I haven’t rushed in to join many others in writing/talking about Saturday’s 20th anniversary of the death of University of Iowa basketball player Chris Street.
I fully understand why the words are flowing and the emotions are churning, why Saturday night’s Wisconsin-Iowa game in Iowa City will be more than a basketball competition. Anniversaries are milestones that affect people deeply, and there’s something about a 20-year marker that really resonates with people.
But that was a night and a week (and more) that were raw and profoundly sad, and I’ve found it hard to revisit those days. I’ve been in this business for over 30 years, and that was the worst week in this job.
I saw Street’s Hawkeye teammates file out of Carver-Hawkeye Arena following a team meeting just a couple hours after Street died in a car crash on the northeast edge of Iowa City. The looks on their faces … you never want to see those looks on anyone.
I covered Street’s funeral in Indianola. It would have reduced the hardest soul to tears.
And, I covered the first home game after Street’s death, Iowa’s victory over Michigan and its Fab Five. There never has been a decibel count as high in Carver as there was that Sunday afternoon. That was much, much more than cheering for a great win. It defined the term “bittersweet.”
Rather than offer some sort of retrospective, I’m reprinting my columns from the funeral and that Michigan game.
INDIANOLA – We sometimes forget college and professional athletes come from communities, neighborhoods, homes.
Current University of Iowa men’s basketball players herald from large cities like Fort Worth and San Jose. One Hawkeye is from Cedar Rapids. Another is from a Wisconsin village called Freedom.
Yet, they all come from the same place. They come from the place with the people who knew them before they were statewide television stars besieged by autograph-seekers. They come from the place where they had their first best friend, their first part-time job, their first kiss.
They come from the place where they are known for who they really are.
Indianola is only 20 minutes from the Des Moines airport, but definitely feels like a town of 10,000 people. It’s small enough to have a livestock feed store, big enough for its own Chinese restaurant.
Most cities this size nicely go about the business of life, but don’t have that certain something that sets them apart within their own states. Not so with Indianola. It had Chris Street, No.40 for the Iowa Hawkeyes.
You’ve seen vast emotion over Street’s death from people near and far. To understand who he was, however, you have to come to the town that was his home.
His basketball exploits at Indianola High School and Iowa made Street stand out here. Yet, those weren’t the things locals remembered him by at his funeral Friday morning or in a thoughtful special section the town’s newspaper put out the previous day.
People here mentioned Street’s laughter and friendship, how he taught a physician friend to hunt turkeys, how he scrunched in a little person’s chair with his knees to his chin as he read stories to admirers in a first-grade classroom.
The descriptions of Street weren’t “great competitor” or “hard-worker.” Rather, they were “wholesome,” “charming,” and “sweet.”
All the words in the world don’t make something true. Everything you needed to know about how Indianola regarded its ambassador to the basketball world was seen in the wet eyes and heavy hearts of the overflow crowd in First Assembly of God Church.
A cascade of high praise and happy recollections poured from the church’s lectern and video screen.
In one of the most moving moments of the funeral, Street’s two sisters bravely stood before the crowd. Sarah Street, a starter for Indianola High’s girls’ basketball team, read what she said was her last letter to her brother.
“You were so awesome,” Sarah said.
Heads nodded in agreement as tears drenched the room.
The most striking photograph in the local newspaper’s special section was taken at Indianola’s 1990 substate win over Fairfield.
In it, Street and Bruce Overton are hoisting smaller teammate Todd Chenault so he could take a turn cutting down a net from one of the baskets. The smiles of both Chenault and Street illuminate a newspaper that was published for the saddest of reasons.
Friday, Overton was one of Street’s casket bearers, lending his hands to the man who lifted Indianola to the state tournament three short years ago.
After the funeral, some of those in attendance headed out of town and back to their homes throughout the state and Midwest. The others stayed behind on a sad day in one of the town’s roughest weeks.
You passed a Hardee’s as you drove toward the city limits on Highway 65/69. The message on the restaurant’s marquee was brief, but to the point.
IOWA 40 INDIANOLA WILL NEVER FORGET CHRIS STREET
Neither will Iowa.
IOWA CITY - Chris Street was in Carver-Hawkeye Arena Sunday afternoon.
Sadly, you didn’t see his flailing arms, expressive face and boundless energy, nor will you ever again.
But Street’s spirit soared throughout the arena Sunday, imbuing the Iowa men’s basketball team and its fans with the will to accept nothing less than victory against one of the nation’s very best squads.
Fifth-ranked Michigan played a fine game. It had to just to stay in the gym with Iowa. The Wolverines’ 88-80 loss should do nothing to dim their great expectations. There wasn’t a team in the country that could have defeated the Hawkeyes in their first home game since Street’s death. You can call that statement melodramatic if you like. It’s also the truth.
Street’s presence was visible in all 11 of the Hawks who played. Michigan Coach Steve Fisher had it right when he credited Iowa’s “stick-to-it-iveness.”
“To a person, they would not allow Michigan to win,” Fisher said.
You also saw and heard Street in the fans, who began the day loudly supportive, and only grew more so.
Perhaps more than anything, you saw Street in the joyous, uninhibited scene on the court after the game.
You saw him in Val Barnes, who flung the ball almost all the way to the roof as the final horn ended his second consecutive brilliant game.
You saw him in Acie Earl, who raised his arms and danced at midcourt amid a mob of Iowa students that gleefully stormed the floor.
You saw him in Kevin Smith and Jay Webb, in Mon’ter Glasper and James Winters, each of whom were vital to the effort.
Most of all, you saw Street in Russ Millard.
Who was that guy mixing it up inside with Chris Webber and Juwan Howard, pounding the boards, swinging an elbow that accidentally caught Michigan’s James Voskuil in the nose and knocked him out of the game? Who was that wide-body from right here in Iowa?
It was Millard, seemingly picking up in his second collegiate game where Street left off two weekends before at Duke.
The Wolverines barely knew who Millard was before the game. Now they know.
“I was really pumped up,” Millard said. “I wanted to show the fans how Russ Millard can play.
“Basketball just flows. I think it’s a game that’s played with feelings. It feels great to be out there, and I’m gonna let it show.”
After the game ended, Millard was the first of many Iowa players and coaches to embrace Street’s parents, Mike and Patty. They and daughters Sarah and Betsy watched the game from their customary front-row seats directly cross-court from the Iowa bench.
“I didn’t even think about it,” Millard said about his beeline to the sideline. “It just happened.
“Chris and I were friends. We were on AAU teams together and were on the Iowa Select Team. I’m really close with his parents. I stayed with them for two or three days over the summer when I worked a basketball camp at Chris’ (Indianola) high school.
“I could hear Mr. Street yelling over to me during the game. I think he’s gonna be a help to me.
“Chris brought it to our attention that you’ve got to live life to its fullest,”
Millard was living large Sunday, as were his teammates and their fans.
There may be championships won and mighty upsets achieved in Carver-Hawkeye as the years turn into decades. But Sunday’s game was a keeper.
It showed what can happen when people feed off each other’s desire. It contained a lot of hollering, a lot of smiling, and a few tears. It was life.
It was vintage Chris Street.