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COLLEGE BASKETBALL / GENE WOJCIECHOWSKI : Oregon State Tries to Help Iowa Cope With Street's Death

February 04, 1993|GENE WOJCIECHOWSKI

The letter arrived shortly after the funeral of Iowa star forward Chris Street, who died Jan. 19 in a three-vehicle accident as he made his way back to campus after a team dinner.

Addressed to Hawkeye Coach Tom Davis, the envelope featured a Corvallis, Ore., postmark and contained a brief, but heartfelt, message from a friend who knew all too well about the emotional pain and confusion caused by the death of someone so young.

The letter said only time will help ease the heartache of Street's loss, and even then, there would be bouts of sadness and emptiness. Cherish Street's memory, it said, but don't dwell exclusively on the past. And use Street's remarkable spirit and work ethic as a positive influence for his team.

Near letter's end came a simple declaration: "Our thoughts are with you and your team."

It was signed by Oregon State Coach Jim Anderson.

Anderson learned firsthand about coping with tragedy when popular Beaver guard Earnest Killum suffered a stroke and died during the team's trip to Los Angeles last season. Time stood still. Reality overwhelmed a game.

"Nothing seems important," Anderson said. "Games don't seem important at the time. Everything seems very trivial in regards to winning and losing at the time."

So when Anderson heard of Street's death, which came a year and two days after the loss of Killum, he was moved to write to Davis and the Iowa team.

"My first thought was, 'I know what a lost feeling it is,' " Anderson said.

His letter included words of encouragement, but there were also hard truths. They will never see Street again, but, as was the case with Oregon State and Killum, they can honor his memory.

"We wanted to do the things that Earnest would have wanted us to do," Anderson said, "It was, 'Hey, what would he want us to do?' We concentrated on how Earnest would have wanted us to go on as a team, how he would like us to react, how he would have reacted to adversity. We told (the team) to try to do your very best, work hard and support each other."

The advice wasn't wasted on Davis, who took each word to heart. He emphasized the importance of family, of grieving, of healing. Then, after two Iowa games were postponed because of the tragedy, the Hawkeyes returned to the court. Davis had no idea what to expect.

With 3 1/2 minutes to play in its game against Michigan State at East Lansing, the Hawkeyes trailed by 15 points. They ended up forcing the game into overtime and winning, 96-90.

In last Sunday's game against then-No. 5 Michigan, Davis watched as his team won, 88-80, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Just before game's end, Davis reminded his players that Street's parents and two sisters were there that day. No need to say more.

As the buzzer sounded, the Hawkeyes rushed over to Street's family and escorted it inside the Iowa locker room for an emotional postgame meeting.

"I've been kind of speechless about the whole thing," Davis said. "It's just one of those things you're part of, but you're not sure about because you have so many mixed emotions. There are so many things you're concerned about. But the one thread that has come through during all of this is the tremendous pride I have in this team."

The two unlikely victories have helped push Iowa to top 10 rankings in both polls, the first time that has happened since 1989. The Hawkeyes face Illinois tonight and Indiana on Saturday--as if it really matters.

What Davis will remember most are the gestures made by fans, players and his peers.

At Michigan State, a Spartan booster helped raise $4,700 to be donated to a Chris Street Memorial Fund, the proceeds of which will help pay for a recreational facility in the player's hometown of Indianola, Iowa.

At Indiana, Coach Bob Knight and his staff wore black and gold ribbons in honor of Street. At other arenas around the Big Ten Conference, there were pregame moments of silence in Street's memory.

And during the upset of Michigan, Iowa fans shook the building with so much noise that Davis called it the loudest home crowd he had heard during his seven-year stay at the school.

"This is a good, tough league, but it is a league with a lot of caring and concern," he said.

Most of all, Davis will remember Street. Years after copying UCLA's pressure defense from John Wooden, Davis knew he had found the perfect player to execute the system in Street.

"He was it," Davis said. "He will be hard to replace from a technical standpoint, from a basketball standpoint, but most of all, for everything else he was.

"In this state, he's become a legend."

Say a little prayer for the Big East Conference, which continues to generate all the excitement of a late night infomercial.

The NCAA tournament selection committee should give the Big East only four invitations--to Seton Hall, St. John's, Georgetown and Pittsburgh. If not for surprising St. John's, which was picked by the league's coaches to finish ninth in the 10-team Big East, the bid list would be three schools long.

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