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Cavs legend prefers NASCAR over ‘The Last Dance’

Brad Daugherty talks Michael Jordan and NASCAR’s return during the pandemic

Former Cleveland Cavaliers star Brad Daugherty has not watched one episode of The Last Dance.

“I haven’t watched one peep of it,” Daugherty told The Undefeated about the ESPN documentary about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. “I hear about it all the time. I get calls from people. … I appreciate Michael Jordan for what he is and I’ve known him forever. Great basketball player. But I don’t get caught up.”

Daugherty, who was a teammate of Jordan’s at the University of North Carolina and whose Cavs had many intense battles with Jordan’s Bulls, has spent much of his time watching NASCAR instead.

The five-time NBA All-Star is a co-owner of JTG Daugherty Racing, which he formed with Tad and Jodi Geschickter and Gordon Smith in 1994. Based in Harrisburg, North Carolina, this year’s NASCAR Cup Series team features drivers Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Ryan Preece, who will both race on Sunday at the Supermarket Heroes 500 from Bristol Motor Speedway.

Considering NASCAR is not a popular sport among African Americans, Daugherty has received countless questions from black people about his surprising love for it.

“They are like, ‘What? NASCAR? You’re a basketball player. You’re African American. Why?’ ” Daugherty said.

Daugherty first fell in love with racing cars as a kid growing up in the predominantly white town of Black Mountain, North Carolina. He was introduced to the sport by his friend Robert Pressley (who would later become a NASCAR driver).

“My best friend’s dad (Bob) was an iconic race car driver,” Daugherty said. “We’d play basketball and then he had to work on race cars. One day we were shooting some hoops … and he said, ‘Man, I got to work on my dad’s race car, can you help me?’ ‘Yeah, I can help you.’ We worked on this race car and eventually I learned to pull the motor and transmission apart.”

Daugherty, who said his father and uncle used to race hot rods on Black Mountain streets, started going to races.

“I went to races with my dad,” he said. “But I went with [Pressley’s] family one time and it was unbelievable. The power. The speeds. The sound. And I never thought of anything else. No one ever bothered me. It started me being enamored with race cars.”

A.J. Allmendinger (right), driver of the No. 47 Scott Products Chevrolet, celebrates with team owner Brad Daugherty (left) in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Cheez-It 355 at Watkins Glen International on Aug. 10, 2014, in Watkins Glen, New York.

Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Daugherty went on to own a Busch circuit team in 1984 while he was at UNC. In the ’90s, he owned 50% of Liberty Racing, which fields a Craftsman Truck team and a Busch Grand National team. Today, Daugherty is the only black owner in NASCAR’s national series.

“Brad’s involvement in NASCAR has been very beneficial,” said Dawn Harris, NASCAR senior director of multicultural development. “From growing up as fan in North Carolina to now being a team owner, he is a testament to the myriad of ways a person can have a lifelong interest, passion and engagement in the sport. He has been a pioneer in that regard.”

Daugherty, who played eight seasons in the NBA, has been proud of NASCAR’s efforts to get more minorities on the racetrack and in the stands. The NASCAR Diversity Internship Program (NDIP) for college students from diverse backgrounds has had more than 400 students and several industry partners since it debuted in 2000. The NASCAR Drive for Diversity Pit Crew Development Program, launched in 2016, also trains men and women of color who aspire to be pit crew members. In 2015, NASCAR also distanced itself from the Confederate flag.

Although Darrell “Bubba” Wallace is currently the only African American driver among the three levels of NASCAR’s top series (Cup, Xfinity and Gander RV & Outdoors Truck), Daugherty hopes the sport will continue to become more diverse.

“It’s just been very, very difficult outside of Darrell Wallace, obviously, to get more participation from African Americans at the Xfinity and Truck level,” Daugherty said. “It’s been disappointing. It’s been hard. But I do see more and more people of color on pit row, and that excites me. On the race teams, there are a lot of people that are African American.

“Diversity goes beyond African American. But for me, it’s sentimental because I’m an African American kid from the South. I see a lot of brothas working on race teams and African American women, and it’s gotten better. Is it where I’d like to see it be? I don’t think it will ever be. But it’s come a long way.”

NASCAR had an unfortunate setback in April when six-time NASCAR Cup Series winner Kyle Larson was fired by Chip Ganassi Racing and lost major sponsorships after using the N-word during a livestreamed virtual race. Larson, who is half-Japanese, was a graduate of NASCAR Drive for Diversity.

“I’ve spoken to Kyle Larson a lot through the years. Very good race car driver,” Daugherty said. “But I’m very disappointed, as many are … and he is paying a heavy price for it. …

“It made it really tough because it set the sport back. A sport that has already struggled to try to pull itself up in diversification efforts. It set us back another decade, too. He seems to be very contrite and learned an incredible and very expensive lesson, if anything.”

During the pandemic, Daugherty, 54, has not attended a race nor been back to his home in Florida. He was in San Diego for the birth of his first grandchild in March, and stayed there for two months due to coronavirus concerns. Since then, he has been living in his vacation home in Santa Barbara, California, and hopes to return to North Carolina soon.

NASCAR returned to action on May 15 in Darlington, South Carolina, after more than a two-month hiatus. Daugherty has been involved with his team in making decisions throughout the pandemic and said NASCAR has been incredible for safely and intelligently becoming one of the first sports to return, albeit without fans.

“We felt like if we all took the appropriate measures as these phases started to roll out in each state, that there was ample opportunity to get back to work and do it in a safe and responsible way,” Daugherty said. “Obviously, not having fans in the stands is difficult. That is why you have sports, to participate in front of the fans. But I think [our return] is a big first step to getting back to sports. We have to all adjust and it’s going to be very different.”

When asked what advice he would give NBA commissioner Adam Silver in his league’s hopes to return to action, Daugherty said: “You have to make sure everyone is well-protected to participate. These guys are the healthiest of athletes. Even if they’re asymptomatic, they recover pretty well. You give the guys a couple of weeks, two to three, of regular season to play and get back in basketball shape before the playoffs.

“It’s going to be fine, but it will be hard to play basketball without the fans. With a race car, you have headphones on and don’t hear anyone anyway. But in basketball, you will hear squeaking shoes the whole time. It will be hard. We’re in a good position where if you keep fans away, guys can play and you just monitor their health. The thing can slowly trickle back to playing.”

While Daugherty is focused on his NASCAR team, he has been able to reconnect with his former Cavs teammates, thanks to The Last Dance. And he wants to set the record straight on “The Shot,” which Jordan hit over Craig Ehlo during the 1989 playoffs.

Michael Jordan (right) of the Chicago Bulls works his way around Cleveland Cavaliers big man Brad Daugherty (left) in first-half action at the Coliseum in Richfield, Ohio, on March 28, 1990. Jordan had 69 points, the most points scored in a game since 1978, leading the Bulls to a 117-113 overtime victory.

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Daugherty said head coach Lenny Wilkens called for forward Larry Nance to double-team Jordan with Ehlo on that play. Nance, however, lost Jordan.

“Michael faked Larry and it ended up getting Larry crossed up,” Daugherty said. “That was the problem, because Craig was a step off of Michael. That gave Michael just enough time to get that shot off, but it wasn’t supposed to happen. Larry was supposed to be there. …

“I heard Craig say it was life-changing for him with people asking him all the time. And I looked at Craig and that guy was a heck of a defender. … But no one really knows that or talks about that because they’re so enamored with talking about Michael, which I understand because he was one of the greatest ever. But I don’t overlook all that.”

Nor will he forget his battles with the Bulls.

“We used to wax them,” he said.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.