- Jemele Hill, ESPN.com, ESPN The Magazine
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In 2003, I spent several hours with Robert "Tractor" Traylor while he was filming an independent movie in Detroit that was based on stories from one of the city's most notorious housing projects.
Traylor was playing the role of an evil cocaine dealer named "Panther." As I watched Traylor fumble his lines numerous times, it struck me as funny that someone 6-foot-8, 284 pounds was totally incapable of playing a menacing guy.
"This is something totally different for me because it does involve me playing a bad character," he told me, smiling. "And 90 percent of the time, I'm a real nice person."
So upon hearing the unfortunate news that Traylor apparently died of a massive heart attack on Wednesday in Puerto Rico, I noted immediately that irony had again punctuated Traylor's complicated life.
The organ that made Traylor so beloved was the one that failed him.
And unfortunately, it wasn't the first time that had happened.
Traylor was just 34 when he passed, and as is the case too often, his death seemed to come when he finally had moved beyond a life caught in a revolving, five-year rebuilding plan.
"He was happy," said his former Michigan teammate Maurice Taylor, recalling their last conversation a summer ago. "He was in good spirits."
Traylor's vast heart, his acceptance of everyone is what those close to him loved about him the most. It's what made him a hero in my hometown of Detroit and why many people remember his days at Michigan fondly, even though his car accident in 1996 triggered an investigation into Michigan's basketball program and consequently revived the basketball program of the Wolverines' rival, Michigan State.
Traylor, who had aorta surgery in 2005, was often betrayed by his heart -- but I don't mean just medically.
He was generous to a fault. Traylor, like a lot of promising, black athletes from troubled backgrounds, never learned to say, "no." He received three years probation after he admitted he prepared a false tax return that hid the assets of his cousin, Quasand Lewis, a convicted drug dealer. He squandered a lot of his NBA millions, admitting in a 2009 Detroit Free Press story that he once took care of as many as 20 friends and family.
"He was taking care of a few generations, from his grandmother [now deceased] on down," said Taylor, who played 10 seasons in the NBA and now plays overseas. "Rob, being the type of guy he is, he would just support a neighborhood. Everyone who was from the Joy Road area, when Rob made it to the league, he was taking care of that whole neighborhood. It was a gift and curse."
Traylor's legacy is complex, to say the least. If you watched him play, you could see his potential. He was 300 pounds but had the footwork of someone half his size. He had soft hands, and although the nickname "Tractor" stuck, people also referred to him as "Baby Shaq" because he could be so powerful.
How many 300-pound men are capable of making a play like this?
But he never lived up to being the sixth-overall pick in the 1998 draft.
As soon as Dallas drafted Traylor, it traded him to Milwaukee for an unknown European named Dirk Nowitzki. You all know how the story turned out. Nowitzki became a star. Traylor played for three NBA teams during his seven-year career. He never averaged more than five points per game and started only 73 games over the course of his career.
"Rob was such enormous talent," Taylor said. "To be that big and move that well … with Rob, he almost experienced a culture shock in the league because guys were just as big and agile. But he knew he took his talent for granted and he knew he didn't put forth all the effort he did to be a great player."
On Wednesday night, when the Heat played the Celtics in Game 5 of their best-of-seven series, Juwan Howard subbed into the game in the first quarter. Then, another irony struck. Traylor was supposed to be the next great forward at Michigan after Howard. Only Howard is still playing and Traylor is no longer here.
It reminds me of some of the lyrics from Marvin Gaye's iconic song "Trouble Man."
I come up hard
I come up, gettin' down
There's only three things
That's for sho'
Taxes, death and trouble
Traylor, sadly, experienced all three.
Jemele Hill can be reached at email@example.com.
The organ that made Robert 'Tractor' Traylor so beloved was the one that failed him.