Tractor Traylor

In 7th grade, I was cut from the school basketball team not because I wasn't good enough, but because the coach was worried about my 'conditioning.' That was her polite way of telling me I was too fat and too short to make the team, in spite of my silky jump shot and tenacious defense and absolute infatuation with the game. I carried a grudge about that rejection for years to come, and my anger only multiplied when I slimmed down and shot up past six foot tall as a high school sophomore. It was as if that one day of tryouts had completely ruined my potential basketball career, rather than my general lack of athletic ability or acute Judaism.

A fast story about Robert 'Tractor' Traylor, who was found dead earlier this week in his home in Puerto Rico.

Traylor was sort of a fascination for me, especially after the debut of YouTube allowed for easy cataloging of clips like this. I'm not quite sure why, but I have always enjoyed fat NBA players like Traylor and Stanley Roberts and Baron Davis and Charles Barkley. Maybe I saw them as torchbearers for kids like me who were stuck kicking lockers in anger and frustration after repeated athletic failures. Maybe it was because I wished I could elevate like Tractor Traylor and Boom Dizzle, or throw people through glass windows like Sir Charles.

Growing up in New York exposes a child to a lot of strange situations. That is enough background to justify how I found myself courtside at Madison Square Garden one evening, sitting in the seats of a well-known hotel magnate next to Ice-T and Howard Stern. The experience would be surreal to me now, but back then seemed run-of-the-mill for a kid who found himself in strange situations all the time. My grandfather calls me Zelig, after the Woody Allen character who found himself rubbing elbows with famous folks quite by chance.

Woody Allen was in the building that night, as was Spike Lee - more on them in a later post - as we watched the Charlotte Hornets take on the hometown Knicks. The date is a little fuzzy, but I believe the game was November 29th, 2003, a Knicks win against a Hornet team featuring two of those aforementioned fat ballers, Davis and Traylor, plus the somewhat rotund David Wesley. I remember very little from the game except that during a timeout, I quietly rapped out loud to a Nelly song playing over the speakers before noticing Ice-T was rapping along with me.

I also remember eating chicken fingers.

This is important to remember, as these chicken fingers and a container of honey mustard were perched precariously on my 15-year-old legs. Immersed in my food, I did not notice the 300-pound Traylor barreling towards the sideline after a loose ball.

I froze in place, my face contorted in sheer terror. Traylor pulled up as best he could, stutter stepping to slow his considerable momentum. But inertia being how it is, Traylor did not come to a full and complete stop before reaching my tiny body.

He put his immense hand onto my chest, and I felt my ribcage compress. The kinetic energy from his run rushed down his arm, out of his hand and into my torso. His face stopped inches away from mine, and we locked eyes. My chicken fingers crashed to the floor, and honey mustard splattered the legendary wood where Clyde Frazier and Willis Reed and Bernard King once played.

He smiled, and laughed, and apologized for knocking over my chicken. He drew back his hand, picked up the ball and passed it back into play.

On my tshirt was a sweaty outline of a hand the size of a dinosaur footprint.

Rest in peace, Tractor Traylor.

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