Hawkeyes remember basketball icon Chris Street 20 years after death
Chris Street, a star Iowa basketball player, died during his junior season in a traffic accident. Nearly 20 years later, Hawkeye Nation remembers not only a great player but an upstanding human being.
Gary Close and the Iowa basketball coaching staff faced an unprecedented challenge on Jan. 28, 1993, when the Hawkeyes traveled to East Lansing to take on Michigan State.
“We didn’t know what was going to happen,” said Close, a former Iowa assistant coach who now coaches at Wisconsin. “How we were going to respond, how we were going to play … We just didn’t know.”
Michigan State opened the second half with a 16-0 run to turn a 1-point Hawkeye lead at halftime into a 15-point Spartan lead in merely six minutes. The Hawks couldn’t get any shot to fall and watched the Spartans block and steal the ball away almost at will. Iowa appeared destined to lose.
And what observer would have blamed them? The entire team was still in mourning.
Remembering where he came from
Chris Street learned from an early age the importance of treating people right. And that lesson didn’t leave him when he arrived at the University of Iowa on a basketball scholarship.
The Indianola (Iowa) High School graduate knew how important Iowa basketball was to the fans, because he grew up with the same passion for the Hawkeyes. Randy Larson, the founder of the Prime Time League and former owner of the Airliner, remembered when Street took off his Prime Time jersey after a game and gave it to a boy sitting next to him on the bench. The moment encapsulated Street, Larson said.
“It was some kid he’d never met before, didn’t know the kid at all,” Larson said. “He just could tell he’d liked the game and thought he’d appreciate it. That’s just how he was, impossible not to like.”
Street also loved to talk with people, something those around him saw right away. He was often chosen as the errand boy in kindergarten because he could be trusted to stay out of trouble. But he usually couldn’t stop himself from chatting someone up.
Kim Vinton (now Williams), Street’s college girlfriend, said that never changed.
“We were at a grocery store, and a little boy came up,” Williams said. “And Chris continued to talk to him and learn more about the little boy, knowing we had to be [in class] in five or 10 minutes. But that didn’t matter to him.”
Teammate Wade Lookingbill said Street always remembered where he came from and didn’t think he was a big man on campus — even if he was a big man.
“Chris was just a great guy, first and foremost,” Lookingbill said. “[He was] a lot of fun to be around, a terrific friend. Just a terrific person; he just happened to be 6-9 and could run and jump.”
But Street’s true impact on the community would soon be realized. Larson, for one, says he will never forget that moment. He was in the Airliner on that January evening when he received the devastating news of Street’s death.
“I turned on all the TVs, went out, turned off the music, and turned up the lights, and said, ‘Guys, there’s been a terrible tragedy; it’s going to be on the news any minute, so we’ve got to close,’ he said.
Then the story came on and the bar fell silent.
“Without any argument, maybe 400 kids turned and walked out the door. You might expect there to be some grumbling about the bar’s closing. But the respect he had from everybody in there — that’s just people being good people and realizing how significant it was.
“Nobody could even talk; they just walked out the door.”
A foggy night
At 6:49 p.m. on Jan. 19, 1993, a Johnson County snowplow collided with a car near the Highlander Inn, not far from the interchange of Highway 1 and Interstate 80. The car flipped onto its roof and slammed into a car waiting at a red light. Street was driving with Vinton in the passenger seat, on his way to a night class after a team meal.
James Winters, Street’s roommate, left the Highlander Inn with some teammates shortly after Street and drove past the crash. He didn’t think much of it at first.
“[The car] was pretty mangled — unrecognizable,” Winters said.
Winters said he saw a police officer kneeling down to check on the driver of the vehicle, and he could tell whoever was in the car wasn’t in good condition. With police on the scene, he figured there wasn’t anything they could do, so they kept on going.
But the scene kept eating at him as they got on I-80.
“As we were getting on the entrance to I-80, I thought to myself and said aloud to the guys, ‘Hey, I don’t want to say this, but the color of that vehicle — that might have been Chris’ car, because that’s the same color as Chris’ car,’ ” Winters said.
Street’s class was just across the street from their apartment, and when his car wasn’t parked outside, Winters started to worry. He went back to the site of the accident and found a slew of police cars and ambulances.
Police stopped Winters before he could get close enough to see the driver, even after telling the officer he thought the crash might involve his roommate. An officer said Winters should contact the basketball staff.
“At that point, you can put two and two together,” Winters said.
Hawkeye center Acie Earl went to Carver-Hawkeye Arena that night for a workout after class, and he had noticed Street’s absence. He was surprised to see all of the cars of the coaches, players, and managers’ in the parking lot.
“As I walked in the door, Kevin Ralston, the senior manager, was crying right at the back door — just bawling,” Earl said. “I’m like, ‘What’s the matter?’ and he started to say, ‘Ch—’ and I thought Coach Davis had died, had a heart attack. He said, ‘Chris is dead.’ And I said, ‘What? Chris? Who’s Chris?’ ”
Head coach Dr. Tom Davis summed up the feeling of disbelief from that night.
“I don’t know that you’re technically in shock, but that’s how you feel,” he said. “You’re just so shocked, you’re in a fog.”
The deficit hadn’t changed for the Hawkeyes by the 3:30 mark. The Spartans were up, 70-55, and Iowa had been cold from the floor all night. Michigan State had all the momentum.
Fans would have understood the Hawkeyes’ losing. The players were mourning the loss of Street, and they hadn’t played since his death more than a week earlier. Earl said basketball didn’t seem so important as he stepped onto the court that night.
“My mind was just like, ‘I don’t care anymore,” he said. “I’m just going to go out and play. If I play badly, I play badly; if I play well, I play well. I don’t have any desire to play great basketball. I wanted to just play and get it done.”
Then Hawkeye senior Val Barnes hit a shot from well behind the arc. The Hawkeyes got 2 more points off a quick steal, and suddenly, the lead was cut to 10 points.
“If you look at how the game went, we were dead,” Hawkeye Kenyon Murray said. “We were down early; we were down late. Something happened in those last two minutes or so where the whole team got energized.
“We came out of a time-out, and I remember Acie and Val Barnes saying, ‘We’re not going to lose this game,’ ” he said.
With just under a minute remaining, Earl grabbed an offensive rebound on the baseline, pump-faked, and went up through contact to drain a put-back, drawing a foul in the process and pulling the Hawkeyes within 4 points.
Earl — who was playing with Street’s No. 40 shaved into his hair — curled up the sideline, pumping his fists and roaring to the Breslin Center rafters. It was a rare display of emotion from him.
Iowa fans were used to a different Hawkeye player being animated on the floor.
Emotion in motion
Street was well-known for being emotional on the court, whether it was as dramatic as pumping his fist and pounding his chest after a big play or as simple as flashing his toothy smile. It was a method for him to keep up with his competitors, he said.
“There are a lot of guys my size who are better athletes,” Street told the Des Moines Register in January 1992. “I’m quick for my size, but I don’t jump great. If I don’t use my emotions, I’m pretty average.”
That was working well for Street at the time of his death. He was the team’s third- leading scorer at 14.5 points per game and leading rebounder with 9.5 boards per game, and he set a school record with his 34th-straight free throw against Duke in his final game. He was a potential first-round NBA draft pick whenever he came out of college.
Davis said a big part of Street’s success was his determination, but his teammates said he was more than just a hard worker who relied solely on heart. Murray described Street as an “unbelievable athlete” who could score in a variety of ways: from the perimeter, the paint, or from the front of the Hawkeyes’ full-court press.
“People underestimated him,” Murray said. “Everybody saw how hard he played and how much intensity he had. But people underestimated how good of an athlete he was and how skilled of a player he was.”
Murray couldn’t overestimate the effect Street’s intensity had on the team; he said No. 40 was the team’s emotional leader.
“You couldn’t be on the floor and not play at the same level he did, because 1, he’d let you know,” Murray said. “But 2, you stand out as somebody who wasn’t playing to the level of everybody else on the floor. Chris really raised the level of our team.”
The game was over when Barnes hit a 3-pointer to tie it up at 76-76 with just 20 seconds remaining in regulation. At least that’s how it felt to Murray.
“Once we got to overtime, we knew we were going to win that game,” he said. “It was like all the energy had been sucked out of Michigan State, and we absorbed it.”
The Hawkeyes owned the overtime period from start to finish and walked out of the Breslin Center with a 96-90 victory on what was an emotional night. Winters said it was one of the toughest games to fight through in his career, and 20 years later, Davis still couldn’t figure out how the team pulled it off.
“I don’t know; I wish I knew,” Davis said. “I wish it were coaching; then I could have controlled that. But that’s the way they responded, and it was an amazing thing to be part of.”
Winters said it was a difficult night, but he felt Street giving the team the same emotional lift he always did, even in death.
“It may have just been divine intervention, I tell you what,” Winters said. “I do believe Chris was there in spirit with us and helped us to keep fighting.”
A lasting legacy
Street’s presence is still felt in Carver-Hawkeye Arena and in the basketball program. A commemorative plaque is mounted outside the team’s locker room, and the Athletics Department holds an annual golf tournament in his name.
The team will also honor Street on Jan. 19, when Close and Wisconsin come to Iowa City, and Hawkeye players will wear commemorative shirts during warm-ups.
His parents have returned to Hawkeye basketball, too. Mike and Patty Street stopped buying season tickets after Chris’ death, but they decided to purchase them this year. Patty Street said it took them a long time to get past the grief.
“For the longest time, I couldn’t go to the games,” she said. “It just ate at my heart. It would bring back the good memories and the bad. But it’s enjoyable [now]. It still tugs at our hearts some, but not like it used to.”
Every year, the coaches give the Chris Street Award to the player or players “who best exemplify the spirit, enthusiasm, and intensity of Chris Street.” Last season’s recipient, Matt Gatens, said even though he never knew Street, he was a “huge” role model for him because of what he grew up hearing about him.
“Just how much of an influence he had on those around me,” Gatens said. “I heard so much about him, what they relayed to me about what he was like. People just spoke so highly of him, you think, ‘Well, I want to strive to be someone like that.’ ”
Gatens said Street’s memory is an important part of Iowa basketball, and he doesn’t want that to change.
“His legacy is still felt there, as it should be,” he said. “And hopefully, it will forever.”
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