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Monday, September 5, 2011

Very different endings for Traylor, Nowitzki in tale of two draft picks

Monday, September 5, 2011








We begin in June of 1998. Two men pass one another on NBA draft night, headed down very different roads.





  • The careers of Mavericks draft pick Robert Traylor, celebrating after his Michigan team upset Duke on Dec. 13, 1997, and Dirk Nowitzki, whom the Mavs acquired in exchange for Traylor, went on widely differing paths.

    1997 photo by Duane Burleson, AP


    The careers of Mavericks draft pick Robert Traylor, celebrating after his Michigan team upset Duke on Dec. 13, 1997, and Dirk Nowitzki, whom the Mavs acquired in exchange for Traylor, went on widely differing paths.



1997 photo by Duane Burleson, AP


The careers of Mavericks draft pick Robert Traylor, celebrating after his Michigan team upset Duke on Dec. 13, 1997, and Dirk Nowitzki, whom the Mavs acquired in exchange for Traylor, went on widely differing paths.






The Dallas Mavericks use their No. 6 lottery pick to take a hulking post presence from Michigan named Robert Traylor. Tractor is his nickname, befitting a body type that blocks out the sun.


He is a Maverick long enough to try on a team cap. Then he is traded immediately for Milwaukee's No. 9 pick; a young, lanky and promising German kid named Dirk Nowitzki.


Thirteen years later, we are in May of 2011, being given a lesson on how fate can smile or sneer, depending on its whim.


This is the spring of Nowitzki's life. A remarkable playoff performance has driven him to the NBA Finals, where he seeks a championship to cap off a Hall of Fame career. "I don't play" he said the other day, "for anything else."


Robert Traylor's funeral was last week.



We can let numbers do the talking on what Nowitzki has been up to. Actually, they're loud enough to drown out a 747.


There's the 28.4 scoring average this postseason. The 51.7% shooting. And, if possible, never foul the guy. He has made 85 of his last 88 free throws, 59 of 61 in the Oklahoma City series, 24 of 24 in one game.


His fourth-quarter pyrotechnics are a major reason the Mavericks broke Oklahoma City's hearts with their persistent rallies. In the final five minutes of regulation in Games 4 and 5, Dallas outscored the Thunder 32-8.


"I'm glad," teammate Shawn Marion said of Nowitzki, "he's on my side."


Never underestimate the power of a second chance. Nowitzki is still driven by the memory of the 2006 Finals, when Dallas blew a 2-0 game lead against Miami and his offense melted as the series went along. He shot 20-for-55 in the last three defeats.


All that will be permanently deleted if the Mavericks can dispose of one last opponent.


This seems so perfect for Nowitzki. A chance to erase the stigma of Dallas' recent first-round flame-outs, atonement for 2006, with his performance so far a true tour de force. Watching him shred one defense after another, the public at large has been reminded just how good this guy is; a 7-footer who buries jumpers like a three-point shooting contest phenom.


And it's being done as part of a group effort by a pack of 30-somethings who understand the fire in Nowitzki. They, too, hunger for a championship before age plays the trump card.


"This is a bunch of veterans who want to play and are unselfish," he said.


Nowitzki will soon be 33, and the world never looked better.


Robert Traylor was 34 when they found him two weeks ago in a Puerto Rico apartment, apparently the victim of a heart attack.



Traylor, fighting weight problems on the wrong side of 300 pounds much of his career, averaged 4.8 points in seven journeyman seasons. When the NBA was no longer an option, he took his last hopes wherever there was a game to play. Puerto Rico, for example.


The obit includes considerable messiness. He landed in the middle of the infamous Michigan scandal involving money from booster Ed Martin. Traylor's Michigan career was expunged. He had to surrender his MVP awards from the 1997 NIT and 1998 Big Ten tournament.


So he had baggage to carry, both physically and with his past. But by all accounts, he was a gentle and generous man who grew up the hard way.


Nowitzki came from a town in Bavaria, and two parents who were high-level athletes.


Traylor came from the streets of Detroit, and a mother taken down by crack.


Two players forever connected by a transaction, but with little else in common. Especially now.


Nowitzki waits for the Finals, and redemption. "This time hopefully we can finish the job," he said Wednesday night. A photo shows him holding up the Western Conference trophy, while Texas roars around him.


I looked up a recent Traylor photo, too. It was his casket, and next to it a picture of him celebrating the Big Ten title. He was smiling.





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