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Former NBA All-Star Daugherty has always been a racer at heart

MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- Brad Daugherty stands out in a crowd at a NASCAR race. After all, he's the only 7-foot African American team owner in the Sprint Cup garage area.

But those who know Daugherty best aren't surprised that this former University of North Carolina basketball All-America and five-time NBA All-Star is involved in racing, because deep down it's his true passion.

"I still watch a lot of college basketball and I'm a huge college basketball and college football fan," Daugherty told SI.com last Friday as he was driving to Road Atlanta to compete in a sports car race. "But I'm a racer, man. I love racing. I'm passionate about racing. I always have been since I was a little kid. Racing is what I do. It's what I'm all about. It's how I earn my living these days, even though it isn't much of one. I enjoy the hell out of it and work as hard as I can at it."

Daugherty has enjoyed two careers in two totally different professional sports. Basketball brought him to UNC as a 16-year-old freshman in the fall of 1982 to play for legendary coach Dean Smith. He was a two-time Atlantic Coast Conference first-team selection and a second-team All-America in 1986 after averaging more than 20 points his senior season. He was taken first overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 1986 NBA draft and would go on to average 19 points and 9.5 rebounds per game during an eight-season career. He retired as the Cavaliers' all-time leading scorer with 10,389 points (a record since surpassed) and 5,227 rebounds.

But even during his impressive basketball career he was a racer at heart. Take his basketball jersey number: 43.

"Richard Petty was my dad's hero and that is why I wore No. 43 in my basketball career because of that," Daugherty recalled.

Although basketball brought Daugherty fame, glory and riches, he has moved on, playing an active role in NASCAR both as a part owner of JTG Daugherty Racing and as an analyst on Nationwide and Sprint Cup telecasts for ESPN. He has been part of ESPN's telecasts of NASCAR since 2007 and is a regular on Inside NASCAR on Showtime. The new roles haven't brought him glory (yet), but they have brought him some fame.

"I was in the grocery store this morning in my hometown and this little old lady comes up to me and says, `Hey, you're Brad Daugherty, that NASCAR guy,'" Daugherty said. "I have had two careers. I grew up as a kid loving racing and I grew up around racing and always wanted to be involved in racing. I loved to play basketball. Growing up in the state of North Carolina you have both sports available to you. That's what we do in North Carolina -- play basketball and go racing."

Daugherty admits he had more of an interest in racing as a kid growing up in Black Mountain, N.C., along the Blue Ridge Mountains near Asheville than in basketball. But at 7-feet tall and with incredible athletic gifts, basketball was the key to bigger and better things.

"I played football, baseball [and] was a pretty good athlete, but I always loved working on race cars and racing a little bit," Daugherty admitted. "I look back on it and I never had any aspirations of playing in the NBA. I just wanted to go to college and utilize my basketball skill to get myself a free education, if I could. I just kept getting better and better. I ended up playing in the NBA and had a great time and did the best I could -- always gave it my best effort.

"I wanted to stay involved in basketball because I love college basketball, but I also knew I was going back to racing in some shape or form. I wanted to get back in the ownership side of it so I started working immediately on putting together some opportunities. I was in the Truck Series for a number of years, and NASCAR asked me to sit on their rules and competition committee back in the late 1990s and early 2000s. I got back involved in the Nationwide Series. I knew I would be involved in racing in one way or another."

Even in NASCAR today there are skeptics who wonder why Daugherty is involved both as a team owner and television analyst. Some can't get beyond the fact that he was an NBA player, while others may still have an issue that he is a black man involved in NASCAR.

"It's a very small percentage but there are people in the media who don't like the position I'm in. There is nothing I can do about that. There will always be bias and racial differences. I think that is reality. But man, I love racing. I've met some of the best people in my life at the racetrack."

While his father's favorite driver may have been "The King" -- Richard Petty -- Daugherty's racing role model was African American driver Wendell Scott, who endured the racism of the 1960s and 1970s as he competed on a fairly frequent basis in NASCAR.

"Wendell Scott, I admired that man," Daugherty said. "I have Wendell Scott's spirit in me. ... I've gone to the library and pulled articles and read about this man, who endured tremendous torment and sacrifice and pain to follow his passion, and because of what he did, I get to do what I'm doing today.

Daugherty's involvement in racing isn't limited to the ownership side. He's also a driver. He competes in late model races and last Monday tested a NASCAR Camping World Truck vehicle prepared by Andy Petree at Martinsville in Virginia. Daugherty ran between 200 to 300 laps. Last Friday, he was on his way to Road Atlanta to compete in the STR2 division of the National Auto Sport Association (NASA) Series -- a sister division to the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) Road Racing.

Daugherty has shown skill behind the wheel, sitting third in points in STR2. But he will have to win the season's final two races to have a shot at the points lead. He won three races in STR2 last year.

That Daugherty and his 7-foot-frame sit comfortably behind a wheel may surprise many. But his cars have been specially modified so that he can get in and out car easily and have a little extra room inside. Even with the added room, the racing is tough.

"Racing is hard. It is frustrating and it is difficult," he said. "When you run pretty decent it is satisfying. Everybody is really good and some nights you give it your best and it doesn't add up and that is frustrating. They are both very, very challenging, no doubt."

Balancing that, TV gigs and ownership? That's even tougher.

"I ask myself how did I get involved in this about 364 days a year," Daugherty admitted. "It's a hard business. You really try to compete with the guys. You want to compete against Roger Penske and Rick Hendrick and Jack Roush. You are scratching and clawing and finish 29th in points and we were going as hard as we could go. ... It's a difficult business; a hard business.

"It's not for the faint of heart."

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