Wow. I just heard that Robert "Tractor" Traylor is dead at 34. It is of course sad to lose anyone so young, and this one hits close to home for me.
Tractor was starring for U-M when I lived in Ann Arbor in 96-98, and I wrote a piece for Slam magazine about him, and watched him play a lot. He made tremendous strides during his career there, and started passing out of the box his final year; he had sort of been a blackhole before then. When he lost a bunch of weight prior to the draft, I took him seriously and, combined with the improvement I had seen, thought he was going to thrive in the NBA, despite the fact that he was simultaneously too small (6-8) and too big (300 pounds or so) at once. I remember laughing at the Mavs when they traded his draft rights for Dirk Nowitzki, some German teen I had never heard of. Oops.
Tractor's legacy at Michigan is cloudy. He was part of a team that let everyone down in a million ways, and he was one of four players, along with Louis Bullock, Chris Webber and Maurice Taylor who seem to have taken money from Ed Martin. Aside from the money, the team was a really a letdown on the court, never achieving what seemed possible.
But Tractor was a garrulous, friendly guy and a cool presence -- and what a perfect nickname, in this era of severely diminished ones. During the weeks before the '98 Draft, he was working out for teams and my wife Becky and I were in the old Detroit airport. At the last minute, they announced a flight cancellation and a gate change for us and I took off running because we knew that it was a blood-in-the-water, first come, first served situation.
I turned the corner into the correct corridor at full sprint. Becky was trailing me, pushing our infant son Jacob in a stroller. I was flying, bags flapping behind me, when I almost ran smack into Tractor. He was on his way back from workouts and had lost a ton of weight but was still massive, like a brick wall. I stopped, said hi, reintroduced myself, shook hands and said, "I gotta go."
He laughed. As I ran away, I looked over my shoulder and said, "Tractor, you look great! Keep working hard."
And he smiled this huge smile and said, "Thanks, man. I will."
Soon after, I was at Toys R Us and saw a U-M Tractor bobblehead, which I bought and placed on Jacob's dresser, next to a little Josh Gibson figurine. Both are still there 13 years later.
RIP Tractor. Gone far too soon.