Before Derrick Rose's MVP campaign, before Tom Thibodeau's throaty bellows, before Joakim Noah's gunplay gesticulations and the Bench Mob and Stacey King's rapidly revolving door of catchphrases, there were was a different sort of Chicago Bulls team. This Bulls team stalked a post-Jordan wasteland of sub-sub-.500 records, a mumbling Marcus Fizer leading them. These were my Bulls.
Which is childish to say, admittedly; we don’t say my Coca-Cola or my Beatles unless we are fourteen, or anyway we shouldn't. Forgotten teams, though, are a unique thing. Not contenders screwed out of title shots by refs or circumstance or Larry Hughes, but barely all right, cobbled together teams, their nucleii much more than a Skiles away from reinvention, the young players all works-in-progress and the veterans all a step too slow. No one remembers these teams except for those who watched them live; they exist not in record books or Wikipedia entries or “It’s FAN-tastic!” spots on TNT. They were only vaguely ever there in the first place.
Kirk Hinrich was the central figure for one such formative mediocrity. Hinrich established himself as an above-average point guard despite having no identifying characteristic but his Picasso looks—no lightning jab step or eye for no-looks, nothing that would earn a superlative beyond "consistent." But he was, for those early-aughts Bulls, an upper echelon wing defender and a capable-enough outside shooter. He, along with fellow “Baby Bulls” Ben Gordon and Tyson Chandler (and, later, previous Why We Watch subject Luol Deng), helped lead the franchise out of that long post-Jordan malaise into respectable playoff contention. The team came together enough to receive some buzz as Eastern Conference title contenders as recently as the 2007-08 season, despite their lack of a dependable scorer. They did not win an Eastern Conference title, of course. But that wasn't Kirk Hinrich's fault.
When the promise of those Bulls came apart in the wake of a messy attempt at trading for Kobe Bryant, Hinrich was abruptly revealed as something of an albatross: his statistics had hit a plateau, his contract was too large, and, most importantly, the Bulls lucked into the number one pick of the 2008 NBA Draft. Which is the one whose best player was Derrick Rose, a point guard genius, Chicago-born. Suddenly, Hinrich was very obviously on his way out. Here was a player whose coolest Jumbotron graphic portrayed as a crew member on the USS Enterprise*, overlaid with corny “Captain Kirk” text, being replaced by a hometown savant with generational athleticism and immaculate character. There was no way the Bulls would something silly—take Michael Beasley, trade out of the pick—as some nonetheless suggested they should. Rose was the pick, Hinrich was moved out of position and asked to mentor the prodigy; the path was clear and level and obvious for Hinrich to become a backup point guard earning $11 million a year.
There might’ve been a poetic ending: a magnificent performance in what could have been his last game as a Bull, or a memorable first-round playoff series against the Boston Celtics in which he got all up in Rajon Rondo’s face. Instead, Hinrich got an ignoble exit: given away for cap space—technically, for a second-round pick—so that the Bulls might more effectively pursue LeBron James in the free agency bonanza of 2010. What's worse, or feels worse, is that most Bulls fans, authorial company very much included, openly advocated for this. Hinrich was good, and his time with the team had been more enjoyable than disappointing. LeBron was then and is now LeBron James, and a dynasty is a dynasty.
It wasn't personal. Hinrich was an employee of a business, and business is business. We gleefully speculated as to how this newly available money could be used to lure a second major free agent to play alongside the King, and then watched, with slow horror, as rumors aligned to suggest that LeBron had chosen the Miami Heat well in advance of the ballyhooed Decision. Disgusted with myself for buying into the hype of the press charade, I’d scheduled a date that night, so that I might be out of the house and for the other reasons one might schedule a date. But my phone still lit up with texts marveling over the event, then speculating on what this would mean for the league; I finally shut the phone off rather than explaining what it meant or didn't that LeBron had chosen friendship over stability or legend or whatever motivations we’d all projected onto his psyche. I fell into that explanation anyways, but mercifully cut myself off when her understanding-yet-bored expression asked me to stop.
The date went well and I completely forgot about basketball for a few hours. It was only as I was walking back home that a drunk melancholy set in regarding the Heat’s impending dominance, and that the realization arrived as to what Bulls fans had given up in the hunt for such a ridiculous pipe dream. This was, for starters, our loyalty—admittedly, a concept which mainly exists as a golden ideal, and which has no natural place in the crass commercialism of modern sports. And then there was Kirk Hinrich, in Washington, as the victim of this capitulation.
I felt bad, in the deeply silly way that bred in sports fans over time, bound in some archaic notion of what should be fair or right. Hinrich had deserved more than being thrown away, especially for this, but also in general. On the sidewalk, a neighborhood cat who trotted over to me as I neared my house, and I hand-to-God bent down and sat in the dark for going on twenty minutes, rubbing this cat’s belly and muttering about how I hoped Derrick Rose might mature in the offseason, and how I wished Joakim Noah might sustain his newly revealed defensive acumen. "Things are going to be okay, cat," I probably said. "You understand me, and the way things are from now on." If I got any response, it was a mewl, and one easy enough to read as a decisive, feline Get over it.
And so I got over it. Even without LeBron, the Bulls vaulted into the league’s elite. Because of Rose’s transformation into a superstar, and because his supporting cast was carefully tailored around his emerging ability, the Bulls won the most games the franchise had won since the Jordan years during the team's first post-Hinrich season. Chicago was interested in basketball again; Facebook friends, uninterested during the Hinrich years, caught sudden cases of the die-hards; catchphases and slogans devoted to each player’s idiosyncrasies were born, and the Bulls recaptured their status as the city’s most beloved team. It was exciting to watch the Bulls win, even if they fell a little bit short of the title.
Hinrich, for his part, was shunted from Washington to Atlanta, losing in both places. The United Center still showed him love when he passed through town, and he professed to still carry warm feelings for the team that had tossed him to the side. And then it came together, maybe, or at least converged: Rose tore his ACL and was ruled out for most of the 2012-13 season; Hinrich’s onerous contract finally ended. Here was the chance, for whatever it worth: Hinrich could, albeit for a good deal less money, be the point guard of the team he never quite got to lead. And so it went: the Bulls picked up Hinrich, now in his early-30's and a lukewarm commodity at best, to spell Rose for however much of the season was necessary.
Part of the reason for bringing Hinrich back, I’m sure, was calculated: Without Rose, the Bulls aren’t going to be much better than a sixth seed destined to a first round exit; this is, unless you're in Brooklyn, not an easy sale to season-ticket buyers. Bringing back a one-time fan favorite—a gawky and, it must be noted, Caucasian guard whose jersey probably still hangs in plenty of closets—makes for an easy play for likeability, if not necessarily an inspiring formula for winning. And of course Hinrich is not who he used to be, and injury and age have made it difficult to know what to expect in terms of production.
If I'm being honest, I'll admit it: I do not care about that. Call me a sucker for simply being happy enough that Hinrich gets a chance to bookend his narrative—goofy graphics and all—while wearing the red-and-white jersey in which he was birthed into the league. Here is that rare opportunity in sports to make a wrong into a right; failing that, or if that's too much, then it's just a second chance to do things right. If Rose returns better than ever and the Bulls complete that long-awaited championship push, then Kirk HInrich will get the title shot he was denied in his first Chicago stint. If not, he'll still wear the uniform, and those of us who forgot too easily the first time around will get something to remember him by. A chance to remember Hinrich, that is, and those old teams: a part of team history but not, ones that fans should endeavor to remember. Basketball teams in full, and ones led—like this very different one—by Kirk Hinrich.
*I cannot find physical proof that this existed but you’ll just have to trust me that it was amazing/terrible, like most Jumbotron graphics.