Traylor became fiercely loyal to the coach whose faith had helped his self-confidence. A year after leaving New Orleans and taking over the Cavs, Silas brought Tractor along, and their bond deepened.

“I was having some issues with the players and he took it up for me,” Silas says of Traylor, who played in 438 NBA games and averaged 4.8 points and 3.7 rebounds per outing. “I have not had many players ever do that, but I had gone to bat for him in Charlotte  and now he went to bat for me. It’s hard to say just how much I appreciated that.”

Fisher and Silas tell remarkably similar stories about their relationships with Traylor over the years. Unlike many former players, they say, he didn’t just call when he wanted a favor. He genuinely wanted to stay in touch. He asked about their families and they knew it was because he cared, not out of politeness or shallow manners. And they both say that he was not bitter about his fate. He didn’t curse the world for having ended up a global basketball nomad.

Traylor failed a physical after signing with the Nets in 2005 when doctors discovered an enlarged aortic valve. He had heart surgery in November, 2006, then sat out a year and half before restarting his career overseas, in Spain, Turkey, Italy and Mexico. He moved on to his final stop, Puerto Rico’s Bayamon Cowboys, before last season.

In Puerto Rico, he quickly became the Cowboys’ most popular player, to the surprise of absolutely no one who ever met him.

“He was a leader of the team,” manager Jose Carlos Perez told the Associated Press after Traylor’s death. “He was very, very friendly. He got along very well with everyone. The fans loved him, idolized him.”

“Look, anyone who plays in the NBA and then ends up elsewhere wants to get back,” says Silas. “But Robert was very satisfied in Puerto Rico, making some money for himself and his family playing the game that he loved. He admired what he was doing and he wasn’t bitter. He just missed his wife and kids.”

Perez told the AP that Traylor was speaking to his wife on the phone when the connection cut off. Concerned, she called the team, who checked on him and found him deceased. Back in Michigan, now trying to pick up the pieces, a quiet but eloquent Raye Traylor is happy to talk about the man with whom she shared her life for 12 years.

“It was very hard for Robert to be away from us for so long, but he loved Puerto Rico,” she says. “He had made good friends and made himself a part of the community there, like he did everywhere else he ever lived. The kids missed him tremendously, and when he was home, there was only one place that RJ wanted be—with his dad. They spent all day together every day.”

Anyone who has ever been a parent or a child—everyone, that is—can understand the Traylor family tragedy. Seven-year-old RJ is lucky to be the son of someone who was so well-loved and who had so much love to give, and, of course, terribly unlucky to lose him at such an early age.

My own son is almost 14 now, and the Tractor doll is still on his dresser. It used to be a sort of kitschy marker of his Ann Arbor roots, but now it’s something else: a reminder of the fragility of life, and a totem of someone I’m happy for my boy to have as an idol. And that’s the truth.