Commentary

Former NBA player Hammonds a positive role model in Pro Stock

He is a family man, a devout Christian and a respected member of the NHRA community. His name is Tom Hammonds, an NBA player-turned-drag racer who simply wants to make a difference, writes Bill Stephens.

Updated: February 28, 2008, 1:39 PM ET
By Bill Stephens | ESPN.com

Pick up the sports page of any daily newspaper or watch the next edition of "SportsCenter" and you won't be able to avoid the obvious.

[+] EnlargeTom Hammonds
AP Photo/Eric RisbergTom Hammonds on his Race for Achievement program: "I want to stress to students it is OK to be smart and do well in school, because without an education, it can be difficult to fulfill your dreams."

Not all the news is positive.

From steroid scandals to allegations of cheating to episodes of drug possession and DUI arrests that now ricochet through the world of professional sports on almost a regular basis, youngsters who are drawn to athletics -- either as fans or participants -- are having to dig a little deeper to find positive and inspiring stories about today's sports personalities.

Tom Hammonds thinks it's time to reverse that trend.

A former NBA star in Washington, Denver, Charlotte and Minnesota, Hammonds is now at the helm of his own NHRA POWERade Pro Stock team and is using his racing connections to energize his Race for Achievement program, aimed at influencing and encouraging kids of middle-school age to take their education seriously. Another important byproduct of the RFA program is to put a positive spin on the image young people may be drawing of professional athletes.

"I started this program to target youth around the country, encouraging them to pursue their dreams through school achievement," Hammonds explained. "With this program, I want to stress to students it is OK to be smart and do well in school, because without an education, it can be difficult to fulfill your dreams."

The 41-year-old resident of Crestview, Fla., has always been attracted to the quarter-mile. During his NBA career, Hammonds became well-known in several street-legal drag racing series, driving his own big-block-powered Chevy Camaro, which at one time was the quickest street-legal race car in the country. In 2001, he retired from the NBA and devoted himself to the NHRA's Pro Stock class full-time.

But Hammonds soon diverted his career path yet again, this time to retail automobile sales, putting his drag racing pursuits on hold while he owned and managed a successful Chevrolet dealership in Darlington, S.C.

[+] EnlargeTom Hammonds
AP Photo/Jack SmithTom Hammonds, right, retired from the NBA in 2001 after averaging 5.3 points per game for four different teams over 12 seasons.

Following the sale of Hammonds' dealership in 2005, the former power forward returned to Pro Stock with a new Chevy Cobalt powered by his own in-house engine program and overseen by crew chief and longtime NHRA Pro Stock veteran Jerry Eckman. As a devout Christian, outstanding family man and a respected member of the NHRA community, it was a logical step for this soft-spoken, courteous gentleman racer to combine his passion for drag racing with his unselfish desire to help kids make the most of their lives.

With help from O'Reilly Auto Parts, Chevrolet, MAC Tools and Goodyear, Hammonds makes scheduled stops at middle schools in the vicinity of NHRA POWERade national events, where he talks to student assemblies about the importance of using education to guide their aspirations in life. His Chevy Cobalt is displayed at these school appearances and students have the opportunity to earn the position of Honorary Crew Chief at the NHRA race, based on a minimum B grade average, good conduct and a good attendance record.

"There's really too much negativity going on in professional sports right now and it's having an effect on kids," said Hammonds, whose college jersey at Georgia Tech was retired following a scholastic career in which he became the fourth-highest scorer in GT history.

"The time to motivate and inspire kids is a narrow window, and once you've lost the opportunity to point them in the right direction, you can't get it back. Most kids want to learn and want to succeed, but if they see athletes and role models send negative messages through their damaging behavior, kids can get disillusioned and cynical. I'd like to try to provide some positive balance to that negativity."

One of Hammonds' most enthusiastic boosters is Fred Simmonds, the drag racing marketing manager for General Motors.

"Chevrolet has been proud to have been associated with Tom for several years, and now with his Race for Achievement program, he's shown once again that he is truly a professional racer and team owner," Simmonds said. "We're sure that his program will positively touch many hundreds of students all over the country."

Positively touch. That's the whole idea.

Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com.