SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO (AP) - Robert Traylor, the former NBA and University of Michigan big man nicknamed "Tractor" because of his hulking frame, has died. He was 34.
Described as a "gentle giant" with a generous smile, Traylor played seven years in the NBA. He is perhaps most remembered, however, for his career at Michigan, where he was a standout for three seasons but became embroiled in a major scandal involving a booster.
Police in San Juan said Traylor was found dead Wednesday on the bedroom floor of his oceanfront apartment. Police and Traylor’s team, the Bayamon Cowboys, said he had been missing for a few days and apparently died from a heart attack.
"He was a leader of the team," said Jose Carlos Perez, the Cowboys’ manager. "He was very, very friendly. He got along very well with everyone. The fans loved him, idolized him."
Perez told The Associated Press that Traylor had been talking by phone to his wife in Chicago when the connection was suddenly cut off. She called team officials Wednesday and they checked on him, Perez said.
The 6-foot-8, 300-pound Traylor was injured and had not been playing, the team said.
Traylor was drafted by the Dallas Mavericks with the sixth pick in 1998, but they traded his rights to Milwaukee in a major deal that sent Dirk Nowitzki to Dallas. Traylor played for the Bucks in the first two seasons of an NBA career that included stops in Cleveland, Charlotte and New Orleans.
"The entire Milwaukee Bucks organization is saddened by the news of Robert Traylor’s death," the Bucks said in a statement. "Robert was a fierce competitor on the court who helped the Bucks reach the playoffs in each of his two seasons in Milwaukee.
"Off the court he was a gentle giant, displaying his smile and care, especially toward young people through his involvement in school visits and his work with the Special Olympics clinic."
Traylor got his "Tractor" nickname in high school, then went to Michigan shortly after the departures of Fab Five stars Chris Webber, Juwan Howard and Jalen Rose. Part of another highly touted recruiting class that arrived in 1995, Traylor played three seasons with the Wolverines.
Dugan Fife, who played with Traylor for a season at Michigan, described him as soft-spoken and selfless.
"He loved putting on that Michigan jersey," Fife said. "I was disappointed I only got to play one year with him because of the kind of guy he was. … Never complained about playing time, never complained about getting the ball."
Of course, what everyone remembers about Traylor was his size _ including his unusually large hands and feet.
"I remember shaking his hand for the first time," Fife said. "I could put my foot, with a shoe on, inside his shoes."
Traylor was the most valuable player of the NIT in 1997 and averaged 16.2 points and 10.1 rebounds the following season, when Michigan won the inaugural Big Ten tournament.
"We are saddened to hear about the loss of a former student-athlete, Robert Traylor," Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon said. "Our sympathies go out to his family during this difficult time."
Although he was productive on the court, Traylor was one of the Michigan players whose ties to booster Ed Martin resulted in NCAA sanctions against the basketball program.
He turned pro after his junior year, averaging 4.8 points and 3.7 rebounds in 438 NBA games.
Traylor had surgery on his aorta in 2005, the Bayamon Cowboys said.
The team suspended its game Wednesday night because of his death.
Traylor had been playing with a team in Veracruz, Mexico, before he moved to Puerto Rico in mid-March, Perez said.
"His game was one of a lot of strength, a lot of defense," he said.
Indiana coach Tom Crean, a former assistant at Michigan State, echoed those sentiments in a post on Twitter.
"At Michigan State we battled against him and he might have been the most time-consuming and mind-challenging matchup we ever faced and we as coaches weren’t even playing. He had great feet and hands and a very soft touch…You really had to have a plan to stop him."
In 2009, Traylor was sentenced to jail after violating conditions of supervised release related to an income-tax case in which he acknowledged preparing a false tax return that hid assets of a convicted drug dealer.
A judge had delayed the sentence so Traylor could play for an Italian team.
Detroit attorney Steve Fishman, a friend of Traylor’s who also represented him during his legal troubles, said Traylor often worked with him at youth basketball camps.
"He was a gentle giant," Fishman told the AP on Wednesday. "There were two things about him that really stood out from other athletes of this day and age: He never complained and always took responsibility for anything he ever did."
Fishman downplayed Traylor’s size, saying the former NBA player was "just a huge person."
"If he starved himself in the Gobi Desert, he would still weigh 270 pounds," Fishman said.
Fishman said Traylor’s aorta troubles were discovered during an NBA physical, causing teams to shy away from him.
The attorney also bristled at questions about Traylor’s connection to Martin, who died in 2003 after pleading guilty to conspiracy to launder money. Martin had told federal prosecutors that he took gambling money, combined it with other funds and lent $616,000 to Traylor and other players.
"Any player that came from the circumstances Robert Traylor came from would have taken money from Ed Martin or anybody else," he said. "He was not a child of privilege."
Perez said Traylor’s survivors include his wife and two sons.
Associated Press Writer Corey Williams in Detroit and AP Sports Writer Noah Trister in Ann Arbor, Mich., contributed to this report.
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