Playing Chess with the Game of Life

As an adult, you sometimes can reflect on your childhood and ask yourself, “What prepared me for all the decision I made later in life?” To quote, Roy E. Disney, “It’s not hard to make decisions when you know what your values are.” For NBA and University of Kansas Legend, Isaac “Bud” Stallworth, the stories he shared were almost motion picture-like because no matter what happened from his childhood through adulthood, it was almost as if he was playing chess in the game of life because he was always thinking several steps ahead and making the right moves at the right time.

I’ve known Bud for over 13 years and after each story, he’d share, I would ask him “How did you know what to say or do when that happened?” His answer was simple, “Drew, everything leading up to that moment prepared me for what would happen next. It didn’t mean that every decision resulted in a flawless outcome but meant that, the foundation of my upbringing mentally prepared me for my decisions in life.” I respectfully smiled because each story I would dive deeper into, I eventually accepted the fact that some people make life decisions look easy. It’s not the mere fact that they were given all the resources necessary to succeed in life, it’s the actual understanding of their personal journey that led them to their decisions. For Bud, the foundation of his success starts with family, education, relationships, and active faith.


Everything leading up to that moment prepared me for what would happen next.  It didn’t mean that every decision resulted in a flawless outcome but meant that, the foundation of my upbringing mentally prepared me for my decisions in life.”


Isaac “Bud” Stallworth’s biggest influence in life, his parents – Isaac Frank Stallworth and Eva Lee Stallworth.

Foundation of Family

His parents, Isaac Frank Stallworth and Eva Lee Stallworth, were both educators and believed in shaping their children to be well-rounded individuals. Bud’s father was also a veteran with strong moral discipline, so both he and his wife instilled the importance of education, earning a college degree, and being self-sufficient members of society. Bud shared, “Growing up, my siblings and I learned how to cook, clean, and take care of ourselves as young adults. I held all types of odd jobs growing up so I understood the importance of maintaining a strong work ethic, the pride of earning your own money and being willing and able to take on new challenges outside of your expertise. Growing up, it was simple, respect your parents, take care of business in the classroom, do your chores, and enjoy the golden years of being a child with your friends and all the activities you can get into.”

This One Time at Band Camp!

To understand the journey of Isaac “Bud” Stallworth, we have to turn back the clock to 1966. Back home in Hartselle, Alabama, Bud would take private music lessons at Alabama A&M College on weekends. For Bud, the game of basketball discovered him in the most unconventional way. To pay homage to the famous quote from the movie American Pie, “This one time at band camp,” just happened to be the start of a beautiful relationship with the state of Kansas and the game of basketball for Bud. Yes, band camp! Or, more specifically, the prestigious Midwestern Music and Arts Camp held at the University of Kansas. In addition to excelling in academics and sports, Bud was an accomplished trumpet player back in Hartselle. He would soon find out in the summer of 1966 that his recognition on the court was thanks to being at the right place at the right time.

One-Hour Window That Changed His Life

In the summer of 1966, while Bud was enjoying his time at band camp, he caught wind of some pick-up basketball games in the gymnasium. The only window Bud had available was the one-hour lunch break the band was given each day. His friend would remind him to pack his tennis shoes so they could go directly to the gym once the camp broke for lunch. In that gym were some of finest players from Kansas, which also happened to be the same group of players who lost on a controversial out-of-bounds call to the 1966 NCAA national champions Texas Western University. The same Texas Western University that producers Walt Disney Pictures and Jerry Bruckheimer Films made a movie about, Glory Road. Fortunately, that afternoon a future Basketball Hall of Famer, the late Jo Jo White, was playing in those pick-up games with his fellow KU teammates and immediately noticed Bud’s talents on the court. From there Jo Jo privately spoke with KU’s Head Coach Ted Owens about Bud, who was a high school sophomore going into his junior year, holding his own and dominating his fellow college teammates in the gymnasium. According to Jo Jo White, Isaac demonstrated a proficiency that qualified him to play at KU.

Coach Owens Is Looking for You!

When Bud returned to the dorms, a note was left in his room that read, “Please call Coach Ted Owens” with a phone number. Bud remembers, “Without a doubt, I thought some of the fellas were pulling my leg and playing a joke on me.” Back then to make a call you had to use the pay phone in the hallway and Bud still believing this was a practical joke proceeds by calling the number on the paper with zero expectations. It turned out to be legit and he reached Coach Owens’s assistant who spoke to Bud first. Shortly after, the assistant turned the phone over to Coach Owens who had a nice 15– 20-minute conversation with Bud. Bud recalls Coach Owens asking “Bud Stallworth? Who are you? How did you learn how to do the things you did on the court? I heard you are here on campus for the arts and band camp? Tell me about your parents?”

While the interest was very obvious from Coach Owens, at that very moment, Bud realized the true reason he was on campus and it wasn’t for hoops. In addition to that, the respect he garnered for his parents would show in his response to Coach Owens. While the KU coach was ready to discuss a basketball scholarship, Bud would shock him by saying, “With all due respect Mr. Owens, please allow me to go home to Alabama, return to my studies and let’s revisit this conversation when it’s basketball season back home. Out of respect for my parents, I prefer to not let them know I was playing basketball while out here. My parents spent their hard earned money for me to attend this prestigious band camp, I’d like to devote my focus and attention toward that while I’m here.” Coach Owens must have been floored with Bud’s statement but respected his wishes and would send Assistant Coach Sam Miranda to the Stallworth household months later to meet the parents and eventually offer him a full scholarship to attend the University of Kansas for basketball. Bud mentioned, “Independent of accepting a full scholarship from KU, I was being courted by both Auburn and Alabama. I could have been the first African American basketball player to play for either one of those programs on scholarship.”

Jayhawk History and a Professional Career Cut Short

Bud Stallworth’s college career was legendary and would amass many accomplishments and school records during his tenure with the Kansas Jayhawks. After all these years, he’s still one of only three students in the history of Kansas University to earn the highest honors as both an Academic All-American and an Athletics All-American. While the basketball milestones are etched in the record books, his hard work and dedication both on and off the court was a testament to the values his parents instilled in him and his siblings growing up. On January 31, 2005, everything came full circle. Stallworth’s #15 Jersey was raised to the rafters in Allen Fieldhouse during a Kansas/Missouri game. The same Missouri program he scored 50 points against in 1972.

His professional career would span for over five seasons where he played for the Seattle Supersonics and New Orleans Jazz. However, his NBA career was cut short when the cab driver who was arranged for by the team was T-boned by another vehicle that left Bud with a herniated disc in his lower back. From the diagnosis, Bud was faced with two options that he would have to make a personal executive decision on. Option one was returning to basketball again at your own risk. In the event he fell or got hit in the wrong way, there was a great chance he could have ended up being paralyzed. Then there was option two, retiring from the game and removing the risk of further injury through any physical contact from professional basketball.

Rock Chalk Round Ball Classic: Isaac “Bud” Stallworth showing off his smooth jump shot. Photo courtesy of KU Sports.

While the choices seem pretty logical to pick from, walking away from a game you love isn’t always a simple yes or no answer. There are scenarios that run through your head, what ifs, thoughts of future resentment, and more. As for Bud, not only did he opt for retirement but thanks to the foundation his parents infused in him, and the education he received from KU, life after basketball was not going to be a transitional shock for him.

A Stallworth Next Chapter in Life

Upon retirement, Bud knew he had a great reputation with the community and educators at the University of Kansas. His immediate instincts pointed him toward coaching or teaching because of his love for sports and his parent’s background in education, both fields would be second nature to him.

His first career endeavor started in Los Angeles, where he opened up a fine-dining restaurant mixed with nightlife entertainment called Memory Lane Supper Club. Bud loved to cook and learned from his mother growing up. His musical background caused him to merge in entertainment to add some nightlife to the restaurant location. In addition to his location in LA, he later opened a separate restaurant in Hawaii that featured Mexican food, live music, and unlimited alcohol. When I asked him, “How did you know what to do to get a business like this off the ground?” He replied, “It was a different time back then when I broke ground with both restaurants, but it was something I was ready for because my life leading up to this had prepared me for this moment. From all the practical life experiences I gained from being around my family, working odd jobs throughout my childhood, and exposure to the food industry as a teen, the only challenge was executing on the vision. One of the biggest blockers for anyone making their vision a reality is executing and seeing it through.” His restaurants remained in business for eight solid years before he closed them down to pursue other career endeavors back in Kansas.

A Career He Didn’t See Coming

In the off-season, Bud would find himself working with his former college coach at the Ted Owens Basketball Camp. While Kansas was like a second home for Bud, what would happen next would change the way he viewed the state where he played college ball. While coaching at Ted’s camp, he crossed paths with a University of Kansas employee that asked if he would ever consider entertaining career opportunities in Lawrence, Kansas. That same KU employee introduced Bud to a business contact that had his own Environmental Engineering company. They were looking to hire KU alumni that were considering the idea of returning to the Lawrence area. Bud went on to spend eight years with this firm before the operation got sold. As that career chapter was coming to a close, Bud was offered an opportunity directly with the University where he served as Director of Design and Construction at the KU Medical Center, then moved to Lawrence to serve in the KU’s Design and Construction Management department. What started as an innocent leap of faith turned into a 20-year career with the University of Kansas before retiring in 2012. His direction and tenure at KU allowed him to work on million-dollar initiatives that enhanced the campus classrooms, construction on over 60 campus buildings and set a precedent for the design and creation of the KU Athletic Hall of Fame.

The Importance of Giving Back

In the community, Bud took pride in doing exactly what his parents did for him and his siblings, simply making himself available. His collegiate and professional career in sports created a platform for him and he always felt, “A lot of us are blessed to be in the position we are in life as professional athletes. If you have an opportunity to be there for the less fortunate, youth, or people in need, make it count. You can never underestimate the ripple effect [that] you can create onto others by just being there.” Bud has served on the board of directors for the Kansas Special Olympics, has sat on the advisory board for KU’s School of Social Welfare, and was engaged with a program for racial diversity and harmony called “Celebration of Cultures.”


“A lot of us are blessed to be in a position we are in life as professional athletes.  If you have an opportunity to be there for the less fortunate, youth, or people in need, make it count.”


Another program that was near and dear to him was called, “Can We Talk.” The program was originally for underprivileged junior high students, but quickly the Lawrence School District expanded the program from kindergarten through senior year in high school. As a mentor, they would visit schools and encourage students to seek higher education, the importance of extracurricular activities, and provide hope and inspiration for these students to want more out of life.

Present day, Bud spends a good 8 to 9 months a year appearing in countless benefit golf tournaments across the country that give back to various charitable organizations. In keeping the University of Kansas versus the University of Missouri rivalry alive, MU legend and alumni, Steve Stipanovich, and KU legend and alumni, Isaac “Bud” Stallworth conduct an annual golf tournament to benefit Caring Solutions, a charity which provides housing for adults with disabilities. The tournament consistently sells out every year and for friendly bragging purposes, Bud’s team won the tournament in 2017.

Bud added, “I’ve spoken to many KU alums that wanted my advice, were looking for a sounding board to bounce an idea off of, or just needed me to be there as a fellow alum they can confide in and trust. Although a lot of those conversations go unknown to the public, each and every one of those talks meant a lot to me and to the person on the other side.”

Rock, Chalk Jayhawk: Isaac with his wife Robin Smith Stallworth 

Reflections on His Legacy Beyond the Game

When asked about the importance of his legacy beyond his sports career, Bud shared, “Family is everything to me! I’m truly blessed to be around my loving wife, Robin, and sons, Isaac Frank Stallworth III, Ijon Lawrence Stallworth, and their families. My siblings and late parents were inseparable and we always found time to catch up. My career in sports was just a few memorable chapters and not the full story of Isaac Bud Stallworth. My post–NBA career was just a continuation of my impact on the community of Lawrence and my contribution to the University of Kansas and many generations to come. My ventures in the restaurant business created countless memories and experiences I was able to share with the people of Los Angeles and Hawaii. My parents established the foundation of values and wisdom that made me who I am today. The higher education I received created opportunities for me to do more with life beyond the game. My legacy started in Hartselle, Alabama, and has spread throughout my journey in life. It’s with the hope that my continued legacy inspires and speaks to someone reading my story. There’s always an opportunity to make a difference in this world. Just remember, whether you are self-aware or not, everything you experienced in life up to this very moment has prepared you for your next big decision.”

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