Twenty-one minutes, 15 points and eight assists while playing on a sprained ankle in the NCAA tournament. There may be no better moment that encapsulates Kirk Hinrich’s Kansas career than that one.
When retired Jayhawks radio announcer Max Falkenstien recounted that story at Hinrich’s jersey retirement ceremony on March 1, 2009, it elicited a rousing ovation from the Allen Fieldhouse crowd. Hinrich’s career at Kansas included a plethora of individual awards and team success, from All-Big 12 first-team honors to multiple Final Four appearances. What Hinrich will always be remembered for, however, is being, as Falkenstien called him, a floor general, whose leadership defined a historic run for Kansas basketball.
Before beginning his Kansas career, Hinrich was already a standout player. A 6-foot-3 point guard from Sioux City, Iowa, he led West High School to its first state title in 65 years on his way to being named Co-Mr. Basketball Iowa that year. The other winner of the award, Nick Collison of Orange City, Iowa, would link up with Hinrich at Kansas to form one of the most decorated duos in program history.
One of 32 Jayhawks with a jersey retired in Allen Fieldhouse, Nick Collison garnered many awards as a forward. The All-American standout played under Roy Williams from 2000-03.
The 1999-2000 Kansas season is far from the most successful in program history, as the team finished with 10 losses and was bounced in the second round of the NCAA tournament. What was significant about that season, however, was the beginning of a remarkably successful run, largely due to three stellar freshmen who debuted for Roy Williams’ squad: Hinrich, Collison and Drew Gooden. These three became the cornerstones for a phenomenal start to the 21st century for Jayhawks hoops.
Two years later, all three were established stars in the Big 12, with Hinrich serving as the Jayhawks’ on-court leader. A first-team All-Big 12 selection, Hinrich averaged 14.8 points per game, and five assists per game en route to Kansas’ first Final Four appearance since the 1992-93 season.
One year later, Hinrich reached a career-high scoring average, with 17.3 points per game. With another first-team All-Big 12 selection to his name, he led the Jayhawks to a No. 2 seed in the 2003 NCAA tournament. The Jayhawks fought their way to the Final Four for a second year in a row, the first time they had achieved that since the 1952 and 1953 tournaments.
Despite a 16-point showing from Hinrich in the title game, Kansas lost to Carmelo Anthony and Syracuse, 81-78. It was a sour end-note to his Kansas career, but it doesn’t negate his remarkable achievements, nor the enjoyment he provided the fans in Lawrence that still resonates in Allen Fieldhouse.
“There’s no place like it,” Hinrich said about Allen Fieldhouse at his jersey retirement ceremony. “This building, in my mind, is the greatest basketball venue in the world.”
One of 32 Jayhawks with a jersey retired in Allen Fieldhouse, Wayne Simien garnered many awards as a forward. The All-American standout played under Roy Williams and Bill Self from 2002-05.
In the star-studded 2003 NBA draft, Hinrich was taken seventh overall by the Chicago Bulls, a thrilling development for the sizable Kansas-Chicago dual-fandom contingent. While his career hasn’t transcended the game like fellow draftees Anthony, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and others, he carved out a memorable niche with the Bulls.
The all-time leader in three-point field goals for Chicago, Hinrich experienced several exciting, if not tumultuous, periods in Bulls history. From the surprisingly prosperous “Baby Bulls” era, through his second stint with the team, which included reasonable success under coach Tom Thibodeau, Hinrich became an effective role player and, just like he was at Kansas, a leader.
“Hinrich possessed a powerful, behind-the-scenes presence of accountability and quietly helped teammates in a well-received manner,” said K.C. Johnson, the Bulls beat writer for the Chicago Tribune, in a 2016 column after Hinrich was traded to the Atlanta Hawks.
Loyalty is extremely hard to come by in sports. Anyone who questions Hinrich’s team loyalty, however, does so at their own peril. According to a Johnson story from 2014, Hinrich took less money in free agency to stay with Chicago.
“When you're offered more money, no matter what you say, it's hard to turn down,” Hinrich said of his 2014 re-signing. “But when you go through the thought process, you just come back to what's most important.”
Currently a free agent, Hinrich has played for three teams over his 13-year career, including two stints each with Chicago and Atlanta. Even through a prosperous NBA career, Hinrich is arguably still best remembered for his run with the Jayhawks.
Final Four appearances and individual honors aren’t the only ways to define a player’s impact on their team. The same can be said for individual losses, even if they come on the biggest stage of all.
Hinrich will always be known as a Big 12 legend, as a member of back-to-back Final Four teams, as one of the players that came excruciatingly close to a national title. But above all else, he will be known as one of the greatest leaders in Kansas basketball history.
— Edited by Frank Weirich