- Scoop Jackson, ESPN.com columnist
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Funny story: While picking up the kids from school, my wife ran into two friends of mine. They asked where I was. She told them I was out interviewing Kirk Hinrich. They both asked, "Why?"
He walked through the locker room ready to battle. Mentally. Physically, he was taking the night off. Nothing serious (left elbow), just a precaution. It was the last game of the preseason, and Vinny Del Negro decided to sit all of his point guards -- Derrick Rose, Jannero Pargo and Hinrich -- making Lindsey Hunter do something that isn't part of his contract: play.
Still Kirk wanted in. Even when the game was meaningless.
But that's just who he is. The kid from Sioux City, Iowa, who while he's going into his fith year as the captain of an NBA team that's built for the playoffs -- and seventh season overall -- still feels he has something to prove. The type of guy who never wants anyone to wonder why he's being interviewed. That guy who needs to remind people that he is worthy.
"Outside of bringing energy and being solid on the defensive end, I think [the team] is going to count on me to score a lot more than it did last year with [Ben Gordon] being gone," he said. "I feel like last year, with my injury, I didn't know where my minutes were going to come [from] or what really was going to happen. But this year I feel that I'm going to play a much bigger role offensively. I'm just excited about the opportunity."
The opportunity. The opportunity to show us that a career low in points (9.9 per game) and games played (51) last season is not true to who he is or what he can do. The opportunity to show that he -- and not necessarily the return of Luol Deng -- will be the primary resource in filling the void left by Gordon. The opportunity to make sure that those who ask why he's getting media attention never ask that question again.
Over the past two years he's become a role player with no role. It's not his fault, but it's been challenging for two different coaching staffs to figure out exactly how to utilize the player who's been the nucleus of the franchise. It's like they are questioning his ability to put up big numbers or run the team, while using his heart and tenacity to define the team's DNA.
It's almost like they want him to be the new Jerry Sloan, but they won't let him, or he can't because too many forces around him won't allow it to happen. When I ask him about the Jerry Sloan Remix, Kirk kinda laughs. Because while he knows the legacy, he still doesn't know if it's on him to continue it.
"I never got the chance to see him growing up, you know what I mean?" he said. "But I've seen highlights and heard what people say about him. In my era he's been a coach that I respect a lot, so anytime anyone [makes the comparison] it's a great compliment. However they mean it."
And what they -- we -- mean is the comparison could work if Hinrich is given room to show and prove that he can be what this team is all about. As he said, it's "a team with no All-Stars," but with the heart, hustle and soul that no other squad in the league can match. And when a team has to play all out for all 82 games in order to make a statement worthy of attracting league-wide attention, it's a unique player like Kirk who will be the sole reason that team finds the success it is searching for.
As he sits by his locker, media members rotate around him like he's the sun. Some speak, others just look down at him and keep it moving. On his feet are white Converse One Star shower shoes, on his face Harrison Ford stubble, on his left wrist "Kenzie," his daughter's name.
He says that he doesn't think he's changed much since he came into the league six years ago. "My personality is pretty much the same," he said. "Off the court, just growing up, maturing. On the court, I've learned a lot, played a lot of games in this league, I've always tried to pick things up and learn things as I've gone along. So I feel like I'm definitely a much smarter player now as opposed to when I came in. I know the nuances of the game."
Smart enough to know that over the next six months he's going to have to re-prove himself to the team, to the fans, to this city.
"I've always felt that way," Hinrich said in response to feeling that he still has to prove himself. "Growing up, that's kind of what pushed me to get here. I definitely feel that I have to do that now.
"Two years ago, we had real high expectations, everybody expected us to go to the conference finals and it didn't happen for us. As a group, collectively, we didn't have a good year. The next year I get hurt in the fifth game of the season and I had to sit out. Last year, I was primed to have a really good year and I feel it just didn't happen for me. Now [I'm coming into this year] knowing that I can do a lot more things. I feel that I had a great offseason, and I'm ready to go out there and help this team make that next step."
And in his voice, a confidence. A sense of self-assuredness that probably wasn't there this time last year. Or the year before. Even when I asked him, "Who would have won that fight between you and Rondo?" (referring to the moment in Game 6 of last year's legendary opus with the Celtics when Rajon Rondo threw an elbow at Hinrich and Kirk went at Rondo like Tony Roach was his manager), his answer -- "Well everybody knows no one is actually going to get into a fight on the basketball court, because someone's going to step in" -- hinted at the fact that as long as he's in a Bulls uniform, this team will lie down or bow down to no one.
Basically, it was that moment when Kirk Hinrich endeared himself back to the city. His inner Sloan came out. He showed no punk, showed that this team -- his team -- wasn't going to be punked. That was when many began to understand his importance and value, when you could hear some Bulls fans actually saying, "Kirk Hinrich is kinda gangsta." Knowing that that is exactly what this team needed.
We just had no idea it was going to come from him.
True story: Around some parts of the city, Kirk Hinrich has become a forgotten man. Lost in the ascension of Derrick Rose, the awakening of Joakim Noah and the abilities of John Salmons. But if Bulls fans are to be honest with themselves, they know deep down that as Kirk goes so will go this team.
If the kid some call "CK" (Captain Kirk) is able to get back to the player that in 2007 was averaging 16.6 points per game, playing 35 minutes per and was all-NBA second team on defense, then a different outcome in a seven-game series against the Celtics next time may be closer to reality than thought.
And as the NBA season for the Bulls begins, so begins Kirk James Hinrich's process of making that "if" about him ... disappear.
Scoop Jackson is a columnist for ESPN.com.
5hMarc Stein and Tim MacMahon
56mMarc Stein and Calvin Watkins