A look back at the night we lost Chris Street 25 years ago

Chris Street

By Pat Harty

IOWA CITY, Iowa - I barely knew Chris Street, but will forever feel a connection to him because of what happened on that cold, miserable night 25 years ago.

His death in an automobile accident on the outskirts of Iowa City on Jan. 19, 1993 had such a strong impact that many Hawkeye fans still remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the devastating news.

I still remember many of the horrible details from that bone-chilling night, including the look of devastation on Tom Davis’ face as he walked away from the accident scene to a nearby car.

I remember thinking how fragile life can be because just three days earlier I had watched Street play in what proved to be his final game against mighty Duke from a front-row seat at historic Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, N.C.

Street was on the verge of stardom as a 6-foot-8 junior power forward for the Iowa basketball team, and was adored by Hawkeye fans. They admired his talent, respected his work ethic and competiveness and appreciated his homegrown roots and loyalty.

Street was like part of the family to Hawkeye fans because he was so much like them as a native Iowan who valued loyalty, discipline and hard work.

But he also was different because of his immense talent.

Street as a star athlete was what so many Hawkeye fans dreamed of being. He also was a standout quarterback for Indianola High School and probably could’ve pursued that sport.

But basketball was his passion and he loved the Hawkeyes, so Street wasted no time in committing to Iowa before his junior year of high school.

He was living a dream when he made that fateful turn on to Highway 1 and his car was struck by a snow plow.   

Street had left a team dinner at the Highlander Inn on the north side of Iowa City when the car he was driving collided with a snowplow at the intersection of Northgate Drive and Highway 1.

Street had stopped at a stop sign at the intersection before pulling out in front of the snowplow, which was being driven home by a Johnson County employee in anticipation of an approaching winter storm. The snowplow struck the side of Street’s Chrysler LeBaron and rolled it into the path of an oncoming vehicle, which also struck the car that was tagged with personalized license plates “Hawk 40.”

Iowa City police reported that Street was killed instantly. Passenger Kim Vinton, a university student and Street’s girlfriend since their sophomore year at Indianola High School, was transported to University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics where she spent nearly a week being treated for a separated shoulder, punctured lung and broken ribs.

I was in my first year covering the Iowa beat for the Iowa City Press-Citizen when Street was killed. The accident happened less than a half mile from the Press-Citizen office, which at the time was located on North Dodge Street on the outskirts of Iowa City.

The first hint of trouble came over the police blotter when it was reported that a serious accident had occurred just down the street involving a snow plow and a car from Warren County.

I was in the office writing an advance for Iowa’s next game when somebody called and asked if we knew anything about a rumor that Street was in a car accident.

Realizing that Street’s hometown of Indianola is in Warren County, a numbness rushed over me.

This was before the Internet and cell phones, so rumors didn’t spread as quickly as they do now.

But after listening to the phone call and knowing that Street’s hometown was in Warren County, I feared the worst.

So I drove my car to the North Dodge Athletic Club and parked as close as I could to the accident scene. I remember taking a couple deep breaths before exiting my vehicle and then climbing an icy embankment that led to a horrific scene.

I still to this day can see all the breath being exhaled from those gathered at the accident scene and the flashing lights from emergency vehicles piercing the evening sky.

My worst fear was true.

Chris Street was dead.

He had been killed about 15 minutes before I arrived at the scene and there was an eerie silence, with exception to the sounds of emergency workers doing their job and the traffic traveling below on Interstate 80.

I stood still and watched the nightmare unfold, people grieving and trying to make sense of the devastation that had just occurred. I barely could move because my body was frozen with shock and sadness.

And then a familiar face emerged from the darkness with a lifeless expression that I’ll never forget.

Iowa basketball coach Tom Davis was returning to a vehicle after arriving at the accident scene. I had only been on the Iowa beat for about two months, but that was long enough for Davis to know me without really knowing me.

We briefly made eye contact and he grabbed my arm and squeezed it as he walked past me. I struggled to compose myself because it hurt seeing such a nice person be so sad.

After being at the accident scene for several minutes, I returned to the office and delivered the heartbreaking news to those waiting anxiously.

My co-workers had a pretty good idea that Street was involved in the accident when I left the office, but didn’t know the details or have official confirmation until I returned.

I felt miserable having to tell them that Chris Street was dead.

Bryce Miller covered high school sports for the Press-Citizen at the time and he took the news especially hard. I still remember him walking down a hallway in the Press-Citizen after learning that Street was dead and pounding the walls and screaming why, why?

I’ve been told countless stories about people in the downtown Iowa City bars and restaurants putting down their drinks and leaving in silence that night after hearing about Street’s death.

Davis lost much more than just a star player that night.

He lost a young man who brought a tremendous amount of joy and excitement to his life on and off the court.

He lost the heart and soul to the Iowa program without any warning.

For Tom Davis, there was life before and after Chris Street’s death.

His assistant coaches, especially Gary Close, also had a special bond with Street. It was like one, big happy family because Street made it that way.

Davis became more than just a head coach in the days after Street's death. His players were devastated, and yet they found a way to rebound from the shock and despair to finish 23-9 overall, including a victory in the first-round of the NCAA Tournament.

Iowa's victories over Michigan State and the Fab Five from Michigan in the first two games after Street's death are moments that Hawkeye fans will cherish forever. It felt like Street's spirit had carried Iowa to victory in both games, and fans wanted to believe that as a coping mechanism.

Our last image of Street is of him scoring 14 points and grabbing eight rebounds against Duke on Jan. 16, 1993. He also extended his school-record for consecutive free throws made to 34 in the Duke game.

Iowa lost the game, but Street was on top of the world as a star in the making. His life was filled with promise and potential, but not nearly enough time to live it.

Street was like a meteor that blazed a spectacular trail before vanishing.

His life will be celebrated on Saturday when Iowa faces Big Ten leader Purdue at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

The Hawkeyes are struggling right now at 1-6 in the Big Ten and 10-10 overall, but the players owe it to Street’s memory to play hard and with a purpose on Saturday because that’s how he always played.

Street's memory now evokes a certain mystique that often happens when somebody of prominence dies too soon.

Iowa's most prestigious individual award for men's basketball is named after Street and the UI athletic department also hosts a golf tournament each year in his honor.

"We remember, obviously, the tragedy of what happened, but choose to come together as friends and remember all the great things about him," said Iowa coach Fran McCaffery. "And so many of his famly members come every year. It's great to see them, and I think ultimately, it's important for all of us."

I also choose to remember the good things about Chris Street's short life, but his death will always be with me.