The two former Jayhawk standouts were back home in the Phog for their exhibition game between the Chicago Bulls and Seattle SuperSonics, which the Bulls won in overtime, 110-105. It was the first time Hinrich and Collison had played a game in Allen Fieldhouse since culminating their legendary careers in Lawrence on March 1, 2003, when they whipped Oklahoma State, 79-61.
It was an emotional goodbye that night for the Iowa natives and their beloved fans. Both Hinrich and Collison shed tears after the game when giving their senior speeches, and many of the 16,300 fans cried with them.
But now they were home again, and it was like they had never left.
Fans arrived at the fieldhouse gates as early as 8:30 a.m. before the 1 p.m. tipoff, and then hurried to their seats after 11:00. With 5:48 remaining before tipoff, the crowd rocked to the beat of classic songs Jailhouse Rock and Frank Sinatra’s Chicago. Fans soon got even more hyped watching the videoboard showing classic pictures of former and current Bulls’ greats like Michael Jordan, Dennis Rodman, Hinrich, and Ben Gordon.
And then it happened.
At 1:08 p.m., the crowd rose to their feet with anticipation as public address announcer Hank Booth introduced the first four Sonics’ starters. Then it was time for the guy whose No. 4 jersey hangs in the Allen Fieldhouse rafters.
"And at forward from the University of Kansas, Nick Collison,” Booth screamed.
The fieldhouse crowd erupted in long, thunderous cheers for their returning hero. Two minutes later, Hinrich was greeted with the same applause and standing ovation when Booth introduced his name.
It was a homecoming reception Collison and Hinrich will never forget.
“I was almost emotional,” said Collison (12 points, 10 rebounds, and two assists in 27 minutes) after the game. “It was weird. I usually don’t get like that. It was just great to see all the fans cheering like that. It brought back a lot of good memories.”
Hinrich was also touched by the ovation.
“It’s nice to feel appreciated,” said Hinrich, who had 11 points and four assists in 27 minutes. “They’re diehard (fans). I probably appreciate them a lot more than they appreciate me.”
The rabid Jayhawk fans never stopped showing their appreciation and love for Hinrich and Collison. The crowd booed throughout the day whenever the former KU standouts were called for a foul, and began the game cheering every time they touched the ball.
The fans once again saw Hinrich flying up-court with the ball, blowing by defenders for driving layups, and making dazzling one-handed bounce passes. And Collison was The Man, too, leaping high for every rebound, posting up strong in the post, and popping jumpers from the top of the key.
Sure, superstars like Bulls’ center Ben Wallace and Sonics’ guard Ray Allen (game-high 22 points) were here, but Collison and Hinrich remained the center of attention. Just like their KU days when they arrived as part of a heralded freshman class (along with Drew Gooden) seven years ago.
But times weren’t always good back then. Hinrich can still remember that devastating night in Kemper Arena on Dec. 30, 1999, when he went scoreless in 13 minutes and had five turnovers. It was arguably the lowest point of Hinrich’s life, who was struggling adjusting to school and college basketball.
As Hinrich and Roy Williams walked back to the bus after the game, the KU head coach put his arm around the freshman.
“You’re the guard I wanted,” Williams told Hinrich softly.
Hinrich called that moment the turning point of his career.
“To have a coach behind you 100 percent like that and show that much confidence in you, it meant a lot,” he said.
Hinrich soon took over the starting point guard position and became one of the all-time Jayhawk greats. Now, Hinrich is regarded as one of the best point guards in the NBA and on the cusp of greatness. He’s living a dream and doesn’t ever want to wake up.
“It’s been kind of surreal,” Hinrich said. “To realize your dream of playing in the NBA, a lot of people don’t get the chance to do what they really want to do, and I just feel fortunate to do it.”
So does Collison.
“It’s been very cool,” he said. “It’s something I’ve wanted to do since I was a little kid, and I can’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing.”
Both Collison and Hinrich think the current KU roster has some players who will be joining them someday in the NBA.
“They have a ton of guys who can play,” said Collison, who was especially impressed with sophomore Brandon Rush when he scrimmaged with the team this past summer. “You got to be able to put it together, but you can’t win without talented players. They have a great chance to win the whole thing (NCAA title).”
“They’re probably as talented as any team in the country,” he said. “They’re probably as deep as any team in the country. They can be as good as they want to be.”
While Jayhawk fans can’t wait to see the 2006-07 team begin play, on this Sunday, it was Hinrich and Collison who ruled James Naismith Court. For one final hurrah, one last shining moment.
“It was probably the most exciting preseason game I’ve ever played in,” Hinrich said. “For that many people to show up...It’s always special to play in the fieldhouse.” And like Hinrich, Collison knows those resounding cheers from the loyal Allen Fieldhouse crowd will live with him forever.
“They’re the best fans in the world,” Collison said. “They were great again today.”