Chris Street remains impactful, legacy present 25 years later

Iowa player's life and legacy still palpable as Hawkeyes honor 25th anniversary of his death Saturday

Chris Street gained a reputation as a hard-nosed player with a great work ethic as an Iowa Hawkeye. His coach, Tom Davis, said Street would have played in the NBA. (The Gazette)
Chris Street gained a reputation as a hard-nosed player with a great work ethic as an Iowa Hawkeye. His coach, Tom Davis, said Street would have played in the NBA. (The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — The story of Chris Street’s death is not unique.

As tragic as it was, the then-20-year-old being killed when a snow plow struck his car on Jan. 19, 1993, wasn’t something unheard of or uncommon. Small towns in Iowa and across the country have similar stories of a young athlete’s life cut short.

Those towns and their people grieve as Iowans grieved for Street. But as communities, the memories and anniversaries often fade with time. It’s not that people forget, but a person’s impact lessens as the people they knew and lived with move on in life.

That’s why the last 25 years have made Chris Street just as unique in death as he was in life.

His “spirit, enthusiasm and intensity” are ever-present in the Iowa men’s basketball program, in his hometown of Indianola and equally among people he knew and never met. His impact and legacy renew every year through the Christ Street Foundation, the Chris Street Memorial Scholarship (given to one Hawkeye each year) and the Chris Street Award — the highest award given to players each year, which honors those aforementioned qualities.

 

Whether you’re from Iowa or not, from Iowa City or not, went to or even were an Iowa fan or not, sports fans and followers know Chris Street.

So why Street? Why has his memory endured so forcefully, with such meaning?

“If you find the answer, let me know,” Street’s dad Mike said. “I think it’s just the fact that people are attracted to people who are true and genuine, love what they do and it comes through. You appreciate that. So many times (people) interact with others who don’t want to be there. That makes a difference. He loved his opportunities and understood them.

“You only get one chance at his thing. He knew that.”

Street’s story and legacy are revisited every year around this time, and more intently on the milestone — for lack of a better term — anniversaries. Saturday’s 11 a.m. tipoff against Purdue is the Chris Street Memorial Game, and several of his former teammates and coaches will be at Carver-Hawkeye Arena to honor him.

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This time of year remains bittersweet for everyone who knew him. Happy memories and seeing photos and video of Street’s signature smile offset the pain of knowing he’s been gone so long.

Former head coach Tom Davis said this week that while that’s true, he remains grateful every year the program continues to honor Street. It would have been easy, in theory, for one of the three head coaches who followed in Davis’ wake, or athletics director Gary Barta, who succeeded Bob Bowlsby, to have sought to move on.

Instead those coaches, most recently Fran McCaffery, remained committed to the legacy left.

“I think it says something – and I’m just guessing – but it says something about the wide scope of care and compassion for what Chris Street was all about,” Davis said. “It was deeper than any of us realized, the respect people had for him. The depth for that has kept this going.

“The qualities he had are universal in all ventures. What he stood for is solid. You take pleasure in reminiscing about it, even though on the other hand it’s sad thinking about what might’ve been.”

McCaffery obviously wasn’t in Iowa and didn’t have a connection to Street before he came to Iowa City in 2010. But like anyone who becomes familiar with the story and with the ideals Street personified, McCaffery understood quickly.

He said Tuesday “it’s incredibly genuine, and it says a lot about Chris and his family that 25 years later we’re still feeling this way. It’s important that whoever the coach is here recognizes that as we do at the banquet every year.”

McCaffery’s continued recognition of Street’s parents, Mike and Patty, and the rest of his family is one example why current players should take it seriously. Jordan Bohannon and Cordell Pemsl are among seven Iowa natives on the roster, and while they and everyone else on the roster were born after Street died, they know why Saturday means as much as it does for so many.

It means Saturday being a memorial game isn’t a distraction; rather it’s a motivator. Pemsl said “knowing what he brought on and off the court makes me want to play even harder.”

It means learning about who Street was and wanting badly to live up to that standard.

It means knowing exactly the level an honor it is to win the Chris Street Award.

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“Knowing I’m an Iowa kid just like he was makes me understand what it means to wear the Iowa jersey,” Bohannon said. “Realizing he put on the jersey and you’re putting it on now and the steps you’re following just means a lot. Obviously he was a tremendous player, but listening to stories and talking to his parents shows the tremendous person he was.”

In all, 27 different players have received the 25 Chris Street Awards since the first one went to Wade Lookingbill in 1993.

 

Jess Settles won the award twice by himself, in 1994 and 1996, and then shared it with Jason Bauer in 1999. Jarryd Cole (2009, 2011) and Adam Haluska (2005-06) also were multi-time winners. Brody Boyd and Greg Brunner shared the award in 2004 and Anthony Clemmons, Mike Gesell, Jarrod Uthoff and Adam Woodbury shared it in 2016.

If there’s anyone who can best understand or impress upon current players the importance of what Pemsl and Bohannon recognized, it’s the players who knew Street personally.

Settles got to campus the season after Street’s death, but knew him well. Settles said Street helped recruit him, sold him a pair of shoes at Athlete’s Foot shoe store in the Old Capitol Mall and provided invaluable guidance. He said, “I just think he went above and beyond the call of duty to share himself with the state of Iowa — just always had quality time for you.”

Current Cedar Rapids Prairie assistant coach Kenyon Murray was on the team with Street and still calls Street “one of my best friends.” Murray is as connected to Street and his legacy as anyone outside the Street family, and uses things he learned from Street in his own coaching. How players and people today can still take lessons from Street is a product of his family’s efforts to keep him present, Murray said. What people do with those lessons after is what makes it grow.

“It didn’t matter if there were 15,000 people in the stands, Chris played like he was in his back yard,” Murray said. “He played every game like it was his last. I think that’s what people miss about the game at times today is there’s not that joy they see with kids. It seems like there’s so much pressure to win that they’re not having fun. Chris just was a joy to watch and play with because of that. He just made people feel good about playing basketball and watching basketball.”

Sometimes social media can be productive. Sometimes thoughts can break through the banal pettiness and strike a chord. The anonymous account @IrrationalHawk had a thought about Street that hits at the heart of why Street still matters today; why who he was has stayed so present.

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In part, the account’s tweet said, “he was one of us. An Iowa kid who lived the dream of being a Hawkeye. He played with maximum effort. It felt like we lost our brother, son, or grandson. He represented us.”

That kind of impact still makes his family sit back in their seats; still brings tears to their eyes, and an upcoming book, “Emotion in Motion: the Life and Legacy of Chris Street,” by former Des Moines Register columnist Rick Brown, chronicles all of that. Saturday may be bittersweet for so many, but the sweetness comes in realizing Street has not and will not fade anytime soon.

“People took him so personal,” Mike Street said. “Just his love of the game. It was so obvious he loved the game, loved playing the game and loved being a Hawkeye. His emotions were true. They weren’t put on. That came through to people and resonated with them.

“I don’t think there is an exact answer. It’s due to all of what Christopher was.”

l Comments: (319) 368-8884; jeremiah.davis@thegazette.com

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