When he was a hefty 11-year-old, Robert Traylor once asked his grandma Jessie Mae Carter, "After dinner, please save me a slice of sweet potato pie." Jessie Mae saved him a piece, but he scowled when she served it to him. "Grandma!" he said. "Don't you know that when I say slice, I mean an entire pie?"
A decade later Traylor, Michigan's 6'8" junior center, is several slices above 300 pounds, and now he's devouring entire teams. On Dec. 13 he stuffed in 24 points during an 81-73 upset of top-ranked Duke. On Feb. 22 he shoveled in 22 in a 112-64 rout of Indiana. In last Saturday's 76-70 victory over Wisconsin, he pigged out for 26 more. Performances like those by Traylor were the main reason that the Wolverines finished 21-8 in the regular season and assured themselves a seat at the NCAA tournament table.
The cherubic, engaging Traylor has been called Tractor since his days at Detroit's Murray-Wright High, where he was a varsity starter for four years. Back then he was as massive as the Renaissance Center and about as mobile. "Carrying 330 pounds wasn't easy," he says. "After two minutes I'd start sucking wind." A conditioning program last summer cut Traylor's body fat in half, to 12%. "I rebuilt my engine," he says. "Now I can go 15 minutes without needing to pull into a truck stop."
Traylor tends to view his opponents through a rearview mirror. He likens Duke's 6'8", 245-pound Elton Brand to a utility wagon and Penn State's 6'11", 225-pound Calvin Booth to a stretch limn. "I can move Calvin wherever I want, whenever I want," Traylor says. "It's nice to pull up in a limo, but when it's time to haul ass, you need an 18-wheeler."
For a big rig, Traylor has quick hands and executes the drop step with dancerlike grace. "When Robert wants space, he gets it," says Michigan coach Brian Ellerbe. "As a leaper, he's a freak of nature." Traylor's most dramatic leap this season has been at the foul line. In his first two seasons he connected on a Shaqesque 47.9%. He attributes his current 66.0% to Ellerbe's mid-practice free throw drills. Any Wolverine who misses more than three of 10 attempts must run the length of the court six times in 33 seconds. The only thing that motivates Robert more is Jessie Mae, who reared him.
A tall, ample woman with hair dyed magenta, Carter attends every Michigan home game. She and her daughter Lydia Johnson provide court-side fans with a running critique of the officiating. A standout center at the University of Detroit from 1978 to '80, Aunt Lydia taught her nephew his hoop fundamentals. "When I was eight," Robert says, "she'd take me on the court and beat up on me. It was hard to swallow."
We knew there had to be something.