Tom Izzo’s coaching resume is top-heavy with success. But it’s a loss that sticks with Michigan State’s basketball coach, 20 years after it happened.
“If it’s possible to have a rewarding loss, that one might be the ultimate,” Izzo said. “Because it was way bigger than the game.”
Izzo was an assistant to Jud Heathcote on Jan. 28, 1993, when an emotionally drained Iowa team came to East Lansing, Mich., for a game against Michigan State. The Hawkeyes’ heart and soul, Chris Street, had died in an automobile accident 12 days earlier. This was Iowa’s first game without him.
And what happened in the Breslin Center that night left some, Izzo included, believing that divine intervention played a part in the outcome.
“You had to be totally amazed with the effort of the players, and how things turned out,” said Mike Street, Chris’s dad. “And you’ve got to believe there were more powers involved, let’s put it that way.”
Iowa, ranked 11th nationally, rallied from a 70-55 deficit with 3 minutes 15 seconds remaining in regulation to force overtime and won , 96-90. Players say that Street’s presence was with them in the huddle, and on the floor.
“There was an unspoken word,” said Val Barnes, who finished with 29 points. “You could hear Chris’s voice saying, “Hey, play tougher defense. Rebound the basketball. Play harder, guys.’ I can’t really explain it in words.”
Iowa had only practiced a handful of times in the days between Street’s death and the Michigan State game. Some players had worked out on their own, solace from their grieving.
“We weren’t overcoached, that’s for sure,” Iowa coach Tom Davis said. “We were ragged and rusty, all the normal things you have when you’re coming off a layoff. They worked really hard to try and get ready.”
Before sending his team back on the floor for the start if the game, Davis struggled to come up with a pre-game speech.
“I remember thinking, “What do I say?’ ” Davis recalled. “We just said, “OK, let’s go.’ We put our hands in. I don’t think there were any big speeches or anything. I remember how serious everything was, how deep the emotions were.”
Iowa players wore “CMS 40” matches – over their hearts – in honor of Christopher Michael Street, who wore uniform No. 40. The Hawkeye coaches wore “40’ lapel pins. Michigan State presented Iowa a check in Street’s name, then a moment of silence was observed. Iowa led at halftime, 35-34, but the Spartans opened the second half on a 16-0 run.
“I thought, “OK, for sure, it’s definitely over,” said Acie Earl.
Michigan State led by as many points as 17 points until things changed, dramatically.
“Val and I didn’t necessarily click on the court up to that time,” said Earl, who had picked Iowa over Michigan State in the recruiting process. “And then we started clicking. That kind of gave me a sense that, “We can get this done.’ ”
The final 31/2 minutes of regulation changed everything.
“You could just feel the momentum,” said Gary Close, an assistant to Davis. “I was thinking, “I can’t believe this is happening.’ It just kept right on going.”
Iowa was 2-for-12 from 3-point distance when Barnes nailed a deep one to start the comeback.
“That guard , what’s his name?” Izzo said. “Barnes. Yup. He hit one from so far out that it had to have come from above. It had to. It was just insane. The comeback was incredible.”
Michigan State opened the door by missing free throws, and didn’t make a field goal the final 7:13 of regulation. Barnes started feeling it, too.
“I think we all realized we still had a basketball game to play,” Barnes said. “And we wanted to make sure that we represented Chris the way he would want to be represented.”
Michigan State also had no answer for Earl, who scored 17 of his 27 points after halftime and added 16 rebounds.
“I remember going back to the huddle when we were down by like 13,” Kenyon Murray said. “Basically, the talk in the huddle was, “Let’s just play hard. Chris would want us to play hard. It was kind of an eerie feeling, and we all got energized. Nobody was tired.”
Barnes would make 10-of-18 shots from the floor, including three 3-pointers in five tries, and all six of his free-throw attempts.
“I remember (point guard) Kevin Smith just saying, “Hey, VB, play ball, man, I’m coming to you,’ ” Barnes said. “ ’Play ball.’ When a shooter gets on a streak, it’s hard to stop them.”
The comeback was complete with Barnes cut around a screen by Earl and swished a 3-pointer to tie the game, 76-76, with :20 remaining in regulation. Iowa scored the first four points of overtime – its first two-possession lead of the game.
“Once it got to overtime, we knew we weren’t going to lose,” Murray said.
The game was televised nationally by ESPN. With Iowa’s lead a 95-86, and victory assured, play-by-play voice Brad Nessler started to paint a picture.
“You know who this game and this season are for,” Nessler said as the camera scanned the Iowa huddle. “Their teammate, Chris Street. And you know he’s got better seats than anyone in the building. How proud he must be of his teammates.”
Soon after, the camera caught a shot of Davis wiping tears from his eyes.
“Those eyes are blinking for a reason,” Nessler said. “How proud can a coach get, huh? An unbelieveable comeback by the Iowa Hawkeyes. And an entire state can be very proud.”
The game over, cameras caught Earl pointing to the 40 – Street’s number – that he’d had his barber cut into the back of his head.
“Some guys put something in their shoes, some put a 40 on their hand,” Earl said. “I was always the one who wanted to be different. That was my way of paying tribute.”
Back in Indianola, Mike and Patty Street had watched their son’s team play without him for the first time.
“I know we said, “He’s there,’ ” Patty recalled. “How could that happen without some help?”
The scene in the Iowa locker room was one of somber satisfaction.
“Normally you would be jumping around and happy and celebrating,” Davis said. “They were exhausted, physically, mentally, emotionally. You hear people talk about giving 110 percent. You can’t give more than 100. But we might have approached it in that game.”
Close also said it wasn’t a normal comeback-for-the-ages celebration.
“It was more relief,” Close said. “There was certainly some pride in how the guys had played. There was some good feeling, just because there hadn’t been any good feeling for so long.”
The emotion was wall-to-wall in the locker room.
“Coach Davis was speechless,” Murray said. “There were a lot of tears flowing, because we knew…There’s no doubt why we won that game.”
Street’s teammates had turned in a workmanlike Street effort.
“That’s how he lived, and I think that’s how he tried to play,” Davis said. “And that’s how we played in that particular game.”
Izzo had been on the road, recruiting, when he hear on his car radio that Street had died.
“I didn’t know him, other than to shake his hand,” Izzo said.
Now, he’ll never forget him.
“It was crushing to lose that game,” Izzo said. “And yet you caught yourself sitting there saying, “That guy got us when he was alive. And he got us after he died.’ ”
HOW THE 1992-93 SEASON FINISHED
Three days after the improbable Michigan State victory, No. 11 Iowa returned home and beat No. 5 Michigan, 88-80. Afterwards the players presented Street’s family, sitting courtside, the game ball.
“That place was unbelieveable,” Gary Close, an Iowa assistant at the time, said of Carver-Hawkeye Arena. “Really emotional.”
Those victories gave Iowa records of 14-3 overall and 3-2 in the Big Ten. The team lost its next three games – at Illinois, to Indiana at home when Street’s No. 40 was retired, and at Minnesota. The Hawkeyes finished the season 23-9 overall, and tied for third in the Big Ten at 11-7. Iowa received an NCAA bid and beat Northeast Louisiana in the first round, 82-69, before losing a second-round game to Wake Forest, 84-78.
“At some point toward the end of the season we had given all we could, and there was just nothing left in the tank,” guard Val Barnes said.
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball