On May 11, 2011, Robert “Tractor” Traylor died alone in an apartment in Puerto Rico, succumbing to a heart attack at just 34 years of age.
Before Traylor’s abbreviated life suddenly and silently ended exactly six years ago, the power forward was a McDonald’s All-American, a Big Ten standout, and the MVP of an NIT title-winning Michigan Wolverines team. For a time, he was the pride of Detroit and a force who possessed both the strength and mass to literally shatter backboards. Later, he was center of an investigation that altered a major university’s sports history. He was a husband. He was an NBA lottery pick and an atypical athlete who played professionally in America, and later, in Turkey, Mexico, and Puerto Rico from 1998 until the day he died.
Though the young man with the stature and force to earn the nickname “Tractor” was all those things during his remarkable—in the word’s purest meaning—life, basketball fans will remember Traylor (if at all) for what he wasn’t. Or who he wasn’t.
On June 24, 1998, Commissioner David Stern read Traylor’s name into a microphone in Vancouver when the Dallas Mavericks selected him with the sixth overall pick in the NBA Draft. Three picks later, the Milwaukee Bucks selected a sharp-shooting seven-footer from Germany by the name of Dirk Nowitzki with the ninth pick. At number 19, the Bucks took Notre Dame forward Pat Garrity, then proceeded to trade their two draftees to Dallas for the newest Mavericks player and, in doing so, forever connect Traylor with an athlete that can statistically be considered one of the best NBA players of all time.
Like most drafts, the 1998 class was full of busts. In fact, first overall selection Michael Olowokandi could go down as one of the worst No. 1 picks in NBA history. Of the 58 players taken that year, only five ever became All-Stars, and just two of those (Antawn Jamison and the still-active Vince Carter) were selected before Traylor. Conversely, seven of the men whose names were read into that same Vancouver microphone played fewer than 10 games in the association, including two who never stepped onto an NBA court.
To his credit, Traylor played seven seasons in the NBA, though his minutes were limited and just two of those years were spent with the Bucks. As marginal as his career—in which he averaged a mere 4.8 points and 3.7 rebounds per game—was, he played more than 60 games during five of those seven years under contract with Milwaukee, Charlotte (Hornets), New Orleans (Hornets), and two stints with Cleveland. Really, Traylor’s 438-game NBA career doesn’t look so bad when compared to Bucks draft blunders like 15th pick Jason Collier (2000; 151 career games), 13th pick Marcus Haislip (2002; 89 games), 6th pick Yi Jianlian (2007; 272 games), and 8th pick Joe Alexander (2008; 67 games). And even though both injury-riddled 7th pick T.J. Ford and 15th pick Larry Sanders (a career 6.4 PPG player who played 200 fewer professional games than Traylor) played a much larger role in Milwaukee, they’re not exactly miles ahead in terms of overall significance.
However, Milwaukee—and most of basketball—remembers Traylor because he wasn’t drafted by the Bucks. There are seven other teams who can look back and kick themselves for not drafting Dirk Nowitzki. Only one team can kick themselves because they did. Sure, Denver took Raef LaFrentz before Dirk (and Jamison, Carter, and Paul Pierce), but Traylor was taken for Dirk (not to mention Garrity, who played 10 seasons). As a direct result, one man’s entire identity forever changed to that of a regrettable return for a team who gave a player that would go on to win the MVP, make 13 All-Star Games, score the 6th most points ever (30,260 points and counting), and remain a productive piece in Dallas to this day.
One fateful June night almost 19 years ago, strangers from two continents were forever bound by a lopsided draft day transaction. One lives to play another day. The other is gone and his name is etched in a tome that chronicles the unmet potential of countless young athletes. Looking back on the anniversary of his death, its clear the sixth overall pick wasn’t a perfect player. Honestly, it’s impossible to say his pro career was even good. Though his brief life has been reduced to the 1998 acquisition that wound up being the turning point for two franchises headed in opposite directions, Robert “Tractor” Traylor was more than that.
We forget Joe Alexander because he’s Joe Alexander. We remember Tractor because he wasn’t someone else, instead of his collegiate accomplishments or his 13-year NBA and international career or his ability make it rain glass. That seems like an unfair way to live and a circumstance that’s even more unjust in death.