Chris Street: twenty years gone

Twenty years ago tonight, Iowa men’s basketball player Chris Street was killed in a car accident. After a team dinner at the Highlander Inn on Highway 1, just north of the Interstate 80 interchange, Street drove into the path of a Johnson County snowplow truck. The plow slammed into his car and he was killed almost instantly.

I was ten years old and quickly becoming enamored with basketball. I was following the Iowa men’s team closely for the first time in my life. I learned of Street’s death while lying in my parents’ bed, watching the small TV on the top of my dad’s dresser. I think it was a quick news update at the end of a commercial break on KCRG. It was very frank and somber: Chris Street was killed in a car accident. I cried.

Needless to say, Street’s death was a big deal. The tragic and early deaths of well-known athletes are not uncommon (Celtics forward Reggie Lewis also died in 1993), and the sports media always describes the effect on the local community as shocking. It is almost like a cliché. However, that is exactly what it was like in the wake of Street’s death. It sent shockwaves through the entire state, and was probably the first time I was aware of something that effected so many people. My mom, who worked nights at the UIHC at the time, said hospital staff members were beside themselves the night of Street’s death. They could not believe he was dead.

I kept the news section of the next day’s Press-Citizen and dug it out yesterday for the first time in a while. I read the stories, and on the front page is this account from Randy Larson, who is famous locally for organizing the iconic Primetime League every summer:

Larson, an Iowa City lawyer who serves as a legal consultant for the basketball team, said word of Street’s death cast an eerie silence over the crowd at The Airliner, the Iowa City bar and restaurant he co-owns.

Larson said he explained what had happened at 9:50 p.m. and then made an announcement that the bar would be closing.

“Three-hundred fifty people walked out in dead silence,” Larson said. “They set their beers down, grabbed their coats and walked out.”

Despite the fact his death became a signature moment of my youth, forever linked to my love for basketball, I do not really remember Chris Street as a player. Perhaps it was because I had yet to easily identify individual players, except those who stood out. But he would have been among them. It is weird, really. However, I think I will forever know who he was. I think of him every time I see a basketball player wearing the number forty, Street’s number. Stored inside a footlocker, along with the P-C the day after Street’s death, is a single-sheet, 1993 calendar with the 1992-93 Iowa men’s roster and schedule on it. Next to each game I wrote a “W” or “L” to keep track of their record, and in the white space I wrote “#40” about twenty times. In November ’93, when my fifth grade class moved to a room in Grant Wood’s new wing, I was assigned locker number forty. I thought it was both an honor and kind of eerie.

There was a tribute for Street at tonight’s game against Wisconsin. Street’s jersey was draped over an empty seat on the Hawkeye bench and the players wore “CMS 40” patches, the same worn by Street’s teammates after his death. I thought it was fitting and very memorable. It may sound corny, but toward the end of game, when the Badgers continued tightening the score, I kept glancing at that empty seat and gold jersey with “40” stitched on the front. This one, like a few almost twenty years ago, had to be for Chris.

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