Kirk Hinrich, whose contract expires after the 2006-07 season, can't imagine playing anywhere but Chicago - for the Bulls.
"It is special because of history, No. 1," fourth-year Bulls guard Hinrich said of the franchise that won six NBA titles during the Michael Jordan era.
"I've been fortunate. I played at Kansas, where basketball was the thing - the great tradition. Now I play in Chicago, which is a great sports town. We are always top in attendance no matter what. I feel fortunate to have a chance to play in both places. There's always a great basketball environment at the United Center."
Perhaps, but not as great an atmosphere as Allen Fieldhouse, where Hinrich returns today for a 1 p.m. NBA exhibition game against fellow former Jayhawk Nick Collison's Seattle SuperSonics.
"It's a lot different," Hinrich said of the college and pro environments. "Chicago has more pro sports fans. Kansas : it's basketball fans. I don't think I ever got booed in Allen as a team no matter what happened. In Chicago, they are a little tougher on us."
That's because pro fans have little tolerance when highly paid athletes - Hinrich earns $3,064,916 this season - suffer an off night.
The good news is, with the addition of Ben Wallace to an already strong playoff team, the Bulls don't figure to get jeered much at home this season.
"We have the pieces to compete for it," Hinrich said of the NBA title. "We are in the toughest division in the league, the Central. I think we are as deep as any team in the league. We have a lot of talent. The sky is the limit with this team.
"It will take awhile. We have to get used to each other. We had the lowest defensive-field-goal percentage in the league. If we do that again, we'll be right there."
A year ago, the Bulls went 41-41 during the regular season, then fell to the eventual world champion Miami Heat in six games in the first round of the playoffs.
"I guess we gave them a tough battle," Hinrich said. "We had them on the run a bit. This team hasn't won a playoff series. We have pieces (including Wallace, Ben Gordon, Chris Duhon, Tyrus Thomas, Luol Deng). We made some good moves in the offseason. We have a good team. We have to play consistently well throughout the season. If we don't, we will not beat those type of teams."
He isn't guaranteeing an NBA crown or anything like that.
"I think we'll definitely get out of the first round of the playoffs," Hinrich said. "We have the ability to go a lot farther. Everybody is excited. There is a lot of hype.
"It depends on our mental toughness. If we don't play defense, we don't have a shot. We have to hang our hat on defense and rebounding and playing as a team."
Hinrich averaged 14.6 points and 6.5 assists a year ago.
He hopes to land his first all-star-team berth.
It could happen, considering he not only made the U.S. national team, but played major minutes at the world championships en route to a bronze medal last summer.
"To be on the team and get as much time as I did gives me a lot of confidence," Hinrich said. "It was a good experience."
Perhaps the only bad thing about making the U.S. team was it prevented Hinrich from returning to Lawrence for his annual visit over the summer.
He'll make up for that today.
"I always enjoy going back to Lawrence. It's a great college town," said Hinrich, a native Iowan who played at KU from 1999 to 2003.
"I think Kansas basketball fans are as good as it comes as far as knowledge of the game and understanding. I'm excited to get a chance to play in front of them one more time."
And he's excited to play against his former roommate at KU - fourth-year pro Collison, who like Hinrich is in his contract year.
"I think Nick will be in league a long time. He has to stay healthy," Hinrich said. "He's had a couple of unfortunate injuries.
"Right now, he may be in a system that might not be best for him. He can do a lot of things. He's as smart a player as there is. He can handle the ball, pass, do a lot of things. At his position (power forward), not a lot of guys can do that. He's special, a unique player who will be in the league a long time."