Last summer, during the same week the U.S. was flopping at the world championships, ESPN2 began airing a sort of how-to guide for future international failures. Streetball: The And1 Mix Tape Tour breathlessly tracked a troupe of barnstorming play-grounders with names like Sik Wit It, Skip to My Lou and Hot Sauce as they gave "clinics" in one-armed-handstand dribbling, off-the-backboard passing and relentless taunting to crowds of whooping youngsters across the nation. From their dorm rooms, Kansas seniors Nick Collison and Kirk Hinrich could only stare slack-jawed at their TV screens, wondering why Streetball wasn't carrying the same warning as Jackass: The Movie. ("Neither you nor your dumb buddies should attempt anything from this.")
"I know it's entertainment," says Collison, "but a lot of kids now, that's what they think good basketball is." Or, as Hinrich puts it, "You have to start with the fundamentals, and they're teaching kids how to bounce the ball off another guy's head."
Just because the two Jayhawks are the most fundamentally polished duo in the land, though, doesn't mean they should be treated like some sort of archaeological find. Not when they lit the fuse on the nation's highest-scoring offense last year. And certainly not when the 6'9", 260-pound Collison bangs and light-foots his way to effortless inside baskets, or when the 6'3", 190-pound Hinrich cannonballs downcourt as if his hair were on fire. Old school? It may be the slogan of this year's Jayhawks ad campaign, but Hinrich groans at the term. "I'm not some Bob Cousy patting the ball like it's hot or something," he protests. Fair enough. So let's compromise and call them the new old school, an explosive version of the well-rounded classic, C&H pure cane sugar sprinkled on the basics.
Rare is the team that fields even one such player these days, much less two. "Nick and Kirk fill so many roles for us," says Kansas coach Roy Williams. "Nick's as complete a post player as I've ever had, and Kirk's as complete a guard as I've ever had." Rarer still is the eerily telepathic bond on the court between the two seniors whose spell-check-suggested surnames—Collision and Hornet—match their playing styles.
"If [ Ohio high schooler] LeBron James goes Number 1 in the draft, I could make an argument for Hinrich as Number 2," says one NBA player personnel director. "He has the size, the speed and the fundamentals, and he won't be intimidated by anyone. And Collison is such an exceptional finisher, he could be a 10-year starter in this league."
How did this Perfect Storm whip into Lawrence? For the answer, it's best to journey a few hours north, into the fertile river valley of western Iowa.
To find the cosmic link, the source of Collison and Hinrich's anti-Streetball ethic, visit the back room of a Hy-Vee grocery store in Sioux City, where 66-year-old Ray Nacke joins his pals most mornings for their regular coffee klatch. In the 1970s, at the start of his 26-year coaching career at nearby Briar Cliff College, Nacke drilled the basics into a fiery guard named Jim Hinrich and, later, a John Deere-sturdy 6'6" forward named Dave Collison. Only a sage would have predicted that someday Collison (at Iowa Falls High) and Hinrich (at Sioux City West High) would coach their sons, Nick and Kirk, to Iowa state championships. Or that those sons would join forces and lead their AAU team to the national under-19 title game, then share the state's Mr. Basketball award, then jointly spurn the Iowa schools for Kansas—where now, as teammates and former roommates, they bestride the colossus of the Big 12, the nation's preeminent hoops conference.
It all goes back, through the cobwebs of time, to one man at one tiny NAIA college. "Both Jim and Dave were hard workers when they played for me," says Nacke, whom Collison and Hinrich peres credit with teaching them the game's bedrock principles. "And Nick and Kirk are mirrors of their dads. There's no nonsense with either one of 'em."
From age three Jim Hinrich's boy was unspooling textbook shots into the hoop his dad had installed in the living room. "Even when he started, we had him working on his form," says Jim, who swears Kirk's first word as a baby was ball. Cradling his mini-Rawlings, mini-Kirk would face the wall, bend his knees, cock his wrist and follow through, over and over again. When Jim was out of the house, Kirk's mother, Nancy, fired thousands of passes to her son, who took to arching rainmakers over the Christmas tree.
Like Kirk, Nick Collison faithfully attended his dad's high school practices for years as a grade-schooler, serving as the water boy while absorbing the minutiae of the game. Dave Collison recalls how, as a fifth-grader, his son could ape the moves of the high school players, noting their strong suits and calling out their deficiencies. Already he was a details guy. "One of the best things I could learn from my dad was how not to be," Nick says. "I'd hear him complaining at home about kids who were selfish, who didn't play hard or who never played any defense. So I was like, man, I'm never going to be like that when I play."