IOWA CITY — Chris Street’s legacy knows no boundaries and stretches into infinity.
His presence still shadows the state that cheered and later wept for him. He stood 6-foot-9 and played basketball for Iowa at a time when athletes seemed larger and relationships more intimate.
Street, a gregarious 20-year-old, was killed in a car accident Jan. 19, 1993. But his story, one that resonates 20 years after that tragic night, is not about his death. It’s about his life and, more importantly, his spirit.
“People still want to be Chris Street,” said Kenyon Murray, Street’s Iowa teammate and best friend. “That’s crazy. He’s like a folklore. People like me and other people who have been able to watch him play, they talk about him almost like a Paul Bunyan-esque type of way in the state.”
Street scored and defended and rebounded and fought the way Iowans expect from their homegrown basketball stars. He led the team in rebounding and field-goal percentage in his final full season. He had NBA ability and a small-town work ethic. He still holds the school record for most consecutive free throws made at 34, a streak he completed in a loss at Duke. It was his final game.
While his statistics are impressive, they’re just numbers. What defined Street was his fierce competitive drive that pushed his teammates to the edge. He also had a zest for life, pranks and his state. Nobody could take that from him.
“I said, ‘Coach (Gene) Keady loves you,’” recalled Purdue coach Matt Painter, who joined Street as a player on a Big Ten traveling basketball squad to Europe in 1992. “‘He said you’d be a perfect Purdue-type player. You should just come to Purdue.’ Obviously I was joking with him. But he was adamant, ‘Oh no. No way. I’m a Hawk. I love it. I love the state of Iowa. I grew up wanting to be an Iowa Hawkeye. It’s everything I dreamed about.’
“We all live in our little world. I grew up in the state of Indiana, and I didn’t grow up in the state of Iowa. So I didn’t realize the passion that kids in that state have for that institution. It really hit home with me. It showed you what kind of guy he was, the loyalty he had toward Iowa.”
In time, Street’s loyalty was rewarded and reciprocated. But that fateful night stands as the most tragic event in Iowa sports history.
ACCIDENT AND AFTERMATH
Street was running late for a night class on Jan. 19, 1993. He left a team dinner at the Highlander Inn, hopped into the driver’s seat of his vehicle with girlfriend Kim Vinton as his passenger. As Street turned southbound on Highway 1, a Johnson County snowplow driven by Charles Pence slammed into Street’s car. Street was killed almost instantly, and Vinton was seriously injured.
Longtime Iowa trainer John Streif informed coach Tom Davis of the accident and took him to the scene. Everything else remains a blur for Davis.
“You don’t have a vivid memory of the details,” Davis said. “I don’t know if it is a form of shock or whatever you might call it when you go through a trauma or a tragedy like this.”
Players were called, then met at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The emotion was raw and the atmosphere surreal.
“Maybe the toughest thing I’ve ever been through in my life span,” said former Iowa and current Wisconsin assistant coach Gary Close. “It was a big shock.”
Close, Streif and scorekeeper Gil Barker drove Street’s body from Iowa City to Indianola. The 120-mile drive took four hours over ice and snow. They stayed in Indianola to comfort the family and help with arrangements.
The team arrived the day of the funeral and first sat in a private room. They grieved and mourned in the aftermath as two games were postponed.
Iowa finally returned to the court Jan. 28. With three minutes to go, Iowa trailed Michigan State by 15 points. The Hawkeyes rallied miraculously to tie the game and eventually won it in overtime.
Three days later, Iowa played host to eventual national runner-up Michigan. With unrivaled emotion engulfing Carver-Hawkeye Arena, the Hawkeyes earned an 88-80 win. Fans mobbed Street’s parents following the game, and his family was handed the game ball.
“This is marvelous, this is wonderful, this is everything being a Hawkeye should be,” legendary Iowa radio broadcaster Jim Zabel bellowed through tears while calling the postgame action.
Iowa moved into the top 10, but basketball was just part of the healing process. The players bonded with selflessness. Murray volunteered to come off the bench so the taller James Winters could fill in for Street. Wade Lookingbill, Jay Webb and Russ Millard took on bigger roles while Acie Earl and Val Barnes carried the team offensively.
Off the court, fans from Big Ten rivals contributed money in Street’s name. Michigan State’s fan base donated $2,000 to the Chris Street Memorial Foundation. Minutes after his son, Andy, drained a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to beat Iowa, Illinois fan Bill Kaufmann asked Davis for an address to send condolences.
Nearly every college coach publicly touted Street, from Indiana’s Bob Knight to Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski. The greatest gesture of all came from cross-state rival Iowa State.
One day after Street’s death, five different Cyclones players, including current coach Fred Hoiberg, wrote “40” on their shoes or wristbands to honor Street. The team attended the funeral. ISU’s Morgan Wheat switched his number to 40 the rest of that season. Hoiberg, an AAU teammate of Street, followed the next year. ISU coach Johnny Orr honored Street by having an Iowa-born player wear No. 40 every year for the rest of his coaching career.
“I think that said that lot certainly about Chris but competition in the state as well,” Davis said.
“It went beyond school colors. They loved him as a person,” said Chris’ father, Mike Street. “They loved him as an athlete, and they respected him.”
A plaque outside the Iowa basketball locker room features Street’s smiling face and a poem titled “Don’t Quit.” It’s the first image the players notice leaving the locker room and the last one they see when they enter it.
Iowa players viewed a documentary on Street earlier this week. His determination tugged at junior Devyn Marble.
“Now I can understand what he meant to this program and why his name is still alive to this day,” Marble said. “I definitely see why everybody loved this kid so much.”
But why is Street immortalized? Young people, including athletes, die tragically every day. There’s intense grief and often martyrdom, but rarely does the legend grow. Not like Street’s.
“Usually things just kind of drift away, but in this case it hasn’t,” Davis said. “I don’t have an answer. I think it says something about our state, the attitude and values of the people of the state of Iowa. Certainly Chris’ legacy went beyond the state.”
Street was a tall, rangy athlete who played three sports. He was an all-state quarterback at Indianola and could throw a fastball 90 mph. He committed to Iowa before his junior year and was raw when he arrived on campus. But that’s when his work ethic and determination became iconic.
After he died, the program started the “Chris Street Award,” which is presented to a Hawkeye “who best exemplifies the spirit, enthusiasm and intensity of Chris Street.” It’s not an MVP award, but it might carry more value to the winners.
“It means that you have played and performed and represented yourself and your teammates to a standard that everybody knows what it is,” Murray said. “When you say the ‘Chris Street Award,’ it’s like, ‘OK, shoot yeah.’ There’s only a few guys that are deserving of it every year. So it’s a huge badge of honor.”
Davis and the basketball staff organized the “Chris Street Memorial Golf Tournament” to help subsidize a scholarship in Street’s name. The “Chris Street Memorial Foundation” had more than $143,000 in assets in its most recent tax returns.
The Indianola Athletic Booster Club runs the “Chris Street Memorial Basketball Tournament” twice a year and uses up to 10 gyms in the central Iowa town. It often fills so fast that teams are turned away.
Street’s legacy inspires people, many of whom he’d never met. It humbles his family.
“We’re so close, we didn’t understand and appreciate it as much at the time as maybe we do now,” Mike Street said. “But the test of time has stood.”
“I think the people of the state really appreciated the type of person he was,” said Close, who Mike Street considers a family member. “I think they appreciated the fact that he had a dream as a very young kid to be a Hawkeye so he was very appreciative of having that dream come true. He took advantage of it each and every day.”
Murray often thinks of Street beyond the basketball court. Street was Murray’s chaperone when he visited Iowa’s campus. They regularly ate dinner together, and Street sometimes razzed Murray, then a freshman.
“There’s always days and times I wonder where would he be today?” Murray said. “When you have a friend like that a lot of times in your adult lives, you kind of move in the same direction.
“I considered him my best friend. I have daily reminders. There’s so many kids that have been named after him. I have one I look at every day. There’s really not a day that goes by that I don’t think of him. On those occasions I always smile.”
Street’s death ended his life on Earth, but his spirit remains embedded to the state and basketball program. Saturday, Iowa players and coaches will don replicas of the patches and pins worn in 1993. At least half of the past “Chris Street Award” winners will attend a halftime ceremony. The Big Ten allowed Iowa to schedule a home game on the 20th anniversary of his passing, and league selected Wisconsin.
Street’s death changed Iowa basketball in 1993. But 20 years later his legacy endures because of how he lived and through those he inspired.
Mike Street received an email only days ago from a girl he’d never met. Her note brought him to tears.
“Chris had that infectious smile. He was very driven,” the note read. “He played with passion, and he demonstrated an enormous competitive spirit. How could you not love him? And we did.”
“Pretty powerful,” Mike Street said. “Summarizes it pretty well, I guess.”