November 4, 2010
Kirk Hinrich's competitive level is off-the-charts.
By Stephen Elliott
Here, against a green backdrop of green Boston jerseys, Kirk Hinrich switches hands, stutters ever so briefly, and lays the ball into the net. It’s not pretty, but it’s important.
It’s game six of the first round of the playoffs and it will go one more game. It was supposed to be over before it began, a first seed against the last seed, a team full of stars versus a team without any stars. It’s an impossible mission, unless you stop to wonder what makes a star. Or if you don’t stop at all. You tie your shoe laces, throw your jacket in the locker, exit from the locker room into the spotlight, and go to work.
Hinrich has been guarding, arguably, Boston’s two best guards. He’s learned to be this player, he’s had to be this player, capable of playing, and guarding, point guards, shooting guards, and small forwards. Everybody predicted a sweep. But here they are, at the end of game six, still alive.
Stop there. Kirk Hinrich didn’t start playing basketball in the pros. He started in Sioux City, Iowa, the county seat of Woodbury, on the western edge of the state, on the border of Nebraska and South Dakota, at the navigational head of the Missouri River. People that have lived there refer to it as an “honest town.” A factory town. They work hard.
There is a man in Sioux City people call “coach.” That man is Jim Hinrich, Kirk Hinrich’s father and his team coach from third grade through high school. Kirk attended West, one of three high schools in Sioux City. The bleachers were always crowded and an American flag hung at the end of the gymnasium. There are no professional sports teams in Sioux City, the closest professional teams are in Minnesota, or Kansas City far away, so high school sports matter. With Kirk leading and his father coaching, West won a remarkable 82 out of 91 games in four years, including a state championship. Even the rival teams cheered them on.
Tapes of those high school games show Kirk, pale and skinny in high shorts racing the green and tan slats, his father stalking in front of the team bench—a series of folding chairs. West High demolished opponents. But Kirk remembers the losses. On those days the table was longer, the light in the kitchen yellow and harsh. “It was hard, at home around the kitchen table, after we lost a game. My father was competitive. I was more competitive.”
Jim Hinrich taught Kirk early that if he wanted to play at the next level he’d have to work for it. That meant not just on the court but off the court as well. Kirk did his schoolwork and stayed out of trouble. He didn’t want anybody to say he should spend less time practicing. When he grew four inches in his sophomore year of high school he realized his dream of playing in the pros was in reach, but it would require focus.
And so, in a way, Kirk put aside his childhood to play a game.
He earned a reputation for playing hard. He put winning ahead of personal glory. But he never spoke of the game in complicated terms. “Statistics don’t win games,” Hinrich says. “Rebounds win games. Defense wins games.”
Hinrich’s game is straightforward. He watches the court, he never misses a practice, he listens to his coach. His teams almost always over-perform. He’s been the Chicago’s captain since his second year in the league. At the University of Kansas, Hinrich played on a team that made it to the final four in 2002 and lost in the final game in 2003.
His nickname is Captain Kirk.
In the 2003-04 season Kirk was named to the all-rookie team. He was the only rookie to record a triple double. In 2004-05 the team made it to the playoffs without a superstar—they wanted it more than other, flashier teams. They were following Hinrich’s lead. Since then, with Hinrich as their captain, the Bulls have made the playoffs every year except 2007-08.
In 2010, after seven years with Chicago, Hinrich was traded to Washington. “You look forward to it,” he says. “You look forward to every game no matter who you’re playing for.” Back in Sioux City, following the trade, ‘Positively Sioux Land’ a local radio segment that plays on three different radio stations in Sioux City— classic rock, country, and talk—several times a day, aired a special segment about Hinrich. They said they were proud of him for showing class when he was traded, for thanking the fans and praising his former team.
“I was a Chicago fan when Kirk was playing for Chicago,” said Sioux City Chamber of Commerce member Chris McGowan. “I’m going to be a Washington fan now.”
The new team is not the only change in Hinrich’s life. Two years ago Hinrich’s wife Jill gave birth to their first baby, a girl they named Kenzie. When asked if he would coach his daughter’s team as she gets older, presuming she wanted to play basketball, Hinrich paused thoughtfully. Maybe he was remembering Coach Hinrich and his own bond with the man who, “taught me everything I know.” Or maybe he was remembering those hard nights when they’d come home from a rare loss, sit glumly around the kitchen table, his mother’s warm hand on his shoulder. He was competitive. I was more competitive. “I don’t know,” he says suddenly. “I wonder. Maybe I will.”
Stephen Elliott is the author of seven books including The Adderall Diaries. In 95/96 he saw twelve of the Bulls’ 72 wins at the United Center in Chicago. In 2008 he missed an opportunity to meet Michael Jordan, choosing to attend an interview with a Portland college radio station.