IOWA CITY — Why are everyone's cars back here?
That thought ran through Heidi Panther's mind as she returned to Carver-Hawkeye Arena on that cold Tuesday night, Jan. 19, 1993.
A student athletic trainer with the Iowa men's basketball team, she attended the team's practice earlier that afternoon. Everyone scattered after practice, so when she returned to the arena later for some studying and found all of the players' and coaches' cars parked outside, she knew something wasn't quite right.
One player's car was not parked outside the arena.
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Christopher Michael Street grew up dreaming of being a Hawkeye. So when coach Tom Davis offered him a scholarship the summer after his sophomore year at Indianola High School in south-central Iowa, he immediately accepted, though it was almost unheard of for a player to do so that early in his high school career.
It didn't take long for the wiry, 6-foot-8 forward to make an impact. He set a freshman school record with 52 blocked shots, and his 247 rebounds the next season still stand as a Hawkeye sophomore record. Both seasons ended in NCAA tournament appearances.
As a junior, Street's final game came at Cameron Indoor Stadium in a nationally televised contest against Duke. Street led Iowa with 14 points and eight rebounds, and broke the school record with his 33rd and 34th consecutive free throws. During the telecast, analyst Billy Packer said Street had a future in the NBA, and his fiery play also impressed Blue Devil coach Mike Krzyzewski.
“He makes that team go,” Krzyzewski said. “Chris Street is the guy that makes it work.”
Three nights after the Duke game, after the afternoon practice, the team gathered at the Highlander Supper Club for a team meal. After it ended, he was heading back to campus for a night class, accompanied by girlfriend Kim Vinton.
Street made a left turn onto Highway 1 and apparently didn't see the snowplow coming. He died instantly and was the lone casualty. He was 20.
Grief overwhelmed the team, the campus, Iowa City and the state. How could this happen to such a likeable, caring, gifted person?
An estimated 2,500 crowded into the First Assembly of God Church in Indianola three days later for Street's funeral. Sister Sarah, a high school senior at the time, bravely eulogized her big brother.
“You were my idol,” she said through tears. “I just can't believe that you'll never put your long, strong arms around me and give me that huge smile of yours ever again.”
After postponing two games, the Hawkeyes returned to the court Jan. 28 at Michigan State. Trailing by 15 with 3:30 left in regulation, Iowa staged an emotional comeback, forced overtime and won 96-90.
“He would have been proud of this,” Davis said. “He would have loved it. He was the toughest tiger in town.”
In its first home game since Street's death, No. 11 Iowa beat a fifth-ranked Michigan team featuring future NBA players Chris Webber, Jalen Rose and Juwan Howard 88-80.
Street's parents and two sisters were in attendance. When the game ended and as fans were storming the court, Hawkeye players fought through the crowd to embrace Street's family. They handed his father, Mike, the game ball, and he held it high above his head as he walked out the tunnel.
“Even though Chris is gone, we wanted to let them know they're still part of the Iowa family,” forward Kenyon Murray said.
His legacy lives on
Street's legacy still lives.
The Chris Street Award is given annually to the Iowa player “who best exemplifies the spirit, enthusiasm and intensity of Chris Street.” It's regarded by many as the Hawkeyes' most coveted award.
His No. 40 jersey is retired. A plaque is still positioned at the entry to the team's locker room with his picture and a poem dedicated to his memory, titled “Don't Quit.”
The basketball staff organizes an annual golf tournament to help subsidize a scholarship in his name. The Chris Street Memorial Foundation is still going strong. The Indianola Athletic Booster Club runs the Chris Street Memorial Basketball Tournament twice a year, and it's been wildly successful. Youngsters in Indianola can play a pickup game at the Christopher M. Street Memorial Basketball Courts.
“I just want to thank the administration and the coaches, past and present, for the support that we've gotten to be able to keep his spirit alive,” Mike Street said. “But most of all the fans. He was born to be a Hawkeye, and with this type of support, who wouldn't want to be a Hawkeye?”
The enduring image of Street is of him harassing an inbounds passer. Forcing a five-second count. Pumping his fist and gesturing to the cheering crowd.
Those bursts of intensity and extra effort were the essence of Street.
“He always played with terrific abandon,” said Gary Close, an Iowa assistant at the time who was in the building Saturday — the 20th anniversary of Street's death — as an assistant for Bo Ryan at Wisconsin. “I think fans, probably the first thing they remember is him being on the front of that pressure, just going crazy, deflecting balls, chasing guys from behind, diving on the floor.”
Somewhere on Saturday night, Street surely was flashing that million-dollar smile. In front of a rare sellout crowd, the Hawkeyes, mired in mediocrity for years, turned in an effort that conjured memories of days gone past, when NCAA tournament appearances were the norm. In the emotionally charged atmosphere, they snapped Wisconsin's seven-game winning streak 70-66.
Iowa players came out in T-shirts that had “STREET 40” on the back. On the front read Street's favorite quote: “If you give 100 percent all of the time, somehow things will work out in the end.”
At halftime, the former Chris Street Award winners in attendance were honored: Wade Lookingbill, Jess Settles, Jim Bartels, Jason Bauer, Ryan Luehrsmann, Duez Henderson, Jeff Horner and Adam Haluska, along with trainer John Streif. A video tribute was played and the Street family was introduced to thunderous applause.
Gone. Never forgotten.
“As good as he was a basketball player — and he was really good — he was an even better person,” Lookingbill said.
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