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

March 17, 1993|CHRIS DUFRESNE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

IOWA CITY, Iowa — 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.

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