DETROIT – A big woman once lived in this small house on the city's tough west side. Jessie Mae Carter – all 6-foot-3, 270 pounds of her – was best known for her oversized traits: her frame, her laugh and her talent in the kitchen that produced scents that could tempt the entire neighborhood.
"You'd walk by that house and smell it and even if you weren't hungry, you'd get hungry," said Wanda Nelson, who lived around the corner. "Oooooh, could that woman cook."
In that house, out of that kitchen, Jessie Mae raised children and grandchildren – including one who became famous.
And on every possible occasion she'd entertain her extended family too. The entire clan would pack the place for her chicken and ribs, her cakes and pies, her hugs and smiles; generations of Jessie Mae's brood – including one who became infamous.
It was there that two young cousins first talked about how they were both going to make it big, make a name for themselves, make it out of Detroit and into one of those rich suburbs to the north where the auto execs live.
One, a grandson, everyone could see coming. He was all Jessie Mae, so big (growing to 6-foot-8, 300 pounds) and so gregarious that even as Robert Traylor went on to become a star at the University of Michigan and the sixth pick in the 1998 NBA draft he was still best known for his care-free attitude, girth and colorful nickname – "Tractor."
His cousin, Quasand Lewis, wasn't blessed with those physical gifts. At 6-foot, 205 pounds and six years older than Traylor, he was going to have to get out of Detroit another way, the hard way. But even early on at those family gatherings, relatives say, everyone saw the toughness, street smarts and determination that made big things, in a different way, possible for him, too.
So as Traylor went on to earn more than $11 million during a seven-year NBA career, moving, indeed, to the promised land of wealthy West Bloomfield, Lewis, at least monetarily, was doing him one better. He was living up to his end of those childhood dreams, arriving too amidst the cul de sacs and four-car garages of the same suburb. They were two cousins straight out of Detroit.
When Lewis was finally busted by federal authorities in 2004, he had sold an estimated $178 million in marijuana and cocaine in Metro Detroit and had associates with suspected links to nearly a dozen murders and four fire-bombed houses, according to federal prosecutors. They declared Lewis as the kingpin of a massive and ruthless organized crime ring and deemed him Michigan's biggest pot dealer, perhaps ever.
"For more than a decade (Lewis) subjected our citizens to violence, our neighborhoods to devastation," U.S. Attorney Stephen Murphy said.
Lewis had even found a way to reach back into Jessie Mae's house, back to those family cookouts, even after the big woman had died, her little house was long sold and the grandson she raised herself, Robert Traylor, should have known better.
"Quasand Lewis needed to launder drug money," Murphy said. "Robert Traylor helped him launder (nearly $4 million) of it."
Which is how Lewis wound up in federal prison for the next 18 years and Traylor, just two years removed from the NBA playoffs, two years from being LeBron James' teammate, is staring down a cell himself.
On March 18, 2004, the crime organization that Lewis, now 37, had built collapsed when a woman he didn't know, speaking a language he didn't understand, suffered a nervous breakdown over something she didn’t see.
Through court records, indictments, plea agreements, police reports, interviews and media accounts, Yahoo! Sports learned the story of the breakup of a major crime ring that eventually dimmed even the bright lights of the NBA.
On that fateful day, two of Lewis' couriers had rented room 102 of the StudioPLUS Hotel in suburban Novi where they had brought a number of huge, overstuffed bags filled with $3.4 million in cash, some marijuana, money counting machines and a lease to a house – where police later found computer files, written documents and cell phones. The couriers routinely moved money and drugs to and from Arizona, where they bought the marijuana, as well as operations in Ohio and Oklahoma.
The woman was a girlfriend of one of the couriers. In her unstable mind, the big bags of mostly cash looked like they contained a dead body. At first sight she flipped, ran down to the front desk and began screaming "he's dead" in Spanish. The startled hotel worker called the police.
There was no body, just an incredible amount of evidence that federal authorities painstakingly used to prosecute nearly the entire group and seize some $18.4 million in cash and property. There have been over 30 convictions of dealers, couriers, smugglers and hit men.
And money launderers, of course. One of the problems with dealing $178 million in drugs is finding a way to make all the bad money look good so the Internal Revenue Service won't question the big house, the new car or the opulent lifestyle.
"Drug dealing is a cash business," said Stephen Moore public information officer for IRS Criminal Investigations department. "You want to make the illegal cash look like legitimate money, you need to somehow get that money into the system. One way of doing that is buying assets. But you can't buy it in your name, so you put it in other people's names."
Lewis used a number of people to launder money, according to court records, and eventually he approached his rich hoops-playing cousin, with an easy proposition. Lewis would buy two apartment complexes in Detroit – one just off downtown, another in the Northwest part of the city for about $3.8 million – but would put the property in Traylor's name.
"Robert Traylor, as a professional basketball player, it wouldn't be unusual for a person of that nature to purchase such assets," Moore said.
What Traylor, now 30, got out of the deal is not known. He declined an interview request through his attorney. Lewis, meanwhile, is in federal prison in Florida and unavailable.
Traylor's attorney, Steven Fishman, says that although his client has mismanaged or given away much of his NBA money, he was not paid to be part of the transaction and contends it was mostly naivete that got him in trouble.
"Rob's a basketball player not a businessman," Fishman said. "Unfortunately he got some bad advice and he took it. Rob will tell you, 'It was my kin, he asked me to do it, I didn't think about it and now I'm paying for it. '"
Traylor's other mistake, the one he pled guilty to on a plea bargain, was his decision to declare a $205,668 loss on the two apartment buildings on his 2004 income tax return. That lowered his 2004 income from the $630,617 he earned mostly from the New Orleans Hornets to $424,949. According to Ivan Glasser, a Farmington Hills, Mich. accountant, it saved Traylor an estimated $80,000 in federal and state taxes.
For that he is waiting to be sentenced to between 8 and 14 months in federal prison.
"What I can't believe is (Traylor) didn't run it by me, I could have just said, 'Hey, no way,' " said Fishman, who is trying to have the prison time eliminated since Traylor is cooperating with authorities. "Rob's a good kid. He didn't even think about it. He was just doing a favor. He just thought he did his cousin a favor. They were always close.
"He's a man though. He's taking it and not blaming anyone else."
Tractor Traylor isn’t considered dangerous. Even though he awaits sentencing this summer, federal prosecutors and U.S. District Court Judge Avern Cohn viewed him such an unlikely flight risk that in March they allowed him to leave the country to play pro basketball in Spain. Traylor’s team, Gestiberica Vigo, had its season end with a 12-22 record last week.
Back in his old neighborhood, few can believe Jessie Mae's grandson, of all people, might be headed to prison. Robert Traylor isn't a criminal, they say. If anything, he is that same laid-back, blase personality who infuriated NBA coaches as he failed to shed pounds and realize his immense potential during his unspectacular, journeyman career with Milwaukee, Cleveland, Charlotte and New Orleans.
Traylor, his wife and two children might live in West Bloomfield, but he is a constant back in his old neighborhood, where his mom continues to live. At least twice a year, he throws a big block party, complete with inflatable trampolines, kids games, barbeque and in the summer, a fireworks display. Traylor sometimes even mans the grill himself, just like grandma.
"He's just real nice," said Wanda Nelson as she swept the street outside her home. "He comes back and does a lot for the community. I knew him when he was young. He's always been smiling."
While this isn't one of Detroit's worst neighborhoods – the street is tree-lined with small single family homes – it's by no means its best, either. A number of buildings are in serious disrepair or abandoned and just four doors from Jessie Mae's old home you can buy a comparable house for just $19,900. It's been on the market since December; no takers.
You can understand why those cousins wanted out, wanted better. In a 1999 interview with the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel Traylor talked about the challenges of surviving Detroit.
"Being from the inner city, I have a lot of friends who went the wrong way and didn't do the right thing," Traylor said. "Where I grew up … it's a situation where, you've got these people over here doing whatever and what-not, selling crack or stealing cars or whatever, and you've got these people over here who are trying to do the right thing.
"You just have to distinguish between the two and make sure you don't get involved in the wrong crowd."
That Traylor didn't know Lewis was the wrong crowd is difficult to fathom. Lewis ran his operation – which, according to prosecutors, included a bloody, fiery turf war with a rival group – with an iron fist. Neither his rep nor rap sheet – which included a previous prison stint on a cocaine bust – was a secret on the streets. Two relatives of Traylor and Lewis provided background information to Yahoo! Sports on the condition of anonymity in part because they still fear Cousin Q, even with him behind bars.
"He's smart, he's tough," said Fishman of Lewis, who coincidentally he used to represent. "You can't get to that level without being tough."
So the smart, tough cousin approached the simple, perhaps sheltered one and conned him?
"Traylor was a great player from such an early age," Fishman said. "When they show talent at such a young age, they (are) so cocooned. He (was) so insulated. He doesn't know.
"(Drug dealers) need squares to launder the money. And that is what Rob is. Even though he grew up in a tough neighborhood, he's a square."
Prior to this, Traylor's biggest trouble was his part in a Michigan basketball scandal that caused the NCAA to hammer the program. Traylor admitted that as a high school and college player he and his family accepted some $160,000 in cash and gifts from local basketball junkie Ed Martin, who used to run an illegal lottery at area Ford plants.
But that was nothing compared to this, a guy who got out of the old city neighborhood only to find a criminal element followed him to his new suburban one; a guy with seemingly everything, throwing it away to face nothing but uncertainty.
A guy who steered clear of so many wrong decisions, who made his own honest living, made his own success story, only to find here comes the cousin, here comes the old irresistible temptations from the old life, from the old parties at Jessie Mae's old house, the curse of the city snatching Robert Traylor right back down, right back down and out.
- Robert Traylor