Rediscovering Chris Street: Twenty Years Later

Chris Street (basketball)
Chris Street (basketball) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On January 16, 2008, I originally wrote this blog for Juice to mark the 15th anniversary of Chris Street‘s death. Street was a standout player for the Iowa Hawkeyes and an All-Stater at Indianola High. On Saturday, January 19, 2013, it will be 20 years since Street was killed in a car/snowplow accident after leaving the Highlander Inn with his girlfriend Kim Vinton after a team dinner. Iowa was to host Northwestern the following night.

This week, many reporters, former teammates, friends, families, and sports fans across the state of Iowa will offer stories and memories of one of the most popular athletes to grace Iowa sports on any level. Please note that I have made some minor edits to reflect this week’s anniversary, but overall the entire text is the same as it was when I wrote it in 2008.

This is my personal recollection of Chris Street.

Significant events in Iowa sports history are abundant in our collective minds. For many of us, we remember when Iowa was one game away from making the Final Four in 1987, Cael Sanderson going 159-0 on the mat, Dan Gable and Iowa reeling off 10 straight wrestling national titles, and UNI upending Missouri in 1990 in the first round of the NCAA tournament, to name a few.

Then there are those that invoke memories and emotions that are difficult to relive, much less look back in perspective.

Saturday will mark the 20th anniversary of the death of Chris Street. Street was a standout player for the Iowa Hawkeyes, an all-state player for Indianola, and a beloved fan favorite across the state. Street was killed in a car-snowplow truck collision after he pulled out of a local Iowa City hotel where the team met for dinner the night before they were scheduled to play Northwestern.

To those who vaguely remember it and to those who may have heard little or nothing about Chris Street, this is an appropriate time for many of us who remember and give our personal recollections of Street and why his death is considered one of the darkest days in sports history in the state of Iowa.

The first time I heard of Street, I was an 8th grader at Jack Logan Intermediate School in Waterloo. Pundits predicted that Street and his Indianola Indians was the team to beat in Class 3-A prep basketball.  The Indians finished in 3rd in 1988, lost in the first round in ’89, and was primed to make a championship run in 1990.  Street was named to the 3A all tournament team as a sophomore in ’88.

That didn’t sit well with the good folks in Waterloo. There was no doubt in our minds that our Trojans of East Waterloo High was the team to beat in 3A.  We had Mike Davis dominating the lane, Cortez McGhee running the offense, Chris Roby and Brian Ross doing the dirty work, and the rest of the gang with their high-flyin’ dunk-fest show, making life a living hell in old Big 8 Conference for West, Cedar Falls, Ft. Dodge, Mason City, and Marshalltown.

Waterloo Courier’s headline of East High winning the 3A title over Iowa City High on March 18, 1990.

As late February rolled in, many fans in 3-A were holding their breaths to see who’ll play at Vets Auditorium in mid-March. Defending champs Iowa City High, North Davenport, East, Ankeny, and Indianola were among the 8 teams that won substate and moved on. The Indians and the Trojans both won their first round games. The highly anticipated match-up was set: Davis vs. Street. Both players were candidates to be Mr. Basketball in Iowa.

Friday, March 16, 1990: Terry Meier’s algebra class couldn’t calm down enough to take the chapter test, because it was already a crazy day in Waterloo and Cedar Falls. UNI was playing Missouri in the first round of the Big Dance, and East would play later that afternoon. The week before, the Columbus Catholic girls won the 3-A state title in basketball, and the Waterloo Warriors were playing for the high school state hockey title.

The Cedar Valley was buzzing like no other time in my life. It was, to me, one of the greatest weeks ever to be a kid living there…we had a chance to be “Titletown”.  Three high school state titles and the Panthers making history in an already magical season.

I was sitting by the window as we started to take the test. Ten minutes later, we heard muffled screams from Mr. Vanderbeek’s science class down the hall. Mr. Meier gets up from his desk and walks out. Some of us thought that someone’s science experiment had gone sideways…or someone made Vanderbeek go sideways with some smart-aleck comment.

Two minutes later, Mr. Meier returned and told us that UNI won on a Maurice Newby three-pointer with :03 seconds left. Vanderbeek’s class was the only class in the 8th grade wing that had a TV to watch the game.

The “University of Nothing’s Impossible” had knocked off big bad Missouri!

It was UNI’s first ever win in the Big Dance…in their first appearance ever.

Yes! One down, one to go! School dismissed around 2:30 that afternoon and we rushed home to watch East and Indianola.

The neighborhood exploded when the final horn sounded as East defeated Indianola to play City High in the finals. The following day, St. Patrick’s Day, the Indians would go on to beat Ankeny, 74-68, for the 3rd place trophy. Later that evening, East beat City in overtime, 89-84, to win the 3A state title in one of the most memorable finals in tournament history.

(Courtesy of the Indianola School District)

Street went on to Iowa, where he was an important part of a Tom Davis squad with Acie Earl, Paul Lusk, Russ Millard, Jay Webb, James Moses, James Winters, and others. Whether you were a Hawk fan or not, everyone respected his hard play and dedication to help the Hawks win.

The Saturday before his death, January 16, 1990, Iowa played at Duke. As much as Iowa tried, Duke prevailed, 65-56. I was convinced that the refs “helped” the Dukies win. They hardly ever lose in Cameron Indoor Stadium. And, as Hawkeyes fans are quite known to do, we start bickering at the television, playing the coach on the couch and second guessing what Dr. Tom and the kids did.

Tuesday, January 19, 1993 was an ordinary Tuesday night across the state. I was a sophomore and a student manager for the East boys basketball team. We were across town, playing against our hated rivals, West, at Siddens Gym. After an up and down first half, we started to coast in the second half. I glanced over at the Wahawks bench and I could have sworn I saw West coach Mike Hurn wave the white flag again, as he and Wahawks conceded defeat to the Trojans for the umpteenth time, by the score of 105-77.

After the game, my uncle drove me home and we talked about the game. I walked into the door and flipped on the television around 9:56 pm, so I could greedily smile when they showed the East-West highlights.

At 10:00 sharp, KGAN-TV was on in the background.  As the news opened, anchors Bob Hilton and Amy Johnson delivered the news no one never expected, or imagined hearing.

“Tragic news from Iowa City this evening, as Iowa basketball player Chris Street was killed, and his girlfriend seriously injured, in a collision with a snowplow…”

My eyes bulged as I watched and heard what was being said. “What?? This can’t be real…is this true???” I said to myself.

For the next hour, I stood there, in front of the television in the den, in silence, numbed by the realization that not only did a young man died, but an individual many young fans wanted to grow up to emulate and older fans loved to support.

The power of Street’s death has no comparison to any other tragic event, because each one is different. Iowa fans, Iowa State fans, Drake and UNI fans were in shock. We were somewhat immune to other tragic stories like this anyplace else, but for it to happen to someone we knew, personally or not, it was a completely different feeling.

There have been tragedies involving sports figures in Iowa in the past: Jack Trice, Calvin Jones, Bucky O’Connor, and seven members of the 1985 Iowa State women cross country team, and a few others that elicit shock, sorrow, and sadness.

But nothing was so gut-wrenching, heartsick, and emotional on such a high level as Street’s death. Chris Dufresne, brilliant sports writer for the Los Angeles Times, poignantly put into words, from an outside view, the massive impact of Chris Street’s death to every Iowan.

The rest of the week was a cloud. All I could remember was that I had class, boy/girl tap dance practice for the spring variety show, and East had a home game on a Friday…the day of Street’s funeral.

Once in a while, about every 3 or 4 years, someone would bring up Christopher Michael Street and I think back to that Tuesday night in January when the entire state virtually stopped in its tracks.  It was never going to be the same again.

Life started to return to normal, but the accident was still fresh in our minds. To me, it’s feels like it was a long time ago, but to remember Chris Street, in life and in death, is as fresh as last night.

As a new generation of Iowans develop their love for sports and what it means to us, ultimately, we will tell the story of Chris Street and explain to them why this individual, this player, this special guy, is part of the fabric that makes us who we are as Iowans.

No matter how we tell this story and the lasting impact it has on nearly all of us as sports fans in Iowa, we will always continue to “rediscover” Chris Street.

Chris Street and Dr. Tom Davis. (Courtesy: Hawk Central)

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