Despite Enduring So Many Ups and Downs, the Chicago Bulls’ First Superstar
is Living Proof that Dreams Do Come True
Long before Michael Jordan arrived the Chicago Bulls employed another unshakable superstar who could float the ball into the basket and defend against an opponent’s top scorer with efficiency and ferocity — a man who was a perennial championship contender’s go-to guy. Three NBA All-Star appearances and All-Defensive Teams, and two All-NBA nods highlight his résumé, but if you ever needed confirmation that Bob “Butterbean” Love was one of the very best players in the NBA during the early 1970s, then all you need to do is ask some of his teammates, opponents and a few fans of old school what they think.
“We had a lot of guys who could score: Chet Walker, Jerry Sloan, myself,” recalled former Bulls All-Star point guard and Love teammate Norm Van Lier shortly before he passed away in February 2009. “But it was plain and simple — in crunch time, you give Bob Love the ball.”
And while most remember him as a smooth scorer, Bob Love was also a defensive stalwart, too.
“Bob could definitely score, that’s for sure, but he was really a great player at both ends of the floor,” remembered another former teammate of Love’s with the Bulls, Hall of Fame center Nate Thurmond. “Besides him having to score 20 points a game he was always asked to shut down top players on every team we played, All-Stars like Rick Barry, Elvin Hayes, and Spencer Haywood. Butter could do it better than anybody.”
“Bob Love was a real handful,” adds former Milwaukee Bucks forward Bob Dandridge. “He always worked me hard. I think Bob always seemed to have it out for [his former team] Milwaukee and, boy, did he ever make me pay for the Bucks trading him.”
When it came to playoff basketball, Love’s lifetime regular season stats (17.6 points and 5.9 rebounds over an 11-year career) always got better. He was the centerpiece of six consecutive Bulls postseason runs (1969-70 / 1974-75), upping his output to the tune of 22.9 points and 7.5 rebounds in an astounding 43.9 minutes over 47 postseason games.
“I was the iron man of the team,” Love says today. “I didn’t complain but that was a lot of pressure. Guys would always look to me on offense, and then sometimes two or three different guys on the other team would take turns defending me.”
Perhaps the greatest stretch of Love’s playoff career came in 1971, his second postseason with the Bulls. After a regular season that saw him average 25.2 points and 8.5 rebounds over an exhausting 43.0 minutes per game, Love and the Bulls faced Wilt Chamberlain and the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference semifinals. The fifth-year forward did his best to carry his team to the Western Conference Finals, posting averages of 26.7 points on .491 shooting, pulling down 7.3 rebounds while logging a ridiculous 47.1 minutes per game. Still, the Lakers prevailed, winning the deciding seventh game of the series, 109-98.
One can certainly understand why Los Angeles still isn’t one of Love’s favorite places to visit as the Lakers sent the Bulls home from the playoffs four times during the franchise’s first eight seasons.
“Man, we used to move the ball around but we wouldn’t shoot it until the last second of the shot clock,” Love says. “If we missed or committed a turnover, it was a fast break and an easy basket for LA. Those losses to the Lakers were really heartbreaking. We would work so hard and most of the time we would build up a nice lead, but suddenly we would go cold and the Lakers would, poof, takeoff and our leads would disappear.”
Robert Earl Love’s road to stardom was, to say the least, long and winding. Nicknamed “Butterbean” as a boy due to his fondness for the vegetable, Love grew up in a two-bedroom shanty in rural northeastern Louisiana as one of 14 children. His mother was just 15-years-old when he was born, and his father was usually nowhere to be found. When Love was eight his mother married an ex-Marine who seemed to be angry all the time and would often hit Bob whenever the mood struck. Not long after they became married, Bob ran away to live with his grandmother, who was happy to take him in. As Love tells the story, when his stepfather came to get him, his grandmother answered the door holding an axe handle. “Get out of here,” she said. “The boy lives here now.”
Love had a favorite uncle who had a severe stutter when he spoke. Bob says he enjoyed being around his uncle so much that he started stuttering as well. Then after he began going to school he would often sit in the back of the classroom praying his teacher wouldn’t call on him because he knew his classmates would tease and laugh at him whenever he tried to speak.
As a little boy Love enjoyed 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 and paper to form a ball, and he bent a wire coat hanger into the shape of a hoop and stapled it to the side of his grandmother’s house so he could practice his jumpshot.
When he reached high school Love still had a severe stutter but that didn’t stop him from being the starting quarterback on the varsity football team. Love didn’t stutter whenever he sang, so he used to sing the play calls in the huddle and at the line of scrimmage before the ball was snapped. He had a really strong arm and could throw downfield with ease. Then after undergoing a major growth spurt between his sophomore and junior years, shooting up from 6’0” to 6’7”, he quarterbacked the Morehouse Tigers to a Louisiana state championship.
After football that junior year, he decided to try out for the basketball team, but he couldn’t crack the starting lineup because Lucius Jackson, a future Olympic gold medalist (Team USA, 1964) and NBA 1st round draft pick (4th overall by the Philadelphia 76ers in 1964), was a far better player who played the same position. However, after Jackson graduated Love got to play as a senior and quickly became the best player on the team, averaging over 30 points a game.
Up until that point nobody in Love’s family had ever thought about going to college, but Bob had a drive to become something special, so when college coaches began showing up on his doorstep with scholarship offers, he was more than ready to talk. However, the men that knocked on his door weren’t basketball coaches, they coached football. In the end it came down to Bob deciding whether to attend Grambling State or Southern University, but after the Grambling State coach showed up at his home some 90 minutes late, Love informed him that he had decided to attend Southern.
During the summer before his freshman year began, Southern’s head football coach, A.W. Mumford, happened to come across Love playing a pick-up game with some of the varsity basketball players inside the school’s gym. Mumford quickly understood his prized recruit’s best chance for a bright future wasn’t on the gridiron but on the hardwood. He then pulled Love aside and urged him to seriously consider switching sports. It didn’t take long for Love to heed Mumford’s advice because Bob has always been a bit apprehensive going up against a bunch of hungry football players, many of whom were a lot bigger and stronger.
Love made the jump to the basketball team and it didn’t take long for him to make an impact. His scoring average improved each year, starting out at 12.8 points his freshman season to 22.6 as a sophomore to 25.6 as a junior and 30.6 as a senior. By the end of his senior year Love had completely rewritten Southern’s record book. Pro scouts took notice, however many of them were very wary of players from small black colleges. They dismissed the idea of ever drafting a player like Love, believing the level of competition he faced couldn’t compare to any of the major college programs of the day, such as UCLA, Notre Dame, Indiana or Kentucky. So it really wasn’t a surprise that Love ended up as a fourth round pick of the Cincinnati Royals at a time when the NBA consisted of just nine teams and rookies rarely played.
From the beginning of his first professional training camp Love realized he had an uphill battle to make the team since Cincinnati’s roster included a couple of high-profile future Hall of Fame forwards in Jerry Lucas and Jack Twyman, as well as a pretty good two-way player in his own right, Happy Hairston. Disappointed yet still determined after being told that he was let go, Love quickly signed a contract to play for 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 players got paid only after games. Because of that, Love was forced to take a part-time job as a maintenance man at a local hospital whenever he wasn’t playing in order to keep food on his table and a roof over his head.
Love thrived with the Colonials, averaging more than 25 points and 16 rebounds and was named the league’s Rookie of the Year for 1966. He made his way back to Cincinnati for a second shot at the NBA the following season, and this time he made the final cut, but languished at the end of the Royals bench as a little-used reserve for two years.
The NBA expanded before the start of the 1968-69 season, adding the Milwaukee Bucks to the fold. The Royals left Love unprotected in the expansion draft and the Bucks grabbed him, but then Milwaukee traded him to Chicago after only 14 games. Love continued riding the pine with the Bulls, playing just 35 games that season and averaging career-lows of 9.0 minutes and 5.1 points.
However, in his fifth year in the NBA Love started turning heads after Bulls Head Coach Dick Motta moved him into the starting lineup alongside Chet Walker. Love more than answered the call, playing every game that season, averaging 38.1 minutes, 21 points and 8.7 rebounds.
The following year (1970-71) he led the Bulls’ charge as the team jumped from 39 to 51 wins. He played in 81 games and averaged 43 minutes, 25.2 points and 8.5 rebounds. Love was also named an NBA All-Star for the very first time — a streak that would run for three consecutive seasons (1970-71 thru 1972-73) — and was later named to the All-NBA Second Team.
Love posted a career-best scoring mark of 25.8 points, ranking sixth in the league, and was once again named to the All-NBA Second Team the following year as the Bulls won a then-franchise best 57 games, but Chicago ended up being swept by the 69-win Lakers in the playoffs.
The following year Love suffered a slightly detached retina during the first half of the season, but he didn’t miss a game as doctors were able to repair his eye thanks to a new medical procedure — laser surgery. He went on to post back-to-back games of 49 points right after the surgery. For the year, Love averaged 23.1 points and was named an All-Star for the third time.
Love went on to enjoy 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 through 1975-76, Bob 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).
Love began the 1976-77 season with Chicago, but after 14 games was traded to the New York Nets for second round draft pick. The Nets ended up releasing him a little less than two months later, but Love was able to hook up with the Seattle SuperSonics and hung on for the rest of the year battling through a very painful back, an ailment that ultimately forced him to retire at the age of 34.
In total, Love played 789 NBA games over 11 seasons (eight with Chicago) and scored 13,895 points (12,623 with the Bulls). For a long time he was Chicago’s all-time leading scorer — that is until Hall of Famers Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen arrived.
Unfortunately, Love starred in the era before multi-million dollar salaries became the norm, plus his inability to speak clearly cost him a number of endorsement opportunities. Thus 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 where the doctors warned afterwards that he might never walk properly again. Then one afternoon, on crutches, he returned home to find a note taped to the front door from his wife that said, “I don’t want to be married to a stutterer and a cripple.” When Bob went inside he saw all of their furniture and everything of value in the house was gone. The next day he discovered all the money they had in a joint bank account had also been cleared out.
For the next seven years Bob worked a series of dead-end jobs. Then on Christmas Eve of 1984, he tossed aside his cane and headed to Nordstrom’s, a Seattle-based chain of department stores that also operated some 150 restaurants nationwide. Love, who graduated from Southern University with a degree in Food and Nutrition, applied for a job in the food services division and was hired as a 42-year-old busboy, cleaning tables and washing dishes for $4.45 an hour.
Love was always a hard worker, and one day his diligence paid off when John Nordstrom, a third generation chairman of the department store chain, decided to change Bob’s life. “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.”
Nordstrom called Love into his office and told him that he wanted to promote him to manager, but that Bob would first have to learn to speak clearly, so if he could find a speech therapist, Nordstrom’s would cover the cost.
On the bus ride home from work later that day, Love happened to spot a sign in a storefront window promoting speech lessons and immediately got off the bus and headed inside where he met a woman named Susan Hamilton.
“I remember this tall man coming in and he wouldn’t make eye contact with me,” recalls Hamilton. “He told me he had tried speech therapy several times, but the techniques the therapists used embarrassed him, like making him walk up to complete strangers in the street and try to start a conversation. But on the day he came into my office he must have been at a point in his life that he had decided, ‘No matter what, I’m going to do it.”’
For a full year Love worked with Hamilton for two hours a day, three days a week. Eventually his speech improved to the point where John Nordstrom fulfilled his promise and promoted Love to manager of health and sanitation. Two year later Love was promoted again, this time to the role of corporate spokesman. Then in 1991, Bob received a phone call from Chicago Bulls Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, who told Bob that he remembered him from his playing days and that he had also recently read a number of good things in newspapers and magazines, and wanted to know if Love had any interest in returning to Chicago to work for the Bulls.
“I had always wanted to get back into sports, so how could I turn something like that down,” says Love.
Some twenty-six years later, Love continues to serve a dual role with the Bulls as the team’s Director of Community Affairs and Goodwill Ambassador. He represents the organization at a number of gatherings throughout the community, some 100 or so appearances each year, visiting hospitals and schools, attending charity events and also delivering inspirational speeches.
“I thank God every day for John Nordstrom and Jerry Reinsdorf,” Love says. “They saw something in me that I could never have dreamed of being. I had sunk as low as anybody could sink, and yet thanks to those two men I was able to make something out of myself.
“I get on my knees every day and thank the Lord for keeping me strong through all of those embarrassing moments and the ups and downs. Staying strong and believing in your dreams is the theme of every speech I give.”
Bob Love’s legacy is impressive and lives on. On the basketball court, he had few peers. Off it, the man with the massive heart is above reproach.
“Whenever I see Bob Love, I always have to smile,” the greatest player the game of basketball has even known, Michael Jordan said recently. “I have nothing but admiration for Bob, and I always will. What he has accomplished is very inspiring.”
Another Chicago Bulls legend, the late Johnny ‘Red’ Kerr once said: “When I think of Bob Love, I think of humility. His name says it all: L-o-v-e. There’s a lot of love in that man. There’s a lot of love for that man. God certainly gave Bob the perfect last name — Love.”