wilkens to set up shop, paving the way for the successful Cleveland teams of the late '80s and early '90s.
Tonight at Quicken Loans Arena, Free will be there to feel the love during a halftime presentation, part of "World B. Free Night." It is something long overdue. Free will be the first to tell you that.
Free, now employed in the 76ers front office, has long felt slighted becaused his No. 21 doesn't hang from the arena rafters in Cleveland.
Free never won a championship for the Cavs. Heck, he never won a playoff series. But he has a point.
The Cavs have had a history of playing fast and loose with retiring numbers. A franchise that has never made it to the NBA Finals, and counts cups of coffee with past-prime stars Nate Thurmond and Walt Frazier as its only Hall of Famers, has retired six jersey numbers. All of them have little meaning outside Cleveland: Thurmond's No. 42, Austin Carr's No. 34, Bobby "Bingo" Smith's No. 7, Brad Daugherty's No.43, Mark Price's No. 25 and Larry Nance's No. 22.
Considering the precendent that has been set, Free has a right to be a bit miffed that his number isn't hanging from the rafters at The Q. Thurmond helped spur the Miracle of Richfield team of 1975-76, but he played only two seasons in Cleveland at the tail end of his career. Carr had terrible knees, was a good but not a great player, and is probably more valuable now as an organizational spokesman than he was as a player.
Smith was a dead-eye jump shooter right for his era. Price, Daugherty and Nance accomplished the most of any Cavs' trio, but they had each other.
Free was a one-man show who swooped in from the West Coast to make the Cavs legit again. He didn't have help at first. The help followed him.
For four years, Free was the Cleveland Cavaliers. Maybe retiring his number isn't a fitting enough tribute. Once a solid-gold statue of LeBron is erected outside The Q, Cavs owner Dan Gilbert should look into a nice bronze piece commemorating Free. To make it realistic, Free should be depicted crouched over like Atlas, carrying the entire Cavs organization on his back.