Laughter Leaves an Entire State : The Death of Chris Street Turns Iowa Into a 3-Million Member Family

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lots of 20-year-olds die each year for no good reason, some as nice as Chris Street. They leave loved ones behind, scrapbooks, innocent smiles, bright futures.

They also leave relatives to die a little bit inside.

What made Chris Street's death so difficult was that 3 million Iowans claimed him as either a son or a sibling. He grew up in their homes, around their kitchen tables. He was family, one of them, an Iowan.

Most of them didn't know Street personally, but thought they did.

He played basketball the way a boy from Indianola shoveled snow in the brutal winter: He got it done and didn't complain much.

It mattered that Street wasn't afraid of dirty work.

He did what most Iowa boys dream of but few are talented enough to do. He grew to play basketball at the University of Iowa.

Understand that he made an unwritten commitment to the university as a high school sophomore, 15 months before the earliest signing deadline, to let recruiters know which way he was leaning.

Street was Iowa stock--middle class, middle America. The Streets lived modestly in Indianola, south of Des Moines, a basketball hoop over their garage door and a minivan in their driveway.

Chris' father, Mike, owns a gas station.

In Iowa, they put the state high school wrestling tournament on radio, so you might imagine the attention afforded Iowa basketball in a state with no professional sports franchise.

The technologies of radio and television serve to further bind the already close-knit family of Iowa.

In the winter months, Iowa basketball dominates conversation. Each year, Iowa fans latch on to a favorite player.

Chris Street was their favorite.

It was with this background that Randy Larson, an Iowa City attorney, entrepreneur and one of many FOCs (Friends of Chris), carried a horrific secret into his bar, the Airliner, at 9 p.m. on Jan. 19.

Earlier, the police chief and city manager had interrupted a closed session of the city council to break the news that at 6:49 p.m., Chris Street had been killed on Iowa Highway 1 when his car collided with a snow plow. Street's girlfriend, Kim Vinton, had survived, but was hospitalized for treatment of a punctured lung and separated shoulder.

Street, a junior, would have turned 21 on Feb. 2. He and Kim had planned to announce their engagement on Valentine's Day.

Larson, who serves on the city council, is co-owner of the Airliner with Brad Lohaus, the former Iowa star and current Boston Celtic.

That Tuesday was the first day of the spring semester, so the bar was packed that night with about 600 students.

Larson, unable to hold back his tears, stood silently in the rear of the packed bar and waited, unable to tell a soul what he knew until Street's parents had been notified.

Finally, the call came from police headquarters. News of Street's death had been released to the media.

"We had all the TVs turned on, to three different stations," Larson said. "But as soon as they ran it across, nobody noticed. So I turned off the music, stood up on a chair and just said a couple of sentences, that a great friend of ours, Chris Street, had been killed tonight. And I couldn't even get it all out.

"Five or six hundred people put down their glasses, picked up their coats and went home. Just like that. We closed. You would expect a bunch of the kids who had been drinking to kind of grumble about it or go off to other bars. But it was empty in a minute. They set their beers down and filed out in stone silence. I stood by the door and half of them were crying. It struck me as they were leaving, no one was saying a word."

*

I was home, and my wife said, 'There's a bulletin on TV.' I just couldn't believe it. It was like when Kennedy was assassinated. You'll never forget where you were. It was that kind of impact."

--Larry Morgan,

Iowa basketball broadcaster

The news screamed into the night.

And the next day, the phone never stopped ringing at secretary Nancy Pounds' desk in the Iowa sports information department. She was amazed, not only at the statewide response, but at the national outpouring. The calls came in time-zone waves, from east to west, as Americans awoke to the news.

A man in Wisconsin called to say he had taken his two boys out of school that day because they were crying in class.

The more people learned about Street, the more they liked him. And the more they grieved.

He had been more than a good basketball player who was getting better, a 6-foot-8 forward who led the team in rebounds and knee burns. It was true he had been developing into an NBA prospect, a first-round pick perhaps.

But even failing that, he was a top prospect for adulthood.

Street was one of the nicest players anyone had known, making his death seem all the harder to understand.

"Why him and not me?" said his fiancee, Kim. "He had so much going for him. Everything. I don't know why."

Street was the Iowa player who went out of his way to talk to strangers. Kim would sometimes have to drag him away from conversations if Chris was due somewhere else.

Street was the player who stuck around to answer every reporter's question, win or lose.

Street was the player who had the most impact on kids.

At the completion of an Iowa City league last summer, Street tossed his sopping-wet jersey to a fifth-grader who had gladly wiped sweat from the floor for his idols in the steamy-hot gym.

The kid clutched the jersey as if it was Michael Jordan's.

After Street's death, the boy carefully packed the jersey in a box and mailed it back to the Streets.

He told his dad, "I think his parents would like to have this."

Few could have predicted Street's death would hit so many so hard.

Hundreds passed his open casket at visitation.

Street was dressed in his gold Iowa uniform and a black and gold warm-up jacket. There was a rose in one hand, and a Cabbage Patch doll dressed like an Iowa cheerleader lay by his side.

His parents could not bear to attend the visitation, although later, Mike Street came down to thank the Iowa basketball team, which had shown up en masse. Several players had Street's No. 40 shaved into their hair.

Street's hometown paper, the Record-Herald and Indianola Tribune, produced a four-page special section on Street.

The Iowa House of Representatives honored him with a moment of silence. Flags in Indianola, population 11,000, flew at half staff.

Jodi Parsons, a high school classmate who followed Street to the University of Iowa, recalls the mood:

"I remember driving into town after it happened," she said. "It was a sunny day, but it was like this black cloud was hanging over Indianola, our hometown."

About 2,500 attended the funeral at the First Assembly of God, including players and coaches from rival Big Ten schools.

The scene was somber enough when Street's 17-year-old sister, Sarah, stood up and read:

Dear Christopher, No. 40:

I'm writing you my last goodby for now. I'll see you some day when I meet you in heaven. Why did it have to happen to you? You had so much going for you. You were all I could ask for in a brother and more. You were always there for me when I needed you, always supporting me in everything. And you were the nicest guy.

I have so many awesome memories with you and our family together. Remember all the times we played basketball, football, Whiffle ball, etc. You were my idol. You had it all--athletic talent, desire, heart, good looks, good friends, everything. I just can't believe that you'll never put your long, strong arms around me and give that huge smile of yours ever again.

"I realize you're in a lot better place than here on Earth. But I'll miss you so much. You were adored by our family. We'll never forget you as long as we live. When I look around, all I can think of is you and you not being able to come home.

Well, goodby. I love you so much. God will take care of you, I know. We'll try to be strong and look forward to the day when we meet you again.

"Love, Sarah, No. 40."

It seemed the grieving would never stop. Three million Iowans tried to keep busy at once. No one could say enough or pray enough about for Street and his family.

The first game without him, on Jan. 28 at Michigan State, the emotionally charged Hawkeyes rallied from 13 points behind with 3:30 to play in regulation to win in overtime, 96-90.

There weren't enough tissues to go around for the first home game, during which Iowa defeated powerful Michigan, 88-80. After every significant play, Iowa players turned and pointed their index fingers toward the Streets, seated courtside.

That was for you!

Afterward, the players presented the family--Mike, mother Patty and sisters Sarah and Betsy--the game ball.

Street's No. 40 jersey was retired against Indiana, Feb. 6.

Overwhelmed by the public reaction, Mike Street asked Iowa radio color commentator Bobby Hansen, the former Hawkeye star and longtime NBA player, to head the Chris Street Memorial Fund to build a recreation center in Chris' name in Indianola.

Hansen, a Des Moines native, had known Street well.

"I told his old man we'd get his rec center built if we have to go lay the damn bricks ourselves," Hansen said.

So far, Hansen has raised about $150,000 of the $500,000 needed to break ground.

The donations have come in money orders and shoe boxes. Some corporations donated $5,000. Some kids donated their allowances.

Two ninth-grade girls plunked down $100 in coins they had collected.

More than a month after his death, people still lay flowers at the intersection where Street was killed while on his way back to campus after a team meal at the Highlander Inn.

Others drive by to figure out how it happened, how Street could not have seen the snowplow as he pulled out into the intersection.

Street's locker at Carver-Hawkeye Arena remains an untouched shrine. His sports jacket hangs in the stall. Two pairs of sneakers remain where Street dropped them. A bouquet of flowers and a single long-stemmed, wilting rose adorn the locker.

A happy-birthday note from his teammates, dated Feb. 2, is wedged into a framed picture of Street above the locker.

And Street still lives in the weekly Iowa press releases, his name sandwiched between Val Barnes and James Winters, his former roommate. Street averaged 14.5 points and 9.5 rebounds.

He made 34 consecutive free throws in his last six games, breaking the school record.

In his last game, against Duke, three nights before his death, Street led the Hawkeyes with 14 points and nine rebounds during a 65-56 defeat.

"That weekend before the accident, he was on the ultimate high that anyone could be on," Kim Vinton said. "He had just broken the school record for free throws, he was player of the game at Duke, we had our life planned, we were getting along great with the families, everything was going perfect for him. It was the perfect time to be taken."

Hansen thinks he understands the collective pain.

"It's the phenomenon of Iowa basketball," he said. "It's like any small town you go into . . . people know you and feel like you're their son, because they see you two or three times a week on TV, and they see the interviews. It's hard for readers in L.A. to understand."

Iowa players are trying to get on with their seasons and their lives, but it has been difficult.

"It's almost easier when you go on the road, because all around there are these reminders," forward Wade Lookingbill said. "There's a commercial on television now, to raise money for the foundation. It's a sad commercial, it really is. It hits you in the heart."

Vinton says she senses that the attention is beginning to wane. She's afraid of what comes next.

"It's getting harder for me to accept because it seems as if the state is getting over it," she said. "I'm sure it's not, but it comes across like that to me. I feel like I'm the only one in the family that's mourning right now."

*

I was watching television, downstairs, (my wife) Louise was watching television upstairs and it came over that Chris Street had gotten killed in a car wreck. And I yelled at her and she yelled at me. We both heard at the same time. It was really a shock.

--Earle Murphy,

Iowa basketball fan since 1932

Chris Street's death was only the latest heartbreak on campus.

The trail of sorrow began with an incident Iowa students refer to simply as "Nov. 1," a dark day in 1991 when Dr. Lu Gang, a disgruntled physics graduate who was angered by his failure to win an academic prize, went on a calculated rampage that began in Room 309 of the Van Allen building and ended with six dead.

Armed with a .38-caliber pistol, Gang shot Christoph K. Goertz, a renowned space physicist, then gunned down Shan Linhua, Gang's former roommate and academic rival.

He then fired three shots into the chest of another professor, Robert A. Smith, left the seminar room, walked down a flight of stairs, reloaded his pistol, strode into the office of Dwight R. Nicholson, the department chairman, and fired three shots at him.

Gang then went back upstairs to finish off Smith, who was still alive.

He pumped another round each into Goertz and Shan before walking three blocks to Jessup Hall, where he shot and killed T. Anne Cleary, the university's associate vice president for academic affairs.

There, Gang also shot a random victim, a 23-year-old Filipino-American student who survived but is paralyzed for life.

As law enforcement officers closed in, Gang went to an empty classroom and killed himself.

In 20 minutes, the tranquillity of a peaceful Midwestern community of 60,000 had been forever shaken.

Then, on Feb. 22, 1992, John O'Hara, Iowa's popular offensive line coach, died of a heart attack at 48 while on a Caribbean cruise with the Hawkeye football coaching staff.

And last Thanksgiving Day, Bill Stringer, husband of women's basketball Coach Vivian Stringer, died of a massive heart attack at 47. Bill had been an exercise physiologist in the athletic department. His office, Room 222, was just down the hall from his wife's.

While Vivian Stringer was busy coaching the highly ranked Iowa women's team, Bill spent much of his free time caring for their three children. Janine, the couple's 12-year-old daughter, contracted meningitis as an infant and was confined to a wheelchair.

Bill attended home games with the children and was a father-figure to many of the Iowa's women players.

The succession of tragedies have taken a heavy emotional toll.

Vivian Stringer is still hesitant to talk to reporters about her husband's death. She skipped the first five games of the season.

Marianna Freeman, an Iowa assistant coach who ran the team in Stringer's absence, said Iowans have come to wonder about their community.

"A lot more of the real world is beginning to come and settle in Iowa City," Freeman said. "I mean, as early as 10 years ago when I arrived, you would have never thought of a mass murder happening on the University of Iowa campus."

The school's counseling department works overtime trying to deal with the aftermath of tragedy.

"There's been kind of a lowered self-confidence in a predictable world," said Gerald Stone, director of the university's counseling service. "We don't think in terms of young basketball players dying. We don't associate homicides on our campus. So we lose confidence.

"If you're an assistant dean, and you're going to talk with a stressed student, now the next thing that pops in your mind is, 'What if he comes in with a gun?' You think about that now."

At the same time, Iowans are known for their resiliency, an almost innate ability to rally in desperate times. Some say it's an outgrowth of their Midwestern work ethic.

Hansen says that Iowans know how to pick up the pieces.

"It's the farmer in us," he said. "It's everyone looking up at the skies. 'Is it going to snow? Is it going to rain?' We've got tornadoes. If it blows your house down, you build another one."

*

I was in my room, watching a videotape. My parents called me from home to tell me. They tried to get me before the news came out. I'm glad they did. If I would have heard it on the news, it would have been so cold, impersonal. At the same time, when I heard it, it was like, "No, when's the joke up?"

--Jodi Parsons, a high school

classmate of Chris Street

Kim Vinton, 20, doesn't remember much about the accident. She and Chris had eaten at the Highlander Inn and Supper Club with other Hawkeye players. Street had to get back to campus for a night class. She remembers stopping at a stop sign, waiting to turn left onto the highway, a four-lane road divided by a median.

She remembers that they were not wearing seat belts. She does not recall Chris pulling in front of the northbound snow plow.

James Winters, an Iowa forward and Street's roommate, left the restaurant with other teammates about 15 minutes after Street.

Winters drove past the accident, not knowing who was involved.

"I couldn't even recognize the car," he said. "I could see somebody in there, sitting upside down, face down. We decided not to stop. We figured there was nothing we could do. After that I was thinking, 'Man, that looks like the back end of his car.' I was getting worried and I was telling the guys, 'I wonder if that was Chris' car,' and they were saying, 'I don't even want to think about that.' "

Winters really started to worry when he returned to his dorm and saw that Street's car was not in the carport. He called Kim's apartment. She had not yet returned.

Winters then ran to the class Street should have been attending. Street wasn't there.

The accident scene kept flashing in his head, so he and teammate Kevin Skillett went back to the intersection.

"We could put two and two together," Winters said.

When Winters arrived, a sheet was covering Street's body. Vinton had been taken to the hospital.

The Street family has retained attorney Randy Larson to look into the accident. Although not assuming anyone was at fault, Larson said the plow might have been traveling slightly over the speed limit. Also, he said, the plow's headlights were positioned higher than other area plows, possibly making it difficult for Street to discern how far away it was from the intersection.

Larson said the Streets are not opportunists, looking to file a lawsuit.

"They just want to know what happened," he said.

Vinton is leaving all the unanswered questions to a higher authority. She said she and Chris were active members of Athletes in Action, a Christian organization.

"It's natural to have hatred toward God at first," she said. "Why him? Why would You do that? There are so many other people in the world that could go. I'll never know why until I'm up there. But it's hard to realize that he's gone yet. . . .

"I feel like this is just a road trip," she said. "But he's never coming back."

Street and Vinton started dating as sophomores at Indianola High, soon after the Streets moved to Indianola from Humeston.

Street was the tallest boy in school, Kim said, and the funniest. Taking no chances, she made the first move and asked him out on a double date. She did not know he was a good basketball player.

She found out six months later, when Street made an unwritten commitment to Iowa.

"I knew then that I was going to Iowa, too," Vinton said. "(Iowa Coach) Tom Davis got both of us."

Vinton, a junior, works in the women's SID office. Her dream was to follow Chris to the NBA as part of a package deal. She imagined joining the public relations department of the team that drafted Chris, preferably the Philadelphia 76ers, his favorite team.

Vinton has all but recovered from her injuries now, but remains uncomfortable with the attention.

"I feel like an outsider, just because I've been treated so differently," she said. "I don't like that kind of treatment. I appreciate it, but I want to be treated as the same. When Chris was here, I was more like a shadow, which was not a problem with me at all. I was used to it."

Chris and Kim were to have been married in May of 1994, after both had graduated.

"I don't think about myself, how much I miss him, because I feel like he's with me, no matter what," she said. "I just feel bad that he had to leave such a great year in basketball. But it's better up in heaven.

"There's no stress up there."

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