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Building Legends by Remembering Legends

Bob Love

Sport: Basketball

Induction Year: 1983

Bob Love had a dream.

Thousands of boys dream of such things as leading a high school football team to a state championship, or averaging more than 30 points a game and winning All-America honors in college basketball, or averaging more than 25 points a game in the National Basketball Association.

Love, who did all of those things, had a different kind of dream.

Ever since he was a child, he dreamed of making an inspiring talk to a large audience, like Martin Luther King, Jr., or John F. Kennedy, and receiving a standing ovation.

More about that later.

It seemed to be an impossible dream for a youngster who had a terrible stuttering problem.

His mother, who was 15 years old when Bob was born, thought it was cute when he was a little boy. Relatives called him in whenever they needed a few laughs. His attempts to talk always broke them up.

Performing for the family was one thing. When classmates laughed at him as soon as he entered the first grade, that was something else. But Bob learned to laugh along with them. For a boy who stutters, the last thing he wants to do is let them know how much it hurts.

When he reached Morehouse Parish High School in Bastrop, La., the speech problem didn’t prevent him from playing quarterback on the football team. He lead Coach William Washington’s Morehouse Tigers to the state championship his junior season, and the team caught up one point short in the state finals a year later.

“He never stuttered when he sang,” Washington recalled. “We got him to sing the plays in the huddle, and sing the signals at the line of scrimmage.”

Love’s singing voice didn’t put him on the All-State choir, but it was sweet music to the ears of Morehouse teammates and fans—and his throwing arm put him on the All-State football team.

After he had a growth spurt between his sophomore and junior years, shooting from six feet to 6-6, Love decided to try out for the basketball team. But with Lucius Jackson, a future Olympic gold medalist and pro star, on the team, Love didn’t crack the starting lineup as a junior.

A year later, he averaged over 30 points per game. But he was recruited for football, not basketball. It came down to a choice between Grambling State and Southern University of Baton Rouge, and the Grambling coach who showed up to sign him was 1 1/2 hours late.

In the summer before his freshman year, Southern football coach A.W. Mumford saw Love playing pick-up games with varsity basketball players and quickly realized that the stringbean’s future wasn’t on the football field. Mumford told him to switch sports and Love, apprehensive about the size of the football players, had no objections to that move.

His scoring average improved each year, from 12.8 points as a freshman to 22.6 as a sophomore, 25.6 as a junior and 30.6 as a senior. He shattered school scoring records, and was a three-time NAIA All-American. In his final year, he was the leading scorer in the Southwestern Athletic Conference.

Pro scouts took notice, and the Cincinnati Royals picked Love in the fourth round of the 1965 NBA draft. But he wasn’t an immediate success in the NBA, and was traded to Milwaukee and then Chicago in his third season.

When Dick Motta took over the coaching reins of the Chicago Bulls, he installed a physical, ball-control style that relied on the forward combination of Love and Chet Walker for much of its offensive firepower—and Love’s career blasted into orbit.

He led the Bulls in scoring seven years in a row, averaging more than 23 points per gamein that span to set club records that stood until Michael Jordan broke them. He played in three All-Star games. At the peak of his career, he made $120,000 a year. But even when he had back-to-back 49-point games, radio announcers never called him to the mike as the “Star of the Game.” Sports writers told him they would like to talk to him, but just didn’t have the time. Nobody saw him on TV commercials or heard him on talk shows—and when his playing career was over, Love still had his speech problem.

He went through a series of dead-end jobs, working for a catering service and a park district. He went through a divorce, with the alimony wiping out his savings. He went through a back operation that put him on crutches, and he was hobbling with a cane for more than a year. He couldn’t walk, talk or get a job.

“It was devastating,” he recalled.

On Christmas Eve of 1984, Love threw away his cane and went to Nordstom’s a Seattle-based chain of department stores that operated 15 restaurants. Love, with a degree in Food and Nutrition, applied for a job in the food services division.

“You’ll have to start at the bottom,” he was told.

“No problem,” said Love, who once picked 400 pounds of cotton in one day as a teenager.

He became a 42-year-old busboy, cleaning off tables and washing dishes. Former NBA players came in to the restaurant. So did his ex-wife, accompanied by her boyfriend.

“That didn’t matter,” Love said. “What mattered was that I had an opportunity. I was determined to become the best busboy and dishwasher in the world.”

One day, his boss told Love he would like to promote him—provided Love would go though speech therapy at the company’s expense. At that age of 42, he had to learn to talk all over again. This time, he didn’t stutter.

In 1989, Love received the Oscar Robertson Leadership Award at the annual NBA banquet. He also received a standing ovation in the packed ballroom after an acceptance speech that was easily the emotional highlight of the program.

His dream came true that night.

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