Seasons with Bulls:
December 8, 1942 in Bastrop, Louisiana
1965 / Round: 4 / Pick: 33rd overall
Selected by the Cincinnati Royals
Robert Earl Love’s road to NBA stardom was, to say the least, long and winding. Nicknamed “Butterbean” as a boy due to his fondness for the vegetable, Bob Love grew up in a two-bedroom shanty located in rural northeastern Louisiana as one of 14 children. Bob’s mother was just 15 years old when he was born, and his father was nowhere to be found. When he was eight his mother married an ex-Marine who seemed to be angry all the time and would hit Bob whenever the mood struck him. Not long after they married, Bob ran away, moving in with his grandmother, who was only too happy to take him in. As Bob tells the story, when his stepfather came to get him, his grandmother answered the door brandishing an axe handle. “Get out of here,” she said. “The boy lives here now.”
Bob had a favorite uncle who used to watch over him a lot when he was young who had a severe stutter when he spoke. He says he loved and enjoyed being around his uncle so much that he started stuttering as well. When he began going to school he would often sit in the back of the classroom praying his teachers wouldn’t call on him to answer because all that did was egg on a number of classmates who liked to tease and laugh at him. Bob, who has always been a gentle and kind soul, says he was forced to develop a thick skin because he didn’t want to let anybody know how embarrassed and ashamed he felt.
As a little boy Butterbean loved playing sports, but growing up poor meant he had to improvise. For example, his basketball playing days began with an old sock stuffed with grass, paper and other socks to form a ball, and he bent a wire coat hanger into a hoop and stapled it to the side of his grandmother’s house so he could practice his jumpshot.
When Love reached high school he still had a severe stutter but that didn’t stop him from ending up as the starting quarterback on the varsity football team. You see Bob didn’t stutter when he sang, so he used to sing the play calls in the huddle and at the line before the ball was snapped. He had a really strong arm and could throw downfield with ease and precision. Then after undergoing a major growth spurt between his sophomore and junior years, shooting up from 6’0” to 6’7”, Bob quarterbacked the Morehouse Tigers to a Louisiana state championship.
After football season that junior year, he decided to try out for the basketball team, but he couldn’t crack the starting lineup because Lucius “Luke” Jackson, a future Olympic gold medalist (Team USA, 1964) and NBA 1st round draft pick (4th overall by the Philadelphia 76ers in 1964), was better and played the same position. However, after Jackson graduated and was playing in college, Bob saw the floor a lot as a senior and he quickly became the best player on the team, averaging over 30 points a game.
Up until that point nobody in his family had ever thought about going to college, but Bob always had the drive to become something special, so when coaches started showing up on his doorstep with scholarship offers, Butterbean was ready to listen to their pitches. However, the men who knocked on his door weren’t basketball coaches, they coached football. In the end it came down to Grambling State or Southern University, but when the Grambling State coach showed up 90 minutes late for a meeting, Bob informed him he was going to Southern to play ball.
Then in the summer before his freshman year began, Southern’s football coach, A.W. Mumford, happened to come across Bob playing a pick-up game against some of the school’s varsity basketball players inside the school’s gym. Mumford quickly realized his prized recruit’s best chance for a bright future wasn’t on the gridiron but rather on the hardwood. Mumford pulled Love aside and urged him to seriously think about switching sports. It didn’t take long for Butterbean to decide to make the jump because he had always felt apprehensive about going toe-to-toe against hungry and angry defensive lines made up of football players a lot bigger and stronger than him.
Thanks to Mumford, Love was able to join the basketball team where it didn’t take long for him to make an impact. Love’s scoring average improved each year, going from 12.8 points per game his freshman season to 22.6 as a sophomore to 25.6 as a junior and 30.6 as a senior. By the time it was all said and done, Bob “Butterbean” Love had completely rewritten Southern’s record book. Pro scouts took notice, however more than a few were wary of players from small black colleges. Some completely dismissed the idea of drafting a player like Love, believing the level of competition he faced couldn’t compare to those who played at major schools such as UCLA, Notre Dame, Indiana or Kentucky. So it wasn’t a shock when he ended up being a fourth round pick of the Cincinnati Royals at a time when the NBA consisted of just nine teams and rookies rarely played.
Right from the start of training camp Love recognized he had an uphill climb to make the team because the Royals’ roster included high-profile future Hall of Fame forwards Jerry Lucas and Jack Twyman, as well as a pretty good two-way player in his own right, Happy Hairston. Disappointed but unbowed after the Royals broke the news that he was being let go, Love opted to sign a contract with the Trenton Colonials of the Eastern Professional League, a minor league circuit made up of a handful of small Pennsylvania and New Jersey towns where you got paid only after you played. Because of that, Love had to take a part-time job as a maintenance man at a local hospital when he wasn’t playing ball.
With the Colonials Love soared, averaging more than 25 points and 16 rebounds a game and was named the league’s Rookie of the Year for 1966. After far too many long, bumpy bus rides, shared hotel rooms and fast food, Love made his way back to Cincinnati for a second shot at the NBA, and this time he made the cut, but languished at the end of the bench as a reserve for two full years.
The NBA expanded by adding the Milwaukee Bucks before the start of the 1968-69 season. The Royals opted to leave Love unprotected for the expansion draft and the Bucks grabbed him, but surprisingly Milwaukee ended up trading him to the Bulls after just 14 games. Now with his fourth team in four years, Love continued riding the pine, playing just 35 games and averaging career-lows of 9.0 minutes and 5.1 points for the Bulls.
However, in his fifth pro season Love began to turn heads again after Chicago’s Head Coach, Dick Motta, moved him into the starting lineup early in the season alongside Chet Walker. Love more than answered his coach’s call, playing in all 82 games and producing 38.1 minutes, 21 points and 8.7 rebounds.
The following season (1970-71) Love helped lead the way as the Bulls jumped from 39 to 51 wins. That year he played 81 games, notching 43 minutes per and led the team in scoring, averaging 25.2 points and 8.5 rebounds. He also played in the All-Star Game for the first of what would turn out to be three consecutive seasons (1970-71 thru 1972-73) and was named to the All-NBA Second Team.
In 1971-72 Love posted a career-best scoring mark of 25.8 points per game, ranking sixth in the league, and was again named to the All-NBA Second Team. The Bulls won 57 games during the regular season, but ended up being swept by the 69-win Los Angeles Lakers in the playoffs. Los Angeles’ roster sported a long list of Hall of Fame players such as Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and Gail Goodrich.
The following season Love suffered a slightly detached retina, but doctors were able to repair his eye by using a new medical procedure — laser surgery — and he came back in style, posting back-to-back games of 49 points. For the year Love once again started and played in all 82 games and averaged 23.1 points and was named an All-Star for the third consecutive season.
Love enjoyed three more strong seasons with the Bulls, averaging 21.8 points in 1973-74, 22 points in 1974-75, and 19.1 points in 1975-76. Overall, from the 1969-70 season through 1975-76 season, Love played in 543 out of a possible 574 games, and averaged 37 minutes, 21.4 points and 6.7 rebounds for the Bulls as the team went 323-251 (.563).
He began the 1976-77 season with the Bulls, but after 14 games Chicago traded him to the New York Nets for a 1977 second round draft pick. The Nets then ended up releasing him a little less than two months later, but Bob was able to hook up with the Seattle SuperSonics a week later and hung on for the rest of the year while battling a bad back, an ailment that eventually forced him to call it a career. That year Love played a total of 59 games with three different teams, averaging just 7.3 points over 19.9 minutes.
In total, Love played 789 games in the NBA over 11 seasons (eight with the Bulls) and scored 13,895 points (12,623 with Chicago). For a long time he was the Bulls all-time leading scorer — that is until Hall of Famers Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen arrived in Chicago. Lastly, Love’s career playoff average was an impressive 22.9 points per game, more than five points better than his career regular season mark of 17.6 per game.
Unfortunately, Butterbean starred in the era before multi-million dollar salaries became the norm, plus his inability to speak clearly cost him numerous endorsement opportunities. So by the time his playing days had come to an end, Love didn’t have a stash of money in the bank to help ease his adjustment. His injured back also became so painful that he was forced to undergo surgery and his doctors warned afterwards that he might never walk properly again. Then one night, on crutches, he returned home to find a note from his wife taped to the front door that said, “I don’t want to be married to a stutterer and a cripple.” When he went inside he saw his wife had removed all of their furniture and everything else of value. The next day he learned the money they had in their joint bank account had also been cleared out.
For seven years he went through a series of dead-end jobs, including working for a catering service and at a park district. Then on Christmas Eve of 1984, Love tossed aside his cane and headed to Nordstrom’s, a Seattle-based chain of department stores that also operated 150 restaurants nationwide. Love, who graduated from Southern University with a degree in Food and Nutrition, applied for and was awarded a job in the food services division. He became a 42-year-old busboy, cleaning tables and washing dishes for $4.45 an hour.
Over time John Nordstrom got to know Love on a personal level and was impressed with his work ethic.
“Bob Love never missed a day’s work,” Nordstrom recalled long ago. “And he never missed a ketchup stain on a dish or a table.”
A year later, Nordstrom called Love into his office and told him that he wanted to promote him to manager, but that Bob would first have to be able to speak clearly, so if he could find a speech therapist, Nordstrom’s would cover the cost.
On the bus ride home from work that day, Love happened to spot a speech therapist sign on a storefront window and immediately exited the bus and headed inside where he met Susan Hamilton.
“I remember this tall man coming in and he wouldn’t make eye contact with me,” Hamilton recalls. “He told me he had tried speech therapy several times in the past, but the therapists had techniques that embarrassed him, like making him go into the streets and talk with complete strangers. But I think he was at a point in his life that day that he decided, ‘No matter what, I’m going to do it.”’
For a full year Love worked with Hamilton two hours a day, three days a week. Within that time, his speech improved to the point where Nordstrom proved true to his word and promoted Bob to manager of health and sanitation. Two year later, Nordstrom’s promoted Bob again, this time to corporate spokesman.
In 1991, Love received a surprise phone call from Chicago Bulls Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, who told Love he remembered him from his playing days and that he had also recently read a lot of good things about him in newspapers and magazines, and wondered if he would be interested in returning to Chicago to work for the Bulls.
“I had always wanted to get back into sports, so I couldn’t turn something like that down,” says Love.
Today, Bob Love serves a dual role as Director of Community Affairs and Bulls Goodwill Ambassador, representing the organization at numerous functions throughout the Chicagoland community and around the nation. He makes over 200 appearances each year, visiting hospitals and schools, attending various charity events and also delivering inspirational speeches to a number of community groups and nonprofit agencies.
On January 14, 1994, Bob Love became the second Bulls player in history to have his jersey — No. 10 — retired by the team (Jerry Sloan’s No. 4 was the first).