IOWA CITY — A stoplight now patrols the intersection where the Iowa basketball program suffered the most difficult loss the Hawkeyes have had to endure.
It was there where the direction of lives were changed in the blink of an eye on a January night 20 years ago.
“After that night, everything changed,” former Hawkeyes assistant Gary Close said.
At 6:49 p.m. on Jan. 19, 1993, a traffic accident claimed the life of Chris Street, a starting forward on the Iowa basketball team whose wide smile and intense approach to the game provided the 1992-93 Hawkeyes with their heart and soul.
Street had left a team dinner at the Highlander Inn on the north side of the 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 six days being treated for a separated shoulder, punctured lung and broken ribs.
Skies were clear, and the pavement was dry at the time of the accident.
As emergency personnel worked the accident site, the remainder of the team continued team meetings and a meal at the nearby hotel, a custom the night before each game during Tom Davis’ tenure as Hawkeyes coach.
A handful of Iowa players, including current Bettendorf athletics director Kevin Skillett, left the team dinner about 20 minutes after Street to attend evening classes on campus.
They first saw the flashing lights and then were left to deal with the reality after recognizing the car that was involved.
“I can still see the scene,” said former Hawkeye James Winters, who left early with teammates Skillett and Jim Bartels. “I can close my eyes and see what I saw that night. That will be with me for the rest of my life. It was so unexpected, just a shock.”
The accident occurred three days after a 13th-ranked Iowa team had battled two-time defending national champion Duke to a nine-point game at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
“We were having a great year, but none of that mattered after that night,” Winters said.
Iowa’s season resumed after a 12-day break with an emotion-filled comeback and overtime victory against Michigan State. With Street’s number 40 shaved into the back of his hair, Moline’s Acie Earl scored 27 points and had 16 rebounds to lead a game which the Hawkeyes played with Street-like intensity.
The team went on to finish 23-9 that season, losing to Wake Forest in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, but things never were the same.
“The innocence was gone,” Earl said. “We all grew up that night. We didn’t have any choice.”
Davis gathered his team in its locker room at Carver-Hawkeye Arena late that night, telling them what happened and offering all of the support he could as he dealt with the loss himself.
“When you get into coaching, they prepare you for a lot of things. Something like that isn’t among them,” Davis said. “I get asked about it every once in a while and I still struggle with it. It was so sad, so sad. It makes you appreciate every day you have that much more, understanding how quickly it can be taken away.”
Close, a longtime Davis assistant now in his 10th season as an assistant at Wisconsin, was tight with Street, overseeing many of his individual workouts.
“He had such a great spirit about him, the way he approached life and competition,” Close said. “He was living his dream. Grew up in Iowa, wanted to be a Hawkeye. He never took that for granted. I think of Chris often, and there are a lot of good memories.”
The Hawkeyes play Wisconsin on the 20th anniversary of Street’s death, and Close expects Saturday’s 7 p.m. game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena to be an emotion-filled experience.
“There will be a lot of memories, I’m sure,” he said.
Vinton, now Kim Williams, expects to be there as do Street’s parents, Mike and Patty.
Williams lives in Iowa City where she and her husband, former Hawkeye wrestler Joe Williams, raise their two sons and she works as a program coordinator in the university’s College of Public Health.
She is “thankful” she has no memory of the accident, which she has told her young sons about, but cherishes the memories she has of Street.
“He was so good with the kids, taking time to talk with them when they would come up to us if we were out eating or at a store,” Williams said. “He loved it. He’d get that wide smile on his face. He was such a fun person to be around, loved life.”
Street’s parents have returned to Carver-Hawkeye Arena on occasion in the past. Mike Street said life is still filled with good days and bad when they think about their son, but for the first time in 20 years they have purchased season tickets.
“You think back to games and moments sometimes sitting there, but it feels right. It was time,” he said. “All he wanted to be was a Hawkeye.”
An all-state quarterback and a dominating pitcher in addition to the success he enjoyed in basketball, Street committed to the Hawkeyes prior to his junior year at Indianola High School.
It was about that time when current Purdue coach Matt Painter got to know Street, playing on the same tournament team in the summer.
“He was so energetic, so positive. I always got along great with him,” Painter said. “He played the game so hard. Coach (Gene) Keady loved him. I told him once he should could come to Purdue, and he said ‘No way, I’m a Hawk.’ I grew up in Indiana, not knowing the passion kids in that state have for that institution. Chris taught me that.”
Earl recalls the team meeting and the shock of the evening.
“We were all stunned,” Earl said. “Some guys just sat there. Some cried. At that age, you don’t think about those things. Just like that, he was gone.”
Street’s legacy, however, lives.
The Iowa basketball program presents an annual award in Street’s honor, and his name still fills a spot in the Hawkeyes record book.
In the Duke game, Street broke a 24-year-old school record for consecutive free throws, hitting his 33rd and 34th straight attempts from the line. The record still stands.
A gym in his hometown bears Street’s name and an annual youth tournament is played there in memory of Street.
“There is a lot for all of us to learn from the way he approached life, the way he approached basketball,” Painter said. “And the way it ended, it teaches us all how we need to keep things in perspective.”