Robert Traylor’s Death, Fab Five Reconsidered

Former controversial Michigan star Robert Traylor died at 34.

Robert “Tractor” Traylor died last week in his home in Puerto Rico at age 34.

The massive forward never reached lofty heights of glory predicted for him based on his stellar high school and college careers, but was certainly a memorable force to be reckoned with every time he stepped onto the hardwood.

In what to me seemed to be an irony, Bill Bradley included in his book Values of the Game a photo of Traylor putting his arm around a teammate who had made an error at a critical point in the game.

At the same time, Traylor was one of four Michigan players who was found to have taken money from booster Ed Martin in a scandal that still reverberates throughout the University of Michigan community.

Ed Martin and his relationship with the Michigan players  is just one of the many themes touched Fab Five, a documentary movie about the legendary Michigan recruiting class, tackles.

On the one hand, producer and former Michigan standout Jalen Rose and others argue that Martin was like a father figure to many of the players, providing them with financial and emotional sustenance they needed.  An article about Traylor’s death quoted a source as saying anyone coming from his impoverished background would have taken the money Martin offered to him.

The other side, represented by University of Michigan president Mary Sue Coleman, argues that the accepting of money was an unequivocal wrong for which the university should, and did, punish itself.

This view prevailed.

Michigan imposed a 10-year ban on associating with the players involved in the scandal.

While the point is now moot with Traylor, it expires for Chris Webber in 2013.

Webber is one of the film’s many intriguing characters.

Fab Five shows in great detail the players’ cultural impact with their baggy shorts, swagger and embrace of hip-hop culture.

To its credit, it does not back away from the less savory aspects of their time, including the Martin scandal and the infamous time out Webber called in the waning seconds of the 1993 championship game against North Carolina.

This part of the film does give Webber, who was the only member of the group not to be interviewed, some room for error by showing how a number of players either signaled for him to call the timeout from the bench or applauded initially right after he had done it.

Yet Rose, who was near Webber and called for the ball, also acknowledges that the forward traveled and did not heed the clear instructions that had been given in the previous huddle.

The ensuing scenes are almost unbearably painful, as the camera focuses for what seems an interminable amount of time on Webber, who, to his credit, did face the media and answer the questions asked of him about his gaffe.

Of course, one of the film’s more controversial aspects comes from Rose’s statement that he considered black players at Duke “Uncle Toms.”

I wrote earlier this year about Grant Hill’s letter on The New York Times’ web site and about my thoughts after having heard Jalen Rose and Jimmy King appear on ESPN.

In that post, I felt that Rose and King, while making the point that they felt that way about the Duke players as young players, did not retract the statement.

After watching the film, I have a different take.

In the movie, Rose makes it that he understands now the combination of his circumstances in a hardscrabble Detroit neighborhood and being shunned by Jimmy Walker, his professional basketball-playing father, impacted how he saw Duke players like Hill.

For me,  his subsequent comments on ESPN muddied the issue, and, after watching the film, I’m more open to giving him the benefit of the doubt.

Fab Five also delves into the aspect of money and the players’ growing resentment at so much of it being made off their play and image.

The role of money in college sports is a topic larger than I can cover thoroughly in this post, but it is one that touched Traylor, whose life ended too soon, his acceptance of money notwithstanding.  Traylor’s death and Rose’s film give us an insight into an era whose legacy resonates today, even if the notes that it strikes are not all harmonious.


2 responses to “Robert Traylor’s Death, Fab Five Reconsidered

  1. An even-handed post, as usual, informative, interpretive, and entertaining all at the same time.

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