If Brad Daugherty wasn’t the only player in NBA history to choose his uniform number as an homage to his favorite NASCAR driver, then he’s on a very short list.
After an eight-year career with the Cleveland Cavaliers during which he made five All-Star teams and retired (prematurely because of back problems) as the franchise’s top scorer, Daugherty had his No. 43 retired.
Forty-three. It’s number permanently associated with his boyhood idol, Richard Petty, a number that stood not only as a symbol of Daugherty’s lifelong love for auto racing, but foretold his second career after his days on the hardwood ended.
The transition from basketball to auto racing may seem unusual, but for the gracious Daugherty, it was as natural as can be. He grew up around the sport in North Carolina, has owned teams on various circuits, and can currently be seen in a prominent role as a racing analyst on several ESPN programs, including “NASCAR Countdown” and “NASCAR Now.”
I had a chance to talk to Daugherty leading up to this weekend’s Sprint Cup race in Loudon about his mutual sports passions.
We’ll start with the obvious, the question I’m sure you get in every interview: How does a guy with such a decorated basketball background — star at North Carolina where you played with Michael Jordan, No. 1 overall pick in the ’86 draft, multiple All-Star selection — end up so involved and associated with NASCAR?
Daugherty: “I grew up in a little town in western North Carolina, in Black Mountain, North Carolina, and my dad and grandpa, they were all huge race enthusiasts, tinkered with race cars, built race cars, drag cars, everything. We had a local speedway in the neighbor town of Asheville and we’d always be there at that track watching races. I was just always around it, the pieces, the parts, since I was a little kid. The big item in our little local newspaper was how the local racers had done. We had Jack Ingram, who has a lot of success on the short-track series, and that was a huge deal in our community, so it was all around us. It was all my dad and uncles talked about, and when you’re a little kid, you want to do what they do. I learned to work on race cars, it was just normal to me.”
Did you stay involved in racing even as your basketball career was taking off, whether that was high school, college, or even into your NBA career?
Daugherty: “Oh, yeah. I played all sports, baseball, basketball, and football, and I was pretty good at all of them. I wanted to go to college and I knew the best opportunity to go to college was through an athleltic scholarship, because people weren’t lining up to throw academic grants at me at that point in time. I had this big old body and I like to play sports, period, and worked really hard on my basketball and ended up going to North Carolina and playing for coach [Dean] Smith. But I still was always hanging around race tracks, building late-model stocks, because Robert [Pressley, a childhood friend] was racing all over the country, and I spent every weekend I could at the race track dabbling in something or at a NASCAR race. By my senior year, Robert and I built a late-model stock together, and my rookie in the NBA, I had a couple more quarters to rub together, so we could build a couple nicer race cars, and won a Mid-Atlantic regional championship, which as a pretty darn big deal. Then in ’88, I want to say, we build a couple Busch Series cars, got a motor, and won our fourth race. First rookie driver and first rookie owner ever to do so. So that was pretty cool.”
You had some success as an owner on the Truck Series, discovering such drivers as Kevin Harvick and Kenny Irwin Jr., but you did step away for racing for a couple of years after the death of your friend Irwin. What brought you back to the sport, and how did the eventual transition to talking about racing on television develop out of that?
Daugherty: “I had a lot of fun, owning a team on the Truck Series and so on, but I did, I got out when Kenny got killed. I lost a little bit of steam there, losing one of my buddies. So I got out for a little while, sat on the NASCAR rules committee, and about four years ago, I was doing some college basketball broadcasting for ESPN. And it was funny, Dr. Jerry Punch, who has been a good friend of mine forever, we’d been partnered up to do some college basketball games. And the producer was always yelling at us because any break we had or at halftime or what have you, we’d sit there and talk NASCAR the whole time. And he’d say to me, ‘Man you need to get back into racing, you need to get your race team going.’ And I said, ‘It doesn’t feel the same after Kenny lost his life,’ and Doc [Punch] mentioned that ESPN was getting the TV package back the next year and he said I should do some racing analysis, that it would be a blast. I said, ‘Doc, I don’t know, people have a tough time when they see you do something for so long, it’s hard to change in their mind.’ The following year, I was sitting on my couch watching a race, and Doc calls, and he said, ‘I’m here with the executive producer, Jed Drake, and I told him about your racing background, he knows all about it, and he wants to talk to you for a bit. And he said, ‘I want you to come over and join our race broadcasting team.’ I told him I was had been talking to some guys about ownership in a Nationwide team, and he said, ‘That’s absolutely no problem at all. This isn’t stick-and-ball where there’s direct competition, it’s 40-something teams all doing their own thing,’ and so I told him I’d give it a shot. It’s been about six years now, and I’m having an absolutely great time. Doc was right.”
Your mutual passions for basketball and racing probably were looked at as a bit unusual by your teammates in the NBA. Or were there a couple of guys during your days with the Cavs who shared your interest in NASCAR?
Daugherty: “I always knew I’d be doing something racing-wise at this point in my life. Always knew it. I was so fortunate with the Cavs, because Larry Nance came along about my third year there. He owned a couple of cars, a couple of dragsters, and that was all we did was talk racing. We used to go over to his shop, every day after practice we’d go over there, and we were either working on Larry’s race car or another friend’s race car, and we’d come to practice with busted-up fingers. Lenny Wilkens was like, ‘I don’t get it.’ But Larry, I could sit and talk to him about racing all day. It was incredible to have a buddy who loved racing as much as I did on the same basketball team. You have a lot of guys, a lot of urban guys, who had no clue. They could care less. They just thought we were a couple of idiots who knew way too much about cars to be playing basketball.”
The sports do have some things in common — the competition, for starters, and the teamwork required for success. Was there something you got from basketball that you don’t from auto racing, or vice versa?
Daugherty: “I love what basketball did for me as an outlet. It put me in the best physical condition of my life. I loved the way the game played because everyone has a job to do, and if everyone does their job on the basketball court, it’s a beautiful game. It really is. I loved the strategy part, the competition part of it, and trying to outthink, outplay, out-position, out-strategize your opponent. It was awesome. What happened for me is that I loved both [basketball and auto racing] with a passion, and when one door closed, it enabled me to come home and begin focusing on racing. As long as I was physically capable of playing basketball, I was going to play basketball. I loved to do it. I’ve been so lucky to have both, to be able to transition from one to the other, because they’ve both meant so much to me for as long as I can remember.”