If you were to ask a hard-core Iowa State fan what number current Cyclone basketball coach Fred Hoiberg wore back when he was a Cyclone player, the answer would probably come pretty quickly.
And that is correct — Hoiberg wore number 32 — and he wore it well. He wore it so well that the number has been retired in his honor. ISU basketball enthusiasts have fond memories of the Ames native in that number, burning the nets with his precision shooting, warming their hearts with his on-court intensity, earning the nickname “The Mayor” because he was far more popular in Ames than any local politician. So popular was Hoiberg and his number 32 that nearly two decades after his playing days were over at ISU, they made him coach.
But I recall a few months in 1993 when Hoiberg wore a different number as a Cyclone.
In honor of one of Hoiberg’s fiercest rivals, over on the other side of the state, “The Mayor” changed his number as a tribute to a guy who played the game with the same kind of on-court intensity.
That guy — number 40 — was Iowa Hawkeye Chris Street. Rival and friend.
Coincidentally, 40 is the age Chris Street would be right now, had he lived this long. Twenty years ago Saturday, at 6:49 p.m. on Jan. 19, 1993, a traffic accident claimed the life of Street, a starting forward on the Iowa basketball team.
Iowa basketball players, fans and coaches will pay tribute to the memory and spirit of Street at Saturday’s 7 p.m. home game against Wisconsin. It will be 20 years to the day after Street was killed. I don’t expect there will be a dry eye in Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Thousands of young men die before their time, and each one’s story is just as tragic. But there was something special about Chris Street.
Maybe it was the way he smiled as he played. Street manned the front of coach Dr. Tom Davis’s full-court press, which meant he guarded the in-bounds pass. As he did this, often times it seemed as if Street was looking right into our living rooms as we watched it on television. You almost wanted to invite the kid in for some popcorn. He could have been our son, our brother, our best friend, our nephew or cousin there enjoying the game with us.
I was at a game once, with seats near the court, when Street was waiting to defend an inbound pass after a time out. The official — I like to remember it as Ed Hightower, but I’m not sure it was him — was holding the ball waiting for the opposing team to come out. Street — all 6-foot-8 of him — was hyper-actively jumping up and down in anticipation, occasionally letting out some kind of a “whoo-hoo.” Suddenly he grabbed the startled official’s shoulders and started rubbing them roughly. He looked the ref in the eyes.
“C’mon Ed! Cheer up! Isn’t this fun?” Street said with a broad smile.
The official tried to keep playing it straight, but he couldn’t help himself. He doubled over in laughter.
I was at the game when Street’s number 40 was retired. It was later that season, against Indiana. I went to the game with my dad, and we shared a cry together during the ceremonies. We had watched so many Hawkeye basketball games together, in our living room and in that arena, that it was appropriate for us to be together for that. It was just me, Dad, and 16,000 fans who felt exactly the same as we did. We’d all lost a friend.
I remember Indiana coach Bobby Knight sending his players back to the locker room during the ceremony. I’m sure he thought that watching the ceremony would drain his team emotionally, and they would not be as intense on the court. Coach Knight, however, watched the ceremony. I watched him. He leaned against the wall, his arms crossed, and took it all in. At one point, he wiped a tear away.
“What could be more tragic?” Knight was later quoted as saying.
That Tuesday night, Jan. 19, 1993, Street had left a team dinner at the Highlander Inn — a few blocks north of the duplex I lived in on North Dodge Street in Iowa City — when the car he was driving collided with a snowplow. 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 — tagged with personalized license plates “Hawk 40.”
Iowa students had just returned to class from winter break. A friend of mine was enjoying some beer, pizza and camaraderie at The Airliner, a downtown restaurant and bar. The place was packed. My friend told me that at about 10 p.m., someone turned the music off and stood up on the bar to announce the sad news.
Chris Street had died in a car accident.
Silence. No words spoken as students set their beers down, put their coats on and walked out. The place was empty in minutes.
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, spent six days being treated for a separated shoulder, punctured lung and broken ribs.
The accident occurred three days after 13th-ranked Iowa had battled two-time defending national champion Duke to a nine-point game at Duke. Street took every punch the Blue Devils dished out, and then dished out some of his own — the whole time with a smile on his face.
In that 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.
Street scored 14 points and grabbed eight rebounds in that game, and became nationally-known as a player. I recall hearing commentator Billy Packer say something like, “I love watching this kid play! This kid’s gonna play in the NBA!”
A little after 10 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 1993, I turned the TV to the local news. I wanted to catch the sports before I went to bed.
The news was not good. The reporters could barely talk, they were so shaken. “Number 40 was gone,” they were telling me. “It was a tragedy. Number 40 was gone.”
I shut the TV off and went to bed, but didn’t sleep.
Basketball had died.
Sports editor James Grob can be contacted at email@example.com.