IOWA CITY — Acie Earl heard the sirens, but didn’t think anything of it at the time.
Iowa’s All-Big Ten center from Moline was on his way to his Tuesday night class. He had an early dinner with his friend Chris Street and other teammates at the Highlander Inn, but had left early to go see his girlfriend before meeting up with Street again in class.
“So I went to class and the teacher said, ‘Where is Chris?’’’ Earl said. “I told her I knew he was coming. Coach (Tom) Davis had a rule that if you missed class you didn’t start so I was upset through the whole class because Chris wasn’t there.’’
After that, Earl went to Carver-Hawkeye Arena to get in some shooting practice and was surprised to see so many cars in the parking lot.
“As soon as I walked in the door, I saw one of our senior managers sitting there and he was just bawling,’’ Earl said. “Then I see some of the coaches and they’re bawling. Then I go in the locker room and everybody is bawling.
“I asked what was going on and they said, ‘Chris died.’ I just said ‘What?’ I couldn’t believe it.’’
Street had been killed in an accident shortly before 7 p.m. As he was leaving the team gathering at the Highlander, his car was struck by a Johnson County snowplow.
He was pronounced dead at the scene.
It happened 25 years ago today, on Jan. 19, 1993, and it remains among the most tragic and memorable moments in Iowa sports history.
Street was a charismatic, hard-nosed, hard-working, hard-playing student-athlete who many felt epitomized what college sports should be about.
His legacy will be celebrated by the university again Saturday in conjunction with a game against Purdue at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
“He truly did represent what Iowa is,’’ said Bettendorf associate principal Kevin Skillett, who was a member of that Iowa team. “It’s that tough, put-in-the-work, be-a-good-person, do-it-the-right-way, morals, ethics thing.’’
Street was the sort of player coaches fall in love with. Rival coaches such as Bob Knight and Johnny Orr all said they hated playing against him but would have loved to have had him on their own team.
“He was such a fierce competitor,’’ Skillett said. “He played the game at such a high energy level and not just during games. Every practice, every drill, he pushed and pushed as hard as he possibly could, and he made guys around him better.’’
Street’s enthusiasm and hustle were infectious, and he had a work ethic to match. The 6-foot-8 forward worked tirelessly to develop as a player.
He did not start a single game as a freshman but as a sophomore in 1991-92, he averaged 10.6 points per game and was third in the Big Ten in rebounding at 8.2 per game. Halfway through his junior year, he was averaging 14.5 points and 9.5 rebounds per outing.
A mediocre foul shooter coming out of Indianola High School, he worked tirelessly on that part of his game and had set a school record by making 34 consecutive free throws.
On Jan. 16, 1993, in his final game, he nearly led the Hawkeyes to an upset of two-time defending national champion Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium, finally losing 65-56.
Earl has vivid memories of their last practice together prior to that Duke game.
“He and I were playing one-on-one and he was stopping me a little bit,’’ Earl recalled. “Everyone was sort of surprised because that hadn’t happened a lot. He said, ‘When you go to the NBA and I come a year later, I’m going to tell the coach to put me in because I know how to stop Acie Earl.
“You could tell he was going to be great,’’ Earl added. “Then we go to Duke and he played great there. He was on his way to greatness. You could tell he was on his way to greatness.’’
Skillett said everyone who knew him was certain Street was headed for an NBA career.
“He was just so consistent,’’ Skillett said. “Every day, every game, you knew exactly what you were going to get out of Chris Street.’’
The Hawkeyes’ next scheduled game after playing Duke was against Northwestern at home on Wednesday night, Jan. 20. The night before each game, the team stayed together at the Highlander (now the Clarion Hotel), just off I-80, and many of the players would eat dinner there early, then go to attend night classes.
That’s where Street was headed at 6:49 p.m. He was driving his Chrysler LeBaron, with long-time girlfriend Kim Vinton as a passenger, and was pulling out onto Highway 1 when the snowplow broadsided Street’s vehicle, sending it crashing into a ditch.
Other Iowa players left the Highlander later and came upon the scene of the accident. Skillett was riding with Jim Bartels and Street’s roommate, James Winters.
“We didn’t have any idea at the time that it was Chris or anyone else we knew,’’ Skillett said. “But we could tell the accident was significant.’’
The crumpled pile of metal they saw didn’t even look like Street’s car.
Then Iowa coach Davis and trainer John Strief arrived at the scene and they knew.
“It was just an emotional moment, as you can imagine,’’ Skillett said. “We were all just kind of in shock. It was a this-can’t-really-have-happened kind of situation.’’
Vinton was seriously injured but ultimately recovered. Street wasn’t as lucky.
As Earl noted in an interview a few years ago, “We all grew up that night. We didn’t have any choice.’’
The days that followed were a whirlwind of disbelief and grief. The game with Northwestern and a Saturday game at Penn State were postponed.
Street was laid to rest in his hometown of Indianola on Friday, Jan. 22, with most of the Iowa team in attendance.
Less than a week later, on Jan. 28, the Hawkeyes were back on the basketball court for a game at Michigan State. They didn’t play well early in the contest and trailed by 15 with 3½ minutes to go, then fought back to claim a 96-90 victory in overtime. The players said they felt as though Street was there with them, urging them on.
Their first game at home without Street was a battle with Michigan’s Fab Five team, destined to finish second in the country that year. In an emotionally charged atmosphere, they claimed an 88-80 victory that ended with the crowd surging onto the playing floor in celebration.
Current Iowa coach Fran McCaffery never met Street, but he began hearing about him long before he became a legend.
McCaffery, then the head coach at Lehigh, was having dinner with Davis on a Nike-sponsored trip to the Virgin Islands in 1988 and Davis was raving about this high school sophomore who had just committed to play for the Hawkeyes.
McCaffery did a little research and learned that this Street kid was, in fact, very talented. More than that, he had a determination and drive rarely found in players his age.
A few decades later, McCaffery finds himself entrusted with helping to keep the Street legacy alive.
“It’s incredibly genuine,’’ McCaffery said earlier this week. “It says a lot about Chris and his family that 25 years later we’re still feeling that way. I think it’s important that whoever the coach is here recognizes that.’’
Street still is remembered in a variety of ways. His No. 40 jersey was retired. The outstanding player on the Iowa team each season is presented the Chris Street Award. A plaque at the entrance to the Iowa locker room commemorates him complete with a poem entitled “Don’t Quit.’’
The Chris Michael Street Memorial Foundation endows a scholarship and is supported by an annual golf tournament that is as much an Iowa basketball family reunion as it is a fundraiser.
“What it does is it brings back so many former players from different eras,’’ McCaffery said. “They just stop what they’re doing and they come back for that outing … It’s an opportunity for us to come together and remember him in a way that he deserves because he epitomized everything that you want in a student athlete.’’