When you study the rosters of all thirty National Basketball Association teams or even casually watch a game, you find yourself facing two stubborn facts: (1) every team possesses an international mosaic of talent; (2) the last All-Star produced by the high schools of New York City is 32 years old and just changed his name to Metta World Peace.
Calling hoops “the city game,” as Pete Axthelm did forty years ago, only makes sense if the city is Barcelona. Two decades of globalization alongside the crumbling of our urban infrastructure has dramatically altered who we see on the court. If there was one moment that represents both the birth and brutal pathos of this process, it was draft day 1998 when two teams took part in what must be seen as the most lopsided trade in NBA history. That was when a Michigan Wolverine superstar born and raised in inner-city Detroit, Robert “Tractor” Traylor, was sent from the Dallas Mavericks to the Milwaukee Bucks for a skinny teenager from a place called Wurzburg, Germany named Dirk Nowitzki, and role-player Pat Garrity. Now Dirk is considered the best player on earth and Robert Traylor is dead, having passed away earlier this year from a heart attack at the tender age of 34.
It’s unbelievable that these two folks were traded for one another. But equally unbelievable is that this was seen as a steal for the Milwaukee Bucks. Then CNN/SI scribe Dan Shanoff wrote at the time, “After trading away No. 4 draft-pick Stephon Marbury last year, the Bucks get it right in ’98 by stealing the marketable and talented Robert Traylor from the Mavs for an overhyped foreign prospect.”
I asked Dan Shanoff about this ill-fated prediction this week, and he said, “Looking back, I am mostly appalled at my simple-minded analysis and implicit xenophobia. Projecting (and developing) draft picks into Hall of Famers demands imagination that Don Nelson and Mark Cuban clearly had and I lacked. I also didn’t account for the maniacal dedication that Dirk would put in to honing his craft. It is perhaps the ultimate irony that as my 5-year-old son became aware of basketball this past spring, he announced that Dirk was his favorite player. Nowitzki’s talents are that obvious. I only wish I could have understood that back then.”
We can laugh, scoff, or shake our heads at Dan Shanoff, but his analysis wasn’t a wild statement by any stretch. They represented my thoughts at the time along with most observers. But in hindsight it’s now clear that this deal was more than the most lopsided trade in hoops history. It was a “canary in the coal mine” for the way the game and the world has changed over the last fifteen years.
The Dirk story is now well known. From Wurzburg, Germany, the 19-year-old blew up in pre-draft workouts and, despite having the muscle tone of a baby deer, became the object of numerous team’s affections, including the Celtics (who had to “settle” that year for Paul Pierce.) But in the shadow of Dream Team I and II and the utter domination of “our guys” at the Olympics, the conventional wisdom was that Euro players were too weak, too fragile, and basically too lame to make it on the big stage. A soft seven-foot jump shooter? Not in this man’s league.
The Traylor story is less known. He averaged sixteen points and ten boards as a junior at Michigan, and was the Big Ten Tournament MVP. His freshman year, “the Tractor “ tore down a rim and made it look easy. With the sweet charisma of a gentle giant, Traylor was in a national sneaker ad before his first pro game. He was “Big Man,” “Barkley Jr.,” and any nickname that speaks to those rare players whose baby fat makes them magically aerodynamic. Traylor, as Shanoff wrote, was seen as a “can’t miss”: the Big 10 Superstar with the big league body.
But Traylor’s body didn’t go from baby fat to Baby Shaq. Instead he battled obesity throughout his career. He also battled income tax evasion charges that ended in a conviction for hiding the money of his cousin, a convicted drug dealer. But Traylor’s greatest obstacle wasn’t weight, taxes or scandal. It was his production on the court. In 438 NBA games, Traylor averaged five points and four rebounds. He then bounced across the globe, playing for professional teams from Turkey to Puerto Rico. It was in Puerto Rico when Traylor was talking on the phone with his wife when, she thought, the line disconnected. Unable to reach him again, she called team officials who found him dead of a heart attack.
It was remarked by those who knew Traylor that this cause of death was painfully ironic, given his generous heart. ESPN’s Jemele Hill, who is from Detroit, wrote, “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 twenty friends and family.”
Traylor was the guy from the projects who’s bigger, stronger and faster than everyone else and is pegged for the NBA from the time he walked onto a court. Everyone told him that he would be a star, that the money would always be there, and that he had to take care of his friends at all costs. He also, even in Detroit, had the inner-city infrastructure, from youth leagues to avid boosters, that gave him a path to the league. Dirk was a skinny kid who had no justification to believe that a beanpole from Germany could ever be hailed as the best in the game. For several years other GMs watched Dallas, and dipped one toe in the water, thinking the game’s globalization might just be a mirage.
Now the league is filled with badass players from across the earth. It’s also filled with Dirk imitators, born both inside and outside the states: seven footers who rain jumpers for days. It says a great deal that arguably the league’s best player, Kevin Durant, plays like Dirk and is from the Maryland suburbs. Rough, rugged and raw rebounders like Traylor, with a little meat on their middle, are in very short supply. As for Detroit, the attacks on the city’s union and non-union workers has never missed a beat, and it’s spent fifteen years as victim of every neoliberal “shock therapy” on the populace. Last year, it was named the United States’s “most stressful city” by virtue of being in the top ten for murders, robberies, poverty and, yes, heart attacks. Brutal cuts to city programs has also meant that extracurricular activities, exercise and, for some, opportunity, have become casualties of “the new normal.” As we spend this shortened season celebrating Dirk, let’s also remember Robert Traylor and the way this one trade marked a fork in the road toward a very different NBA: a different NBA that reflects the way our world has changed and left many behind.