[Time to give the great Bob Love his due. This article, published in the April 1972 issue of the magazine Black Sports, comes from none other than Bryant Gumbel, best known for his former gig as host of The Today Show. He continues to do great things on HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel. But in 1972, Gumbel was fresh out of Bates College and trying his hand at print journalism. Here’s what he had to say about the NBA and man known as Butterbean. Happy Memorial Day to one and all.]
Reaching stardom in the National Basketball Association has never been labeled an easy task. Though the ways of achieving that status be varied, it is doubtful that any athlete traversed a more difficult route than that which has confronted Bob (Butterbean) Love of the Chicago Bulls. In the past, Love has had to fight for a chance to perform. Today, when he does get that opportunity to show his immense talent, he still has to fight and struggle for any remnants of recognition. In an era when the word “superstar” is sorely overworked, true superstar recognition is denied to Bob Love.
A high school phenom back in Bastrop, Louisiana, Bob was an all-star in football as well as basketball. As a quarterback on the football team, he teamed up with his favorite receiver, Lucius Jackson, now of the Philadelphia 76ers, to lead Bastrop to three state titles. Together, during the winter, he and Luke kept their town at the top of Louisiana’s basketball world. With such credentials, Bob had his pick of the universities.
“Yeah,” reminisced Bob. “I got plenty of offers to go to college. All of the offers wanted me to play football. I finally decided to go to Southern University because it was the most beautiful school I’d ever seen. Plus, they had a lot of pretty girls there. I went there for football, but that career didn’t last long.
“One night, I went over to the gym, and the basketball team was there. I didn’t know it, but the head basketball coach was sitting up in the stands. Man, I was scoring on those guys anytime I wanted to. So, the next day, the coach approached me, and I told him I came to play football. He went to work and got my scholarship switched to basketball. I liked it that way because the football guys had grown a little too big for my liking.”
Love wasted no time in showing his worth to Dick Mack, the Southern coach. His first three years netted him scoring averages of 13.5, 22.0, and 26.0, as well as All-America honors. But despite his performance, Bob was getting little recognition, a plight he was to encounter throughout his life. What little note Love got finally came in his senior year.
“My senior year,” said Bob, “I averaged 31 points a game, and we went to the NAIA tourney in Kansas City. We lost, but there were a lot of scouts there, and that was my first bit of real exposure. Back then, the guys from the small schools usually didn’t get any notice. Wayne Embry was scouting there for Cincinnati, and they picked me fourth in the 1965 draft. That was a big honor for me because no other basketball player from Southern had ever gone into the pros.”
Bob’s success in college have been no accident. Then, as he does now, Love hustled at both ends of the court and worked as hard during the offseason as he did during the winter months. Despite his enthusiasm and exuberance, he soon found the pro experience to be an entirely different ballgame, one that didn’t always pay the just rewards for hard work and tedious effort.
“The first year that I went to Cincinnati,” explained Love, “Jack McMahon was the coach, and they had Jerry Lucas, Happy Hairston, Jack Twyman, George Wilson, and Bud Olsen at the forward slots. Those guys were veterans, and he wasn’t going to replace any of them with me, even though I was working as hard as anyone. One day, McMahon came up to me and told me I was being sent to the Eastern League for a year of training. They sent me to Trenton, New Jersey.”
Despite the shock of not making the Royals and the brush-off that he was given by McMahon, Bob gave the game his entire dedication. From his forward position, Love averaged better than 25 points per game and led the league in rebounding. He was chosen as the Eastern League’s Rookie-of-the-Year and showed he was deserving of another shot at making the Royals. He got that shot, but there was a catch to it. Bob explained how we went from a scorer to a “defensive ace.”
“The next year, I came back to the Royals and made the team, but they would use me for defensive purposes only. Don’t ask me why. I used to guard Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Rick Barry, and all the other high-scoring guys. I used to start, but only to guard the other team’s star. Jack would tell me, ‘Don’t worry about scoring, just go out there and play defense.’ Since I was eager as hell to make the team, that’s just what I did . . . exactly as the coach told me. And man, I was one hell of a defensive player!”
While he was starting and doing the job, this was not the Bob Love of Trenton. Bob had always been a scorer, and McMahon wasn’t letting him play that role. The defensive kick continued on into Love’s next season under McMahon, and the yearn to score within Butterbean was beginning to grow.
“The next year, I was still with Cincinnati,” Bob said, “and McMahon was billing me as his defensive stopper. Hell, he acted like I couldn’t play any offense. I always could score, but McMahon, like a lot of people, thought that if a guy came from a small school, he couldn’t do what the guys from the big schools could do. Hey, man, the ball’s the same size and the goal’s the same size; what difference does the school make?
“But McMahon didn’t think that way. So, I played defense for him again. Don’t score, just hold a top guy below his average. I was good at it. I guarded West four or five times, and the highest he ever scored on me was 23 points. But I wanted to play some offense. Hell, I knew I could score.”
Bob’s knowing that he could score wasn’t enough. Nobody else knew, because nobody else had an opportunity to know. Love had lots of potential, but he needed a break. The break came at the close of the 1967-68 season. The NBA was growing, and the Milwaukee Bucks were to be one of its teams. To stock it, the expansion draft was held, and a happy Bob Love became a Milwaukee Buck.
“Yeah, the Bucks took me,” Love explained, “along with Guy Rodgers and Gary Gray. So, I thought this was great. I was going to new team with guys that were in similar situations as me. I thought I’d finally get a chance to play and show them what I could do.”
Hard Luck Love’s euphoria was short-lived. His arrival in Milwaukee was good, and his exhibition season was great. He led the expansion Bucks in scoring and placed second on the squad in rebounding. It should’ve been enough to vault Love into the limelight as the shining star of an unspectacular expansion squad. Yet when the season started and Coach Larry Costello sent his starters to center court, Butterbean stayed on the bench. Despite his preseason performances, Bob was playing about five minutes a game and, while he averaged close to nine points during those few minutes, he never got the chance to start.
“I think they weren’t playing me,” Bob explained, “because I was late signing my contract over a matter of a few thousand dollars. John Erickson, the general manager, and I had it out, and Erickson was mad at me for signing late and for wanting more money. Nonetheless, nobody told me anything, and I just sat out there on the bench. Larry Costello wanted to play me because he knew I could play, but I guess it was management that stopped him. You know, if it’s a Black guy, they can find a million excuses not to play him.”
Whatever the excuse, the fact it is Bob Love was not playing. He was in his fourth year, knew he could play as well as anyone, and, yet, he hadn’t gotten a chance to show what he could do. It was obvious that Milwaukee, like Cincinnati, held no great future for Butterbean. Luck finally came to Bob and, oddly enough, it was Erickson you brought him the good news.
“One day, I was sitting home,” Bob said, “and Erickson came to the door and said, ‘We just traded you to Chicago.’ I thought this was great and that I’d finally get a chance to play. I never did lose my confidence or get discouraged, and I was always hoping that each move would bring me something better. The deal was me and Bobby Weiss for Flynn Robinson. Actually, the Bulls wanted Weiss, and I was just a throw-in.”
At that point in his life, Bob Love could have cared less about just being a throw-in. The trade meant a new opportunity . . . at least, so Bob thought. The Bulls already had five forwards, and it was midway through the season. Coach Dick Motta wasn’t about to start the unproven Love. Butterbean played in about 35 games that year but only about five minutes per game. Motta, because he had seen Bob under only McMahon, thought of Love as a defensive player. It continued that way throughout the 1968-69 season.
Then, over the summer of 1969, the Bulls traded Barry Clemens and Bob Boozer to the Seattle Supersonics for Bob Kauffman. In obtaining Chet Walker from Philly, they let Jimmy Washington go. Through it all, Bob Love, the “defensive” forward, remained with Chicago, which was fine with Butterbean. He just wanted to play, knowing that if he ever got the green light, he’d be a star. The green light finally came.
“During the exhibition season,” said Love, “Coach Motta let me play. He let Kauffman and me split the time, but the Bulls were really counting on Kauffman. I was to be the third forward. Well, the season started, and we lost four or five games in row, and Kauffman wasn’t playing well, offensively or defensively.
“So, one night out in San Francisco, Motta came up and said, ‘Bob, I’m going to start you.’ Man, I was grinning from ear to ear. I started that night, got 30-something points, and I’ve been in there ever since.”
During the 1969-70 season, Bob’s first “real” year, he averaged 21.0 points per game and led the Bulls into the playoffs. Last year, he was even better, averaging 25.2 points per game and helping the Bulls post the third-finest record in the NBA. For personal honors, Love was chosen to the Western Division’s All-Star team, an honor he deserved as much for his patience and persistence, as for his ability. Yet, Love is still denied what is truly his—superstar recognition.
Let the New York Knicks come to town, and the billing is Willis Reed and Clyde Frazier leading the boys in the big town. When the Bucks roll in, it is Jabbar and Robertson that the people are urged to come out and see. And when the team is Los Angeles, the tune is the same but West and Chamberlain are the names. All are outstanding teams and great talents, no doubt. But the Bulls, another outstanding team, are constantly billed as “the team without a superstar.” The mere mention of the phrase stings Bob Love.
“What the hell,” exclaimed Love, “these cats burn me up with that! It’s always, ‘the Bulls are in town—the team without a superstar!’ What’s Chet Walker if he’s not a superstar? What about me? My first two years starting, I averaged 21 and 25 points a game, but the sportswriters in Chicago said I was lucky. You can be lucky some games, but I’ll be damned if you’re lucky all the time! If I lead the team with 25 or 26 points, they just throw in a little blurb and build up some other guy. I think I’m pretty steady. I play good defense, rebound, hit my jumpers, drive, move without the ball. I think I play as complete a game as anyone. Yeah, it bothers me when they say we’re a superstar-less team, because you like to get credit for what you do. I feel like I deserve recognition.
At the root of the problem is the fact that Bob Love is Black and another outstanding player on the Bulls, Jerry Sloan, is white. Although Bob never mentioned Sloan by name, after reading a Chicago newspaper, the problem is obvious. If Butterbean scores 30 points, the newspapers will be filled with Sloan’s 20 points. Or Sloan’s eight steals. Or Sloan’s 10 assists. It is always Jerry Sloan. A good ballplayer, yes, but so is Bob Love. Bob is too much of a gentleman to drag Jerry into the affair, but the whole Black/White publicity problem irks him to no end; he has fought too long and too hard to be denied the recognition he deserves.
“Hey man,” laughed Love, “they do it every time. I don’t know why. I personally don’t care what color a guy is, but don’t try to build up the white guy every game, nor the Black guy. Because nobody does it every game. Why build up a certain guy if he isn’t doing the job just because you think this is what the white or the Black community want to hear? The real sports fan is colorblind; he just wants to see a guy produce. I like to see all guys get their due recognition. Not everybody can be a star, but each man contributes something at some time. Give him credit!”
The hurt of his lack of publicity cuts Bob deeply. This year, he is winging along as the NBA’s second-leading scorer, and he has won a berth on the starting All-Star team. Yet, when the Bulls came into New York, the billing was “Chicago Bulls—The Team Without a Superstar.”
While all of this hurts Love, it is not a cut at the Bulls. They are a class outfit, and it is probable that the “star-less” tag was started because the Bulls are so deep that many of them are capable of stardom on lesser teams. Love chuckles at how people are constantly surprised at the Bulls’ winning ways; it is no mystery to Bob.
“We have, in my opinion,” said Butterbean, “the best overall nine ballplayers in the league. Now don’t take that wrong. Los Angeles probably has the best four or five, and Milwaukee’s probably got the best two. But if you have to take nine ballplayers from each team and average out their talents, we’d stack up as the best. I think we are tremendously deep, and we work extremely well as a unit. It gets me when people can’t understand how we do it. Man, everybody on the team’s a good ballplayer.
“But the big difference in my career, and in the history of the Bulls, has been Dick Motta. Before him, I didn’t get a chance because I was a no-name from a small school. But because Dick used to coach at a small school (Weber State, Ogden, Utah), he’s the type of guy who isn’t impressed with big names. He doesn’t care if you’re from “Eany-Beany Tech State AM&N!” If you’re good, he’ll play you. I always hustled for him, and he respected me for that and appreciated it.”
So now the 1971-72 regular season is drawing to a close. At the time of this writing, the Lakers own basketball’s best record, and the Bucks have the next-best mark. Third in winning percentage is the Chicago Bulls; yet many still ignore Love and wonder aloud at Chicago’s success.
The night before I spoke to Bob, the Bulls had lost, and Love had tallied 15 points. The newspapers ignored his performance, as they should have. The next night, the Bulls squashed the Knicks because Bob Love hit eight of 10 from the field in the third period and finished with 33 points. Yet Bob got no headlines. Instead, the newspapers were filled with the problems of “superstar” Willis Reed and the thefts of “superstar” Clyde Frazier.
Other columns spoke of the upcoming Bucks-Lakers game and of “superstars” Jabbar, Chamberlain, Robertson, and West. While all this went on, a 6-foot-8, 215-pound phenom named Bob Love slipped quietly out of New York and headed back to Chicago, still searching for the recognition that is due him as one of basketball’s true superstars.