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Denny Hamlin (after the Atlanta race in August) sports a familiar logo on the shoulder of his firesuit.

NASCAR to NBA: For Hamlin, the trip is just around the corner

By Denny Hamlin, Special to NBA.com
Posted Sep 10, 2012 8:02 PM

David Aldridge's Monday morning column, The Morning Tip, is on hiatus. Before he took off, Aldridge asked for volunteers to fill in while he's away. This week, NASCAR superstar Denny Hamlin, a longtime NBA fan, slips behind the wheel.

The regular Morning Tip is scheduled to return next week.

I started watching and becoming a fan of the NBA when I was younger. Just like everyone else back then, I was a huge Michael Jordan fan. You just love a guy who wins and dominates a particular sport. He was an awesome guy to watch. But then when he retired, I kind of got away from it a little bit.

It wasn't really until I went to a Charlotte Bobcats game and sat courtside one time in my buddy's seats that I started following it closely again. I was like, 'Wow, this is a lot of fun!' The atmosphere of a close game, being close to the players and watching how skilled and athletic they are, it was just so much fun that it didn't take much for me to become a huge NBA fan again.

That was in 2007. Immediately I was like, 'I want to go to more games.' I talked to the Bobcats' front office and expressed interest in getting season tickets. Some great seats became available and I moved right beside the opponents' bench.

That, to me, sealed the deal. I'm a guy who when I watch games on TNT, I watch for the Inside Trax because I love listening to what the players are saying and the coaches are saying inside the huddles. Getting those courtside seats next to the opponents' bench was as close as I could possibly be to that. Really, I go there just to watch and listen to what goes on behind the scenes as much as I do to actually watch the game.

It's interesting to hear some of the coaches' reactions when the Bobcats are beating them. They're not that happy. It's interesting to see some players who choose to listen or not to listen to their coaches. I'm a big fan of the nuts and bolts of things, so I love to watch, coming out of a timeout, how the players execute whatever play the coach has drawn up for them. As a fan, you look around and you might think they're just a bunch of guys running around, setting picks here and there, and that it's not all that orchestrated. But to me, it's like one of our pit stops. These guys are hitting their marks. It's amazing when they do it right and they get a lot of good shots. That part of it is cool for me.

Hanging with MJ

It's also been neat for me to get to know Michael Jordan a little bit. It started in 2010, I believe. I kind of walked by him at halftime whenever I went to a little bar area behind the court. So he was there one time, and he actually stopped me to congratulate me on my race the previous week. I don't know if we had won or been in contention to win. I was like, 'You watch NASCAR?' And he said, 'Yeah, I watch it every single week.' And he started asking me a couple questions like, 'What about this guy? Was this is a good move when that guy did this?' And I started thinking, 'Wow. This guy actually knows what's going on in our sport.'

So from that point on, we just started a texting conversation for the next few months, and basically I asked permission from him to represent the Jordan brand in NASCAR. He thought that was a great idea. He said he'd always wanted to be a part of NASCAR but never knew how to do it, so he appreciated getting the outlet to do that from us in a relatively limited manner, but still in a way that would be noticed. I think we did a good job of pitching them and Michael has so much say-so (with Nike) that pretty much anything he says goes there. [Hamlin began wearing Jordan-branded Nike apparel with the Jordan jumpman logo on his firesuits, gloves and shoes for all Sprint Cup races in 2011.] From that point on, he's been a big supporter of ours. He knows how important it is in our sport to represent companies the right way, like we do with FedEx, the primary sponsor on our No. 11 Toyota. He's done it for other companies himself.

It's been really good to get to play a little golf with him, too. We've played a handful of times, maybe five times. He's no different than I am. He's the most competitive guy you'd ever meet in your entire life. That's what makes champions, I guess you could say. He just wants to be the best at everything he does. He's hard on himself when he doesn't do well. He requested that we play together in a tournament at Lake Tahoe earlier this year, and so we got to play together a couple of days there. It's been a great relationship that we've built. He's there with encouraging messages for me when we need it, and he's there with congratulatory messages when we do well. So he's been a good friend.

As far as our golf games go, he's a little bit better than me. He's been doing it longer. I've only been playing golf for five years or so, maybe six years. So he's a couple shots better. He's probably, in my opinion, a four to five handicap. And I'm more in the nine to 10 range. But at least we can have a competitive game when we play.

Missing out on No. 1

And as a fan of the Bobcats, I try to return some of the support that Michael gives me by being a season ticket holder for the team he owns. Just like a lot of Bobcat fans, I was upset at not getting the first pick in the (2012) Draft. Anthony Davis obviously is going to be a franchise player. He's what we needed in the sense of a strong big man in there. So I was disappointed we didn't get him for about a month -- but in my opinion we ended up getting the second-best player in the Draft. I've watched Michael Kidd-Gilchrist play, and we've got a lot of positions that we needed to improve on. He's a great young player who only is going to get better over time, and we need more of those kinds of players. These things go in cycles and I think we've been through the bad times. Now it's a team that I think is trying to rebuild, getting younger and hopefully starting to get it all together. Oklahoma City had to do it; New Orleans has had to do it; other teams have had to do it. Eventually, you're going to get that franchise player and two or three other guys who are very important to the team and play well off each other, and that's when you're going to start winning. We saw last year where Miami won the title, but we almost beat them in the third game of the season. Any team can beat any other team on any given night during the season, but you've got to have the depth to be a consistent winner and get to the playoffs, go deep into the playoffs. That's what we need to work on over everything else. But I think we'll get there.

On the Bobcats, Gerald Henderson obviously is the most explosive player we have. I really enjoy watching him. And I love guys like Derrick Brown, who can just fly up there and dunk it. I just love watching that. It's fun to watch some of these individuals and the team grow. On other teams and how good they are ... well, I think you could say just about the entire Oklahoma City team, as far as how they play the game. They're so young and fast and they're a blast to watch.

LeBron James, I've interacted with him quite a bit. He's always very nice to me every time he comes to Charlotte, so he's one of my favorites. And really guys like Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose are just so much fun to watch.

Doug Collins is really great, too. He let me come in last year (in 2011) and talk to his guys before the playoffs against Miami in the first round. He was so nice to us. He had me talk about my experiences in the Chase for the Sprint Cup in 2010 [when Hamlin finished second to Jimmie Johnson and narrowly missed capturing his first championship], and what I learned. He really wanted me to talk to the young guys about enjoying themselves and living in the moment and not worrying about the outcome. I was honored to be able to do that, and was very impressed with how he related to his players. I first met him when we were in Dover (Del.) for a race and I went up to a Phillies' practice and met some players and Doug was there, too. He's always texting me to congratulate me or offer encouragement, so he's one of the biggest fans I've got in the NBA. So I also pull for him and the Sixers, as well as the Bobcats, my hometown team.

Pickup games

I used to play quite a bit of two-on-two basketball with Raymond Felton and a couple other guys when they were with the Bobcats. I'd have them up to my house [which at the time was right next to the home of Joe Gibbs, the former NFL coach who owns Joe Gibbs Racing and is Hamlin's boss]. I've moved and upgraded my court since then, so I'd love to have some guys back up there to play. We had a lot of fun. We'd have them up there on a couple of nights after we'd go out for dinner, and there would be some trash-talking and stuff. We'd take it to the court at night. Raymond and those guys were a lot of fun. Really, the faces have changed so much over the last couple of years that I haven't been able to build those kinds of relationships with the new guys.

I only had a half-court at the old house. Since I moved a couple miles away, I've upgraded to a full court with lights, a scoreboard, everything. We're pretty much ready to go, so that part of it's been fun. I still play even though I tore the anterior cruciate ligament in my left knee playing back in 2010. I'm just not nearly as aggressive driving to the basket and things like that. I mostly stand outside and shoot jumpers now. I might go in for a layup now and again, but I don't really try to take people off the dribble. That's what is so hard on the knees. After my ACL, I try to stay out of the lane. In fact, I try not to step any foot inside the paint whatsoever if anyone else is around in there. That's how I got myself hurt last time. I'm more of spot-up guy than anything, especially now with the knee.

I really do love basketball. When I was 10 years old, I played around with some other sports. I raced when I was a kid from 7 to 8 years old, and when I turned 9 I went through a stage where I wasn't 100 percent sold on racing, so I tried baseball and basketball and things like that. But really, for me, I took a year or two off from racing and then wanted to get right back into it. My parents were like, 'OK, if you're really going to do this, you can't do any other sports. You really need to focus on this one sport.' So I tried it when I was 10 and I really wasn't very good at basketball then.

I've definitely got a better skill set now. Maybe it's from watching so much NBA.

James Dennis Alan "Denny" Hamlin, 31, has won 21 races in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, 11 in the Nationwide Series and one race on the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. He was the 2006 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Rookie of the Year and the first rookie to ever qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup. He drives the No. 11 FedEx Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing in the Sprint Cup Series and the No. 18 Toyota in the Nationwide Series.

By virtue of his series-high four wins on the season, Hamlin is the top seed heading into the Chase for the Sprint Cup that begins this Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway. The 10-race Chase determines the season's Sprint Cup champion.

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