Red Bull

He strolls up to the VIP entrance of a Denver nightclub with a couple of friends, which, for All-Star Weekend, leaves Kirk Hinrich about eight shy of a posse. He walks the red carpet dressed like he's headed to class, not to a party: blue jeans, white Converse, long-sleeve black Lacoste pullover with red and white stripes. That gator on the left breast is as throwback as he's willing to go. As he and his boys hit the front door, a couple of bouncers inside the velvet rope yawn. With no floss and no fur, Hinrich barely gets noticed. And he'll tell you that's just the way he likes it.

Well, maybe-but sooner or later the lack of interest is bound to stop. Last season the kid from Sioux City, Iowa, joined LeBron, Carmelo, D-Wade and Chris Bosh on the All-Rookie First Team, and he was the only one of the crew to record a triple double. "Some guys get respect based on their reputation," Hinrich says. "I have to earn mine every time I walk on the court. It's always been that way for me. It'll always be that way for me."

Being a white point guard has made him a bit of a lightning rod from the beginning. "I've been in AAU games where the opposing coach, who never saw me play, would scream shooter, shooter' as soon as I got the ball," he says. "Or I'd guard a guy and the coach would yell, take him.' People look at me and never give me a fair shot."

The folks back home are still scratching their heads about Hinrich's seemingly effortless NBA success. Told that The Magazine was working on a story about his son, Jim Hinrich, a high school basketball coach in Kansas City, replied: "You guys sure must be desperate."

But now the Bulls' return to respectability is one of the biggest stories in the league, and Hinrich's contribution is a major subplot. He's the team leader in scoring (15.8 ppg), assists (6.8), steals (1.53) and minutes (37.6). After he scored a game-high 28 points in a Feb. 16 win over the Raptors, Chicago was 26—23, good enough for the sixth seed in the East. It was the first time they had been above .500 in February since MJ, Scottie and Phil were above .500 just about every month. This from a team that started a franchise-tying 0—9. Chicago is talking playoffs. That's rightplayoffs. You'd think with that kind of heat, the kid with Harry Potter looks and Dirty Harry style could get noticed at a club, for heaven's sake.

For now, though, he's just happy to run one.

"KIRK REMINDS me of John Stockton," says Bulls forward Antonio Davis. "He'll take the last shot, he'll guard the best guy. He'll get knocked down but he'll get back up. That's what you want in a point guard."

That wasn't always what the Bulls thought about Hinrich. When Chicago plucked him with the No. 7 pick in 2004, hoops know-it-alls wondered whether new GM John Paxson was up to the job. The Wooden Award finalist and floor leader of the NCAA runners-up would have to prove himself all over again. Less than a month into his debut, Hinrich entered a game against the defending champion Lakers. Gary Payton, whose poster hung on Hinrich's dorm room wall at Kansas, brushed by, giving him that patented half-smirk and issuing a not-so-warm greeting. "Hey, rookie," he said. "I'm about to eat you up." For once, Hinrich wasn't up to the challenge: he scored one point and committed five fouls in 16 minutes. "A rough night," he recalls, laughing.

In many ways it was a rough year. After eight seasons of coaching stability (four years with his dad, four more with Roy Williams), his first NBA coach, Bill Cartwright, was fired after Hinrich's 14th game. A week later Jalen Rose, the team's best player, was traded. A month after that, Scottie Pippen, whom Paxson signed to bring veteran leadership, said publicly that some Bulls had accepted losing, didn't care and didn't play hard.

By then, though, it was clear Pippen wasn't talking about the rookie point guard. Hinrich, 24, had already established himself as one of the hardest workers on the team. Losses hurt Kirk as much as they burned Scottie. "It was the worst period of my life," Hinrich says. "I went from competing for a national championship to a season where, with 20 games to go, we knew we weren't going to the playoffs." But Hinrich, who grew up a Bulls fan, never let up. In a season full of meaningless games, Hinrich took every battle with an opposing point guard as a personal duel. He laid his thenfrail 6'3", 190-pound body on power forwards to set screens-yes, like Stockton once did-and dived for every loose ball. Hinrich's determination earned him cult status with those fans who still bothered to find their way to the United Center.

By season's end, Hinrich was tied for seventh in the league in assists (6.8) and ahead of all other rookies in double-doubles (14). In his rematch against Payton-this time as a starter-he had 15 points and 12 assists in 42 minutes of an 88-81 loss. "Kirk was our best player," Bulls coach Scott Skiles says, without hesitation.

But a coach's praise doesn't get you closer to contention, so Hinrich spent the summer getting better. He stayed in Chicago, making the fiveminute drive from his Deerfield crib to the Berto Center every day. "I spent a week with him," says Sonics forward Nick Collison, a good friend and former Jayhawks teammate of Hinrich's. "He worked hard. You could see losing got to him."

Hinrich's regimen consisted of plenty of bench presses and squats, which boosted his lower-body strength. By the start of training camp, he was eight pounds heavier, all of it muscle. "When I first got here, I wondered, what's up with this scrawny guy walking around like he's all cool," Davis says. "But I got back for camp … and the kid was big."

Now, a stronger Hinrich can hold his own in the post. He was already a solid perimeter defender. Teams can't play off him because he's a deadly outside shooter, but he's got the quickness and handle to get in the paint. Throw in his smart court reads, and it's obvious that Hinrich, if he isn't already, will soon reside in the top tier of NBA guards. Not point guards, mind you. Not shooting guards. Just guards.

Despite his unassuming looks, Hinrich won't be punk'd. When he got shoved into teammate Luol Deng by Wizards guard Larry Hughes in a preseason game, causing Deng to fall hard, Hinrich immediately got in Hughes' face. After Wizards center Brendan Haywood shoved Hinrich in the back, Davis and Curry came to their teammate's defense. Sure, it caused a brawl that got the pair of big men two-game suspensions each and Hinrich a $10,000 fine. But the incident proved the Bulls were finally coming together as a team, behind a leader with a big heart. And together they would fight to earn respect.

Gutter to gangsta. That's as accurate a way as any to describe the Bulls' ongoing transformation. On a snowy January night in Boston, Chicago was riding a seven-game winning streak, and Celtics coach Doc Rivers had been officially converted. Speaking to the press before the game, Rivers explained how Curry and Tyson Chandler no longer looked like overwhelmed projects, and said Paxson was smart to draft rookies with a pedigree: Ben Gordon from NCAA-champ UConn, Deng and Chris Duhon from Duke. Even their new import, Andrés Nocioni, comes with a résumé punctuated by a gold medal earned on Argentina's Olympic team.

But it was for Hinrich that Rivers, once a pretty good point guard himself, saved the highest praise. "He does a great job as a leader," Rivers said. "A lot of people compare him to Stockton, but he has more of an offensive mentality."

There it is again, that Stockton comparison. Hinrich says it's way too premature to put him in the same category. "I think he was the best player at his position, maybe ever," he says. "He was tough, and he played the game the right way. You got to respect a guy like that." On the other hand, he'll tell you that it can get bothersome to always be compared to a white player. "There's so few white guys in this league, that's what happens," he says. "I realize it, but what do you do? You'll never see anybody compare me to a black player."

Skiles doesn't care what color his point guard is. He just knows the Bulls' improvement is tied to Hinrich's growth as a leader. And it's not like the front office made it easy for their young star. Only three players-Hinrich, Curry and Chandler-were on last season's opening-day roster. "You know how tough it is, two years in the league, having to steer two entirely different teams?" Skiles asks. "It's amazing how well he's adjusted."

And, just as the stealth player would have it, Hinrich's teammates have been the biggest benefactors. "I know if there's a couple of nights where I start off struggling, Kirk will penetrate, dish and get me going," says Curry. Deng says Hinrich makes him look good by getting him the ball where he can best use it, and by showing confidence in him when the game is on the line. "You go to a lot of teams where the point guard is the main scorer, and rookies tend to struggle," Deng says. "Finding someone who is happy keeping everyone else happy is rare."

PRACTICE IS over when Hinrich enters the parking lot of the Berto Center. Away from the All-Star glitz, his walk oozes a player's confidence. He climbs into the driver's side of his white Hummer H2 and deliberates over the sounds he'll bump out of his thunderous system. "I'm a big Nas guy," he says. "But I've always been down with Biggie and 'Pac. Nobody made music like those two." (This from a guy who Curry initially figured had to be into "country music and twang.")

Pulling out of the lot, Hinrich stops to make the day of a few autograph-seeking fans who have been standing in the bitter cold patiently waiting for him. After a few minutes of small talk, Hinrich puts the windows up and rolls out, leaving a satisfied crowd at the edge of the driveway.

With the Bulls competitive for the first time in six dismal seasons, it's nothing but love for Hinrich in Chicago these days. Those little walletsize schedules they give out in downtown stores? He's on the front. Those barbershop ads featuring former Bulls great Norm Van Lier? He's in them. When the team raffled a Benz for charity, it was Hinrich who took the spin with the winner. He has the locker next to the empty stall once occupied by MJ. It's Hinrich who's announced last by the PA announcer. In a city that craves a sports hero, Hinrich is gaining a following.

Now, when he rolls up to the trendy bistros and nightspots in downtown's Rush Street corridor, the lines are suddenly much shorter and the list of perks longer. "It's a bit harder to blend in," he says, smiling. "You win, and people take notice a bit more. That's a good thing."

Kirk Hinrich's days below the radar are about to be over.