by Paul Knepper
Robert “Tractor” Traylor was a freshman at the University of Michigan the same year I was. The six-foot-eight, 300 pound center was literally and figuratively the big man on campus. His career was marked by disappointment and scandal, but the Michigan faithful loved him any way. He died Wednesday of a heart attack at the age of 34.
Traylor was a McDonald’s All-American during his senior season at Murray-Wright High School in Detroit. He stepped on campus in the fall of 1995 as the coach Steve Fisher’s prized member of a stellar recruiting class. The year before, Fisher landed five freshmen, including Jerod Ward, Maceo Baston and Maurice Taylor, who were touted as the next Fab Five. Michigan fans thought another trip to the Final Four was imminent.
On a team replete with pro prospects Traylor stood out from the pack. My eyes were always drawn to him when he was on the court. He had tools that can’t be taught and make scouts drool; quick feet, soft hands and tremendous agility for his size. It was awe-inspiring to watch this mammoth of a man pick a guy’s pocket, scurry after the loose ball, then dribble down the court and finish with a thunderous dunk. His combination of size and athleticism reminded me of a young Charles Barkley.
Traylor dunked so hard that you half expected the backboard to come down. One night it did. During Michigan’s 1996 season opener against Ball State he shattered the backboard at Crisler Arena on a breakaway dunk. The big man didn’t run for cover. He stood in the paint admiring his work as the glass rained down on him.
Traylor’s size, talent and marketable nickname quickly made him the face of the Wolverines. His love for basketball and infectious exuberance endeared him to his teammates and fans. Number 54 smiled often during games and I recall on more than one occasion him literally skipping down the court to embrace his teammates after a big play.
Midway through his freshman year, Traylor was behind the wheel when a few Michigan players and high school senior Mateen Cleaves got into a car accident during Cleaves’ recruiting visit. Traylor broke his wrist in the accident, though the damage had only just begun. Reporters began asking questions about how a poor kid from Detroit could afford a pimped out Ford Explorer. A six-year investigation revealed that Traylor and other Michigan players accepted in excess of $600,000 from a booster named Ed Martin. The school received two years probation and was stripped of NIT and Big Ten titles won during Traylor’s time there.
Traylor and his teammates were also disappointing on the court. Their greatest accomplishment was winning the NIT tournament in 1997 – Traylor was named tournament MVP – hardly a crowning achievement for a school with Michigan’s expectations. The Wolverines did win the inaugural Big Ten Tournament in 1998, but failed to advance past the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
On a personal level, Traylor had a very impressive junior season and declared for the 1998 NBA draft. The big man averaged 16.2 points and 10 rebounds per game while shooting 58% from the field. He would have scored more had there not been several other scorers on the team. During his three years in Ann Arbor he learned to use his size more effectively and developed some semblance of a post game.
NBA scouts took notice. Most believed that based on his rare combination of size and athleticism he had plenty of room to continue to improve. The Dallas Mavericks selected Traylor with the sixth pick in the draft and immediately traded him to Milwaukee for Pat Garrity and the ninth pick, some German named Dirk Nowitzki.
Traylor was a bust in the NBA. He averaged a measly 4.8 points and 3.7 rebounds per game over seven seasons with Milwaukee, Cleveland and the Hornets. He lacked the work ethic to go along with his talent and never took conditionally seriously. Tractor Traylor would have always been a big man, but he could have slimmed down significantly, like Celtics forward Glen “Big Baby” Davis. He also never developed the post-game or jump shot to necessary to become an offensive threat. His NBA career is best remembered as the answer to the trivia question: Who did the Mavs trade for Nowitzki?
After the NBA Traylor played pro ball in Europe for a few years. Over the past couple of seasons he took his game to Puerto Rico, which is where he died. He left behind a wife, two children and a complicated legacy. Tractor Traylor ignited a scandal which my alma mater still hasn’t fully recovered from and his career was a tremendous disappointment, but I’ll always remember him as a uniquely gifted athlete who enjoyed playing basketball as much as I enjoyed watching him.