By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 17, 2011; 12:00 AM
Kirk Hinrich needed to get his Illinois driver's license renewed before his 30th birthday earlier this month, so he went in for a routine eye exam with Washington Wizards team optometrist Keith Smithson. The plan was for Hinrich to just read a few rows of descending letters and fax the results to the Illinois Department of Motor Vehicles.
But the process became more complicated as Hinrich came away with the startling news that if he continued to play basketball without protective eyewear, he stood a high risk of getting hit and losing sight in his left eye.
Hinrich remembers taking a hard shot in the face at the start of his sophomore season at Kansas and later discovered that he had a scratch in the center of his pupil. He never had any problems with his vision, or been warned about the need for goggles, after playing four years in college and spending the past seven seasons with the Chicago Bulls.
"So it's been 10 or 11 years that I've been playing without it, so it was a little bit of a shocker. Nobody ever made a big deal about it," Hinrich said Sunday as the Wizards prepared to host the Utah Jazz on Monday afternoon at Verizon Center. "Just thinking back in my mind all the times that I go in there and get nailed in the face, I guess I was lucky for a long time that I didn't get hit in the left eye."
Hinrich missed two games waiting as eyewear was made to fit comfortably on his face. He has worn them the past six games and said he'll keep them until his playing career is finished. The specially made glasses are similar to the ones the New York Knicks' Amare Stoudemire wears and Hinrich often takes them off during breaks in action to wipe the sweat from his brow and hands them to head athletic trainer Eric Waters to clean when he is on the bench.
"First, I didn't know if I was going to wear them or not. I wasn't crazy about the idea," Hinrich said. "The eye doctor and the trainers convinced me to wear them. I tried them out and they are not that bad. I can see fine out of them. I'm just not used to having them on my face. I'm just getting more comfortable with them as time goes on."
The protective eyewear is the latest adjustment for Hinrich, who has had to make a few since arriving in Washington in a draft-day deal with Chicago last summer. Coach Flip Saunders anointed Hinrich and rookie John Wall captains after the first day of training camp. The eighth-year veteran has started at shooting guard, playing alongside Wall and Gilbert Arenas; come off the bench as a third guard; and logged heavy minutes at point guard after the Arenas trade and while Wall sat out with a bone bruise under his right kneecap.
Hinrich is currently a backup point guard, sent in to spell Wall or settle down the team at times when play gets a little frazzled. "He's doing everything he can," Saunders said. "At times, does he get frustrated? Yes. Because when you're playing with young players who are learning, they learn from mistakes. It can be tough, but that's all a part of it."
The Wizards (11-27) only have three players on their roster with more than six years of experience, but Rashard Lewis has only been around for 12 games after arriving in the trade for Arenas, and Josh Howard has been limited to just eight games as he deals with a left knee injury. So Hinrich has been forced to endure a season that rivals his rookie campaign in Chicago in 2003-04, when the Bulls won just 23 games. Hinrich has made the playoffs in five of his past six seasons and has grown accustomed to being around players who know how to win.
A league source confirmed that teams have contacted the Wizards in recent weeks to check on Hinrich's availability but added that calls are made about most every player nearly a month before the trade deadline. Hinrich has looked visibly flustered at times, shaking his head at bad passes or missed defensive assignments. But Hinrich said Wizards players met shortly after the Arenas trade to discuss how to deal with the losing.
"We sat down and talked about not getting frustrated. There's going to be frustrating times, things aren't going to go our way. Everybody said what was going on, what helps us and not helps us and that was one of the things we talked about," Hinrich said. "Earlier in the year, when I was frustrated, it wasn't helping myself, the way I was playing, and it wasn't helping the team at all, so I just kind of told myself that I wasn't going to get frustrated anymore and play hard, try to win games and have fun doing it at the same time."
Hinrich had just two points in Saturday's win over Toronto, but he averaged 14.6 points and 4.4 assists in his previous five games. His clutch scoring in the fourth quarter and overtime of the Wizards' 136-133 win over the Sacramento Kings on Tuesday proved to be the difference.
"I guess my responsibilities are pretty much the same, except for being a bench player as opposed to a starter here," Hinrich said. "It's a little bit different. I'm trying to do my best to stay into the game while I'm over there. I watch what's going on so when I get in, I'm ready to play. It's not the easiest thing to do, to sit over there when the number was called, but you still have to do it.
"I just try to be myself, lead by example a lot, try to do the right thing, play the right way and hopefully, they know it'll click for us," he said. "It's been coming slowly for us. Hopefully, looking at the second half of the year, we will continue to improve."