When former Bulls star Bob Love was growing up, one of 14 children living in a two-bedroom house in poverty gripped and segregated Bastrop, Louisiana, he would retreat by his lonesome to the cotton fields by his home and look out upon the thousands of stalks. Love finds it simpler to say “I couldn’t talk” than detail the severity of the stutter that grasped and ripped at every word that he tried to push through his lips, yet he would still look out upon the stalks and imagine each one as a member of a captivated audience.
“I wanted to be a speaker, all of my life, and I couldn’t say one word,” Love said.
After being a high school state champion quarterback in Louisiana and a star of the Dick Motta-led Chicago Bulls of the 1970’s, it’s now at age 70 that Love claims to be living his dream as the Bulls’ Director of Community Relations. A seemingly brutal schedule of over 300 speeches per year is a “joyride” for Love, who after waiting 48 years for the gift of speech, is a long ways away from tiring of telling his story.
It’s a painful one. Love has become synonymous with his tale of post-retirement struggles that saw him reduced to working as a bus boy at Nordstrom’s cafe and were only abated when his employer offered to pay for speech therapy classes. Dapperly adorned in a striking red blazer and cream-colored slacks in preparation for yet another event at the United Center, the embarrassment Love felt from having to wear an apron dotted with grease stains still flashed across his face while recalling the job. It was just when Love recalled his instructor Susan Hamilton reminding him to take in air rather than force out his words, he hit his biggest snag in 45 minutes of nearly stutter-free conversation. After three misfires, Love closed his eyes, took a breath and proceeded undaunted, like it never happened.
Love’s basketball dreams, born on a hoop made from his grandfather’s coathanger that he patched to the side of a small house that saw 14 children squeezed in, under and between three beds, are sincere. While playing with a ball he made for himself out of his grandfather’s old socks stuffed with grass, Love dreamed about weaving around the court past the greatest players in the game. As much work as it was for Love to carve out a decorated 11-year NBA career, to some degree it was always a childhood fantasy playing out in real life.
But athletics also served as a means of social escape. To accommodate Love’s skills on the football field, his high school coach was willing to have his quarterback sing the calls at the line of scrimmage to work past his stutter, with his lineman snapping their fingers for a beat if needed. Oft repeated taunts of how Love never could land a girlfriend melted away when his teammates saw what the long hours of solitary work honing his jumper had forged.
“People would forget all the time that I stuttered really bad, and that was fine with me,” Love said, “That meant all the world to me.”
Love rattled off two moments that he felt changed his life, and it is easy to see that they served to embolden him, after a childhood that silenced him into humility. The first came when his high school teacher—Ms. Dubose, as Love easily recalled and spelled the name of—declared him a “superstar” to his classmates, again marveling at his prowess on the court. Academic forums being used to exalt athletic achievements can be a cringeworthy practice these days, but perhaps Ms. DuBose knew whose self-esteem she was building.
The second moment came after Love’s entire school took the Air Force Academy entrance exam. In a crowded gymnasium, his whole class of approximately 5,000 students assembled as their principle announced that just three students had passed the grueling test: the valedictorian, the salutatorian, and, shocking no one more than himself, Robert Earl Love.
“From that day on, I never doubted myself,” Love said. Even as Love forged his identity as a silent Bulls mainstay, watching quietly as reporters grabbed quotes from, wrote glowing features on and heaped accolades on his teammates, even as he needed others to speak for him in the huddle during timeouts, Love never abandoned his dream of being a speaker. He watched footage of President Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. and marveled at the way they commanded audiences. Love saw the power they held to have crowds of thousands hanging silently on their every word, just as the cotton stalks sat for him decades earlier, and coveted it.
“One day that’s going to be me,” Love reasoned to himself, “People are going to want to hear what I have to say.” Like most men who reach the pinnacle of their profession, or who make a living that includes regularly speaking to children—or in this case, both—Love speaks frequently of dreams. They are essential possessions in his view, a belief ingrained when his grandmother offered it as a coping mechanism to the ceaseless teasing of his childhood.
That singular vision was not just necessary for dealing with his stutter, but an approach necessary for Love’s entire life. The stifling grip of poverty fueled his early ambitions to excel in sports, knowing that alternative means of paying for a vital education were scant. While a football scholarship brought him to college, segregation pushed him from the sport. A legion of elite black talent largely ignored by the top schools formed a bottleneck at the quarterback position at Southern University. Not seeing an opening and not exactly a glutton for the physical punishment of football in the first place, Love decided to see what openings there were on the basketball team.
When focusing full-time on basketball brought Love success, he still had to sweat out being cut by the team that drafted him, the Cincinnati Royals, and spending a year in the Eastern Basketball League. Love’s second attempt to make the Royals was successful, but he was left available for the Milwaukee Bucks expansion draft after two seasons, only for the Bucks to trade him to the Bulls just 14 games into his first year in Milwaukee. After averaging nine minutes per game for the Bulls after the trade, he got his first crack a full-time starting role in the 1969-70 season. He was 27 years-old.
And that Love could find himself at a loss for how to find work with no help in sight, after six-straight seasons averaging over 20 points per game, three All-Star team selections and making the All-NBA second team twice reminds that NBA careers don’t end the way they used to anymore. Injuries ended his career, swiftly and brutally. For his ailing knees and back, Love recalled two surgeries and up to 40 cortisone injections, the last of which ended in the syringe bursting, dotting the exam room with his blood and leaving him walking with a cane and crutch for months afterward.
When asked whether he ever considered making a malpractice claim, Love said the idea never occurred to him. He set upon his self-directed rehab program of trudging up a hill in a park near his Seattle home, and began his fruitless job search when he was able again.
The job that he eventually landed at the cafe of a Seattle Nordstrom represented Love at possibly his most publicly embarrassed, yet he described in dedicated detail his method for attending to spills and washing dishes. When his employer offered to pay for speech classes, it offered him an opportunity to realize his childhood dreams as a speaker, but also gave him something on which to direct his dogged focus on.
“I was motivated. I wanted to talk. I looked in the mirror every morning and practiced, practiced, practiced,” Love said, talking as if he was pulling lines from one of his speeches.
Love’s newfound gift of gab was enough to draw local newspaper attention, and with the Bulls at the beginning of their title run in 1992 and inundated with requests for community engagement events like never before, Executive VP of Business Operations Steve Schanwald and Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf thought it would be worth seeing what Love could do.
With the multitude of motivational speakers making the rounds, it can take some doing to even begin to craft a speech that aims to rise above the typical formulaic pap. But Love never worried about how he would be received or worried for a moment about what he would say. He had his story.
“Anyone can say what they would do. What people want to know is ‘what did you do when trouble came to your door?’” Love said.
Despite the humbling content of his tale, the idea of baring his soul to a large audience excited Love. He recalled eagerly the first banquet where the Bulls had him speak. Despite the specter of his only recently-conquered stutter lingering over his shoulder and even a possible job on the line, there was only giddiness in Love’s voice as he talked about his first moment at the podium, staring out a brimming sea of “heads and eyeballs,” sitting silently, waiting on him.
“I got out there and looked out there and I had flashbacks of a little boy growing up in Louisiana, stuttering,” Love said. “I wasn’t scared. Got up there and I didn’t stutter. I was so excited, I didn’t know what to do. When I got through, everyone was crying, with hankies. It was the greatest feeling in the world.”
“I cried,” Love added, with just a hint of moisture building in his eyes. “I still do, thinking about it.”
It’s been over 20 years now of the Bulls sending Love out to speak to children, businesses, community groups, or anyone who requests his presence. He sprinkles in phrases about education trumping all, he talks about “not playing the victim in life”, but it’s his story, or just Love himself, that makes it work. Small classrooms and audiences of 15,000, even when he shared panels with the likes of Colin Powell, Joe Theisman and Terry Bradshaw, lean in to hear the long list of things that didn’t break Bob Love. The gasps, the sniffling, the wiping of tears and thunderous applause are all earmarks of this new strength that his voice has given him, and it still shakes him to think about it. “Greatest feeling in the world.” He repeated it a lot. He meant it.