- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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Robert Traylor, the former Michigan basketball star and brief NBA player, was found dead in his apartment in Isla Verde, Puerto Rico today, according to a Spanish-language Facebook release from his current professional club (via SB Nation and Scott Schroeder). Traylor was 34 years old.
The cause of death was not made available to the public.
Since his time as a dominant low-post collegiate force and his brief stint in the NBA, Traylor had battled obesity and a heart defect that required surgery in 2006. After the surgery, Traylor signed with the New Jersey Nets, but the deal was scrapped when the big man failed to pass a physical examination. Traylor made professional tours in foreign countries -- Turkey, Italy, and Puerto Rico -- as he continued to struggle his weight and his heart while still flashing some ability on the court: He was the MVP of the Turkish All-Star Game in 2009, and he was named defensive player of the year in Puerto Rico in 2010.
Despite his place alongside Kevin Garnett, Vince Carter and Paul Pierce in the 1995 McDonald's All-American class and his ensuing brilliance in college, Traylor never made an impact at the pro level. Perhaps the most interesting thing about his NBA career: On draft night in 1998, the Dallas Mavericks traded Traylor to the Milwaukee Bucks for the rights to a lanky German forward few in America had ever heard of. That forward's name was Dirk Nowitzki. The rest, as they say, is history.
Still, any college hoops fan older than, say, 21, will never forget the name "Tractor" Traylor. It was the most fitting possible term for its namesake, this hulking mass of a man who physically imposed his will on defenders with dominant ease. Perhaps no player in the history of the game was so simultaneously stout and athletic; it's hard to recall a basketball player with the same mix of overwhelming size and surprisingly nimble speed.
Tractor Traylor planted on the block, caught the ball, and backed you down. Good luck stopping him. He was nearly as fearsome in the open court. No 6-foot-8, 300-pound human being should have been capable of what Traylor could do. He dribbled, passed, dunked, tore rims to shreds. He was the Tractor. Man, was the Tractor fun to watch.
Traylor wasn't the greatest college basketball player of all-time. He wasn't the most skilled. But he was one of the most unique, entertaining and downright joyful college basketball players we've ever seen, a singular figure few hoops fans will ever forget.
I know I won't. Rest in peace, Robert.