Inside Stuttering Basketball Star Bob Love Was An Intelligent Man Struggling to Be Understood
updated 04/03/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 04/03/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT
Love retired from pro basketball in 1977, but though he had a degree in food and nutrition from Southern University in Baton Rouge, La., he landed only dead-end jobs, like setting up tables for a caterer. For a short time he volunteered as an assistant coach at Seattle University, but was unable to keep up with his bills after two divorces, six children and surgery on his back, which he had injured in 1966 playing ball. Finally, in December 1984, Love took a job in the food services division of Nordstrom, a Seattle-based department-store chain. There, for the first time, Love found the support he needed to tackle his problem.
Although speech therapy has been an intense, laborious and often embarrassing process, Love, 46, has triumphed over his disorder. He is now director of health and sanitation for Nordstrom and has begun giving motivational lectures. "I really want to be an inspiration to other people, "he says. "I have 40 years of words inside me."
Now living alone in suburban Kirkland, Wash., Love spoke about his disability with correspondent Priscilla Turner.
As a stutterer, you get frustrated a lot, but there are some moments that stick out in your mind as the very worst of your life. My fourth year with the Bulls, I was the team's leading scorer and probably the fourth-highest scorer in the entire league. I was invited to a father-son banquet given by the Jaycees. The guy who was running the event understood that I had a speech impediment, and he told me that I wouldn't have to speak. Well, as soon as he introduced me, the kids and their dads stood up and gave me a standing ovation. They started chanting, "Speech, Bob, speech!" I got up on the podium. My mind was running like a tape recorder on fast-forward, but I knew nothing was going to come out. I must have stood up there for three straight minutes without saying one word. Finally I just sat down.
For days afterward I thought about it. It was the most embarrassing thing that had ever happened to me. But finally I told myself, "That guy up on the podium, that's not Bob Love." I refused to let that incident hold me back. I always dreamed that change would come. It finally did, but it took a long, long time.
The experts now think that stuttering has some unknown physiological cause and that it is probably genetic, but I think my environment also played a role. I was my mother's, Lula B's, first child, but I was raised by my grandmother, who had 13 children of her own. We all lived in a three-bedroom house in Bastrop, Louisiana.
I had this one uncle named Will. He was maybe 13 when I was born. He'd carry me on his shoulders everywhere he went. My uncle stuttered pretty bad, and I basically started talking like him. I loved him so much, I wanted to be like him. All my friends and family accepted it. Sure, they'd make fun of me, but never in a hurting way. They just loved me for who I was.
As a kid, I'd stutter so bad I could hardly communicate. That's when I turned to basketball. I didn't have a ball. I made one out of an old sock stuffed with rags. I couldn't dribble that thing, but I'd be out there pretending to be one-on-one with all the greats. I'd win every time. Then I'd run in the house because I was thirsty and I'd say, "Grandma, get me a glass of wa-wa-wa...." My grandmother would say, "Spit it out, Robert Earl, spit it out," and she'd slap me soft in the mouth with a wet dishrag. That was a home remedy for stuttering. After a while, I stopped asking my grandmother for water. I'd just go inside and get it myself.
It wasn't until I was in eighth or ninth grade that I started feeling different from the other kids. Other guys were dating. I wanted to try it myself, but I couldn't ever get the words out to say, "Will you go out with me?" So I'd go to the basketball court or the football field and practice running, passing or jumping, doing anything but talking.
It was the same way with teachers. When they'd ask questions, 99 percent of the time I'd know the answer. I'd raise my hand sometimes and try to say what I knew, but the words wouldn't come out. Other times if I got called on, I'd say that I just didn't know when I really did. It was very frustrating. I felt that stuttering kept me from the grades I deserved.
I made up for being quiet in class by playing sports. I was an outstanding high school athlete. People have a hard time believing it, but I was actually a quarterback. I rarely stuttered on the field. Everything was happening too fast. If ever I had trouble making a call, the boys would stand around me and slap me hard on the back. Just like my grandma, they'd say, "Come on, Bob, spit it out."
In 1961, I entered Southern University on a football scholarship. Everyone knew I had a speech defect, and they did everything they could to help, like tell me to take my time and not to worry. That kept my confidence up. I went to parties, I socialized. I met my first wife there.
I still had a hard time in class. I know it kept me back. Nevertheless, I'm proud of my years at Southern. Whatever my defects, I had my mind set on a goal—to stay out of the poverty I came from and to be able to bring home a paycheck.
I also played great basketball, even though I got to school by playing football. I was an all-American my sophomore, junior and senior years. I was also the first black athlete to make the All-South team, the all-time rebounder and scorer for Southern University and the first player there to make the pros.
It was really something to make it into the pros in those days. Now we have 25 teams in the NBA. In 1965 there were only nine. Out of thousands of players, I was the Cincinnati Royals' fourth-round draft pick.
Looking back, I feel that because of my speech impediment, I never got the recognition I could have. I was one of the top professional ballplayers in the history of the NBA to lead their teams in scoring for seven straight years, yet there were guys on the bench making more money than I was. I truly liked the other guys on the team, they were my buddies. But they'd get the endorsements, make the extra money, and I wouldn't.
One time, in 1973, I had a streak going. I had scored 49 points two games in a row. After each game during the season, the radio announcer would say, "And now for a word from the star of the game." It would always be Norm Van Lier, Chet Walker or Jerry Sloan, anyone but me. The reporters would always give me the same story: They'd love to talk with me, but they didn't have the time. Of course, you can hardly blame them. It would have taken forever.
That experience gave me incentive to show these guys that even though I couldn't speak like they did, I was still a human being. People think that stutterers have something mentally wrong with them. But we are no different from anyone else. It just so happens that we don't speak as well as others, but we do other things as well, even better.
Stuttering didn't keep me from getting married, and it didn't cause my divorces either. It did play a role in my relationship with my kids though. My kids love me for who I am, but there were times when I would have liked to talk a little longer, to read them a bedtime story or tell them the importance of getting an education, but my stuttering prevented me. Now I can really tell them what to expect out of life.
In 1977, after playing with the Seattle SuperSonics, I quit pro basketball. I needed to take the next step and start working. I would go to these companies to interview for a job. It was easy to get in. Everybody knew Bob Love the basketball player. But then I'd meet the personnel director, and I had to sell myself and I couldn't. No one wanted to hire someone who couldn't communicate.
Finally, I got a break at Nordstrom in Seattle. I owe a lot to the Nordstrom family; they really had faith in me. I also have to hand it to my friend Charles Dudley, who played for the Golden State Warriors. He's Nordstrom's human resource director, and he gave me a lot of support.
I'll always remember the date I started working for them: Dec. 28, 1984. At Nordstrom, no matter who you are, you have to start at the bottom and work your way up. I liked that. They gave me a job busing dishes in one of their cafés. Basketball guys would come in and see me and say, "Hey, man, look, that's Bob Love." It was a little embarrassing, but I'd just keep my mind on my job. Pretty soon I graduated to washing dishes, then making sandwiches and salads. I was the only person in the restaurant system who had a degree in food and nutrition.
Then one day my boss, Jim Dickinson, said, "Look, Bob, we'd like to promote you, but you've got to do something about your stuttering. We're going to send you to a speech therapist. If you're willing to do it, we'll pay for it." All of the years I played basketball, no one ever did anything like that for me. What the Nordstroms basically did was tell me that they cared about me.
In May 1986, I started working with Seattle speech therapist Susan Hamilton. I owe her a lot. She has so much patience. I also worked very hard. For the first six weeks, I saw Susan every day. After that I went three times a week for six months, twice a week for four months, then just once a week.
At first I really couldn't put two words together without stuttering. The lady had to teach me how to speak all over again. Susan had me carry a tape recorder everywhere I went so I could hear how I sounded and the mistakes I was making. It was very embarrassing. I didn't want to sound that way.
Also, I used to hold my breath when I talked. Susan taught me how to breathe normally and how to make eye contact. See, when I was a kid, I got shy of looking people in the eye. They'd always have these big frowns on their faces or look like they were in a big hurry. Now I try to find people's eyes. It helps me to get the words out. I also started group speech-therapy sessions as a way to practice making conversation.
In June 1987, the Northern Illinois High School Awards committee asked me to give a speech at one of their banquets about how my stuttering affected my life. There I was in Rockford, Ill., in front of 700 high school students. Talk about pressure. But I did it. Afterward, the kids gave me a standing ovation. It brought tears to my eyes.
I'm not perfect yet. I just have to keep trying. It's a daily job. There are times when I go through the day and really have a hard time speaking. Stress has a lot to do with it. I have trouble concentrating when I'm not relaxed. I still see Susan on an as-needed basis. I don't think that you're really ever completely cured. But all of us have a limitation somewhere in our lives. I guess I'm lucky. A lot of people walk around feeling rejected, but I never felt that way. Overall, I enjoyed the time I played basketball. And now I know I can make it off the court too.