Hamlin became friends with MJ after meeting at a game in 2010
Denny Hamlin will never jump on a bicycle and ride for 50 miles like Jimmie Johnson, or lace up running shoes and run a marathon like Jamie McMurray. He doesn’t have the patience or the interest required for either one. But give Hamlin a basketball and a hoop, and he will play for hours.
After Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing, moved to Charlotte to become a full-time driver in the mid-2000s, he played in a local league in a Charlotte neighborhood called Birkdale, home to many in the NASCAR community.
“I had an outdoor court, and that was fun for like two months of the year when the weather was good — it was either too hot or too cold, usually,” Hamlin told NASCAR.com. “And then I decided I wanted to build my own house. It was high on my priority list to have a full indoor court, and eventually I wanted to move the Birkdale basketball league to here, but instead we just started our own league.”
Hoop Group, as Hamlin dubbed the league that meets in his indoor court, will start its sixth season this year. And league is the right word. It’s not just pickup. There are uniforms, referees and a trophy for the championship winner. Last year, Hoop Group ran from March 19 until June 4, with games every Monday.
The list of Hoop Groupers includes drivers (Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Bubba Wallace, Austin Dillon), media members (NBC play-by-play man Rick Allen, former driver/team owner Michael Waltrip, now a commentator on Fox) and others.
At the center of it all is Hamlin, who keeps playing despite a history of injuries suffered in the sport. He tore the ACL in his left knee in 2010 and in his right knee in 2015, and he fell hard enough on his hip in 2008 that he walked with a noticeable limp days later.
“I’d like to say I was going up for a dunk, but I think everybody knows that ain’t true,” Hamlin said a few days later.
Those injuries haven’t diminished his passion for the sport. He has owned courtside season tickets to the Charlotte Bobcats/Hornets for more than a decade. His girlfriend, Jordan Fish, with whom he has two children, is a former cheerleader for the team.
Hamlin and NBA Hall of Famer Michael Jordan, owner of the Hornets, became friends after meeting at a game in 2010.
“I was walking out at halftime. He stopped me and asked me about a race that happened a couple of weeks ago. I said, ‘Wow, you watch NASCAR?’” Hamlin says. “He said, ‘Yeah, take my number, we’ll get up and go to a race or something sometime.’ I remember him texting me for the whole second half. I was wondering, ‘What the heck is going on?’ I didn’t realize he was as big of a racing fan as he was. Still to this day, he sends me good luck messages every week.”
The two often play golf together, and in 2014, when Hamlin was among the final four fighting for the championship, Jordan and his family flew to Florida to support Hamlin in advance of the race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Hamlin met LeBron James in 2010. Last year, James arrived for a game during the NBA Finals wearing shoes with purple suede that had been cut out of Hamlin’s racing shoes (pictured below). That becomes marginally less strange when you know both James and Hamlin have sponsorship deals with Nike.
Hoop Groupers see their league as a chance to get some exercise and indulge their competitive natures. Bragging rights are at stake, and occasionally rivalries on the track spill onto the court. Last year, when Hamlin and Wallace feuded after a crash coming to the checkered flag in the Daytona 500, Wallace did not play in the league until they reconciled.
On the track, last year was marked by a battle between older drivers and the younger ones aiming to replace them. There is a similar battle on the basketball court. The older drivers emerged victorious on the track; not so much on the court. “It’s not always great basketball,” Hamlin told USA Today, “but it’s fun for us.”
—by Matt Crossman