Bitter or Better?

NBA basketball

Bob Love was an NBA basketball player who lives with a Quiggle.

Most of us vividly remember our very first jobs even though they weren’t likely to have been in the proverbial mail room.  My first was walking beans, unless of course you count the Christmas when I was five and started wrapping Christmas purchases sold in my father’s small town men’s clothing store.  The pay at the time was a daily trip to see Santa in his special little house which was set up each Christmastime on the lawn of the court house.  Since no dollars changed hands, I think that walking beans really qualifies as my first job.

For you city folk, walking beans means being up long before the sun, rushing to a designated pick-up spot in town, riding in the back of an old pick-up farm truck to the fields where you will then spend 14 hour days walking  acres and acres of rows of beans, cultivating the soil, and removing the invading corn plants.  “Blazing sun” and “dog days of August” took on an entirely new meaning within a day of starting my first job.  The compensation was bragging rights at school in the fall that you hadn’t whimped out and, if memory serves, $.50 an hour.

I felt no shame or embarrassment starting at the bottom of the job ladder and you probably didn’t either; it is expected at your first job.  But what if you’d  been a professional ball player, career cut short by injury,  and found yourself washing dishes and bussing tables at an upscale store such as Nordstrom, well aware of the stares and whispered comments as people recognized you and said to their friends, “My gosh, isn’t that Bob Love?” as if somehow it was inappropriate that you should be doing an honest day’s work. That would be an entirely different vantage point for a “mailroom” start at employment, wouldn’t it?

If you, like me, do not follow sports closely, then you have probably missed the story of one of the greatest comebacks of all times, the Bob Love saga.  Mr. Love grew up poorer than most of us can imagine, in fact so poor that when he took ill while playing high school basketball, the diagnosis turned out to be malnutrition.  His coaches stepped in, sending him for lunch at their expense – often to a local diner – then taking turns carting him home with them at night to their own family dinner tables, where they not only fed him food, but acceptance for who he was; for Love lived with a very debilitating Quiggle – stuttering.

In order to avoid the teasing and embarrassment of this Quiggle, Love basically closed his mouth, perfected his game, and went on to college to major in nutrition, an early sign that here was an individual who wanted others not to suffer the same fate he had.

Eventually, he was hired by the Chicago Bulls.  Bob Love was probably the quietist superstar any sport has ever seen.  Not even the sports journalists knew his secret, that although constantly in the public limelight he was “passing” – hiding his Quiggle so that no one could stigmatize him for being a stutterer.  In case you are interested, it took a Michael Jordan to finally beat many of the stats that Love established while playing for the Bulls in the late 1960s, and those in the know may even debate this statement because by the time of the “Air Jordan” era, 3 point baskets existed.

It’s the man, not his stats however, which make Mr. Love a true champion.  One of my mentor’s at the University of Chicago’s Business School often used the management of sports teams as a metaphor for real life business management (for instance, how to hold a sales team together when there is a stand- out producer on a sales force – i.e., the Michael Jordan team challenge).  Although this outstanding professor couldn’t convert me to a sports fan (nor for that matter make an exceptional businesswoman out of me), what he did do was teach me to pay attention to the superstars and showed me what we can learn, both good and bad, from their stories.

What we can learn from Bob Love’s story would fill a book.  We can learn that all work, done to the best of one’s ability, is an accomplishment (and just might lead upwards).  We can learn that bad things happen to good people. When Mr. Love was injured and could no longer play basketball his wife left him, taking everything.  She stated that she just couldn’t take his speech impediment (stuttering) and now his inability to walk without aid of crutches. We can learn to fight back and train just like athletes do, even if isn’t to win a trophy or Super Bowl ring, but rather to regain function after an illness, an accident, or a major medical event such as a debilitating stroke.  And most importantly, we can learn to accept help when offered and not let pride or embarrassment about our Quiggles get in the way, because you never know where that help might lead.

In Mr. Love’s case, a little help for his Quiggle led back to the Bulls.  Love’s good job in the “mailroom” caught the attention of the owner of the store, Mr. Nordstrom himself, who stepped in and located one of the nation’s best speech therapists.  Then he hired Bob as a spokesperson for Nordstrom.   But this isn’t the end of the story – today Mr. Love is a motivational speaker and the spokesperson for none other than the Chicago Bulls.  He works with students who, like himself, never stood a chance, and shows them with the story of his life that everyone stands a chance, Quiggle-holder or not.

Recently I read a statement which asked the question whether a life event was going to cause the person to be bitter or better.   Isn’t it interesting to note that the letter which changed was an “I”?

Posted in Challenging Health Stigma and tagged , , , , , , .