Chris Collins didn’t know about the letter. A passionate, emotional letter his father, Doug, sent to Iowa assistant basketball coach Gary Close on Jan. 20, 1993, the day after Hawkeye standout Chris Street died in an automobile accident.
“Words cannot describe the feeling that I have today regarding the tragic death of Chris Street,” Collins, now the head coach of the Philadelphia 76ers, wrote to Close, who had recruited Street and played an instrumental role in his development.
It is a letter that Close, now an assistant coach at Wisconsin, holds close to his heart. (Read the letter below)
“I’ve always appreciated that letter,” said Close, who will be at Carver-Hawkeye Arena Saturday when the 20th anniversary of Street’s passing is commemorated at halftime of Iowa’s 7 p.m. game with the Badgers. “The first time I read it I thought, ‘He really nailed it.’ ”
Chris Collins, now the associate head coach at Duke, was a star guard at Glenbard North High School in suburban Chicago, Ill. Chris made an official recruiting visit to Iowa, accompanied by his father and mother, Kathy. Street was Collins’ host during his two-day trip to Iowa City.
“I spent the whole weekend with him,” Chris Collins said. “I remember how much he loved that place and the state. Everywhere he went, people just gravitated towards him. He was friendly to everyone. He had such a great personality.”
Street’s zest for the Hawkeyes was obvious when the Collins family spent 90 minutes in the Carver-Hawkeye Arena office of Iowa coach Tom Davis during their visit. Close, Collins’ chief recruiter, was also there.
“Chris (Street) just talked about being a basketball player and what it’s like to be at Iowa,” Close said. “And Doug, he’s been around. He can read people. And he was just overwhelmed with how strong he felt about the program. And it came without any prompting from us. It was just right from the heart.”
More than two decades later, Chris Collins still remembers Street’s impassioned sales pitch.
“They showed me a jersey with my name on it,” Chris Collins said. “I remember how passionate (Street) was about what it meant to him to be able to wear that uniform, be part of the program and how much people in the state loved the Hawkeyes and how it was such a family environment. He was the leader of that team.”
It was such a stirring sales pitch that Chris Collins came very close to attending Iowa.
“Duke came into the picture late or there was a great chance I would have ended up at Iowa,” Chris Collins said. “And a big reason for that was how I felt, how comfortable I was around the guys. Especially Chris. Because he was the one who made me feel that way when I visited there.”
Street’s final game
Collins was a freshman at Duke during the 1992-93 season when Iowa visited Cameron Indoor Stadium for a Jan. 16, 1993, game between ranked teams that was nationally televised by CBS.
Street had 14 points, eight rebounds and two blocked shots, but Duke pulled away late and won, 65-56. Chris Collins played six minutes off the bench. Street and Duke guard Bobby Hurley dueled throughout the game.
“That game was a flat-out war,” Close said. “Chris was the best player on the floor that day, bar none. Late in the game, Hurley took the ball out-of-bounds against our pressure, and he’s whining to the officials about how physical it was, how (Street) was standing too close, and this and that. And Chris said, ‘Why don’t you just shut up and play?’”
Street left a lasting impression on Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.
Earlier this week, college basketball’s winningest Division I basketball coach called Street “one of my favorite players. He pointed their press. He just was all over the place. He played with the type of attitude that you would want to inject in every player that has ever played for you. He just was a warrior and a terrific player and a terrific kid.”
Krzyzewski said he admired the way Street played as he watched tape to prepare for the game. The real-life Street didn’t disappoint. Krzyzewski still remembers shaking Street’s hand after the game “just to tell him, ‘It’s an honor to play against you.’ He was a very special basketball player.”
Close ran into Doug Collins before leaving Cameron Indoor Stadium that d
ay. The two talked about Chris Collins and Chris Street. Doug Collins also had a chance to visit with Street. Three days later, he was gone.
A sleepless night
Doug Collins couldn’t sleep the night he heard Chris Street had died. A day later, the former all-American at Illinois State, 1972 Olympian and four-time NBA All-Star, then between NBA head coaching jobs with the Chicago Bulls and Detroit Pistons, shared his heartbreak with Close.
“As the news was given last night, all I could think about was the future this young man had, and how fragile life really is,” Collins wrote. “To have just seen him, talked to him, admired him, and now he is gone!”
Doug Collins wrote of his own son, Chris, and the “quick dose of reality” that came with Street’s sudden death.
“If only every father could have a son like Chris Street – his smile, his enthusiasm, his intensity, his passion for basketball, and for life … I will always remember the day we sat in Coach Davis’ office, and this small-town kid from Indianola, Iowa, spoke so enthusiastically about U of Iowa, coaches and the total program – it was his dream!!”
Doug Collins passed along his prayers, and the need for faith in the toughest of times.
“Take the time to grieve about the loss of a wonderful kid,” Doug Collins wrote. “He made an impact on my life in just 2 days!! He was that special!!”
Chris Collins was at a meal with his Duke teammates when he saw on a crawl across the bottom of a television screen that Street had perished.
“We had just played them, so it hit even harder,” Chris Collins said. “I’ll never forget it. And it brings everything into perspective. It was really a sad day, because I admired him and respected him. Even though I didn’t go to Iowa, we became friends after the time we spent together.”
Davis said Doug Collins’ letter offered a perfect glimpse into Street’s soul.
“Doug Collins sensed how rare Chris Street was,” Davis said. “Not just as an athlete, but as a person. (Collins) had been around a lot of great athletes. He played with them at the highest level and coached them at the highest level. He could sense the special qualities Chris Street had and what he stood for.”
Returning to Carver
Fate has put Close in Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Saturday’s 20th anniversary of Street’s death.
When Jerry Strom, Iowa’s director of basketball operations, got his first look at the 2012-13 Big Ten schedule, he couldn’t believe it. Jan. 19, Wisconsin at Iowa. The day that Chris Street died.
“Jerry called and said, “You’re not going to believe this,’” Close said. “He said, ‘The game is on the 19th.’ I said, ‘Well, that’s unbelievable.’ It really is. Twenty years to the day.”
Close remembers another phone call from fellow Iowa assistant Rick Moss on the night of Jan. 19, 1993, when a snowplow collided with and flipped Street’s Chrysler LeBaron as he was leaving a team dinner.
“We usually worked out the day before a game, but Chris had a class so he wasn’t sure he was going to make it,” Close recalled. “He said, ‘I’ll call you if I can.’ So I was home. I was watching a game, and Rick called me. I got in my car and drove to the arena. The rest is kind of a blur.”
Close and Street had a special bond, which didn’t surprise Davis. Developing strong relationships with players is a Close trademark.
“He really worked hard at it,” Davis said.
Close laughs when he hears himself described as the lead recruiter on Street.
“If you want to call it that,” Close said. “It wasn’t a huge sales job.”
Street, who grew up a Hawkeye fan, committed the day after Davis offered him a scholarship. It was the summer before his junior year at Indianola High School. The bond between Close and Street grew stronger with each passing season.
The day after Street died, Close, Iowa trainer John Streif and team statistician Gil Barker, a mortician by trade, accompanied his body from Iowa City to Indianola in miserable weather conditions.
The Street family gave Close several of their son’s personal mementos, including one of his game jerseys and a small, wooden plaque that was in Chris’ car the night he died. The plaque had this inscription:
Follower of Christ
Teach me your way O Lord
I will walk in your truth
Talking about Street still gets Close emotional, 20 years later.
“He left way too soon,” Close said. “But he left at a peak. He couldn’t have been more happy at what he was doing. He was developing as a person, a player, a student. He was on top of the world. Literally, in every sense. He was accomplishing so much, and just very, very happy. He loved his teammates, his coaches, being a Hawkeye. He was just living a dream.”
Those emotions will be at Close’s side Saturday, when he returns to Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
“I think there will be moments where it will be emotional, for sure,” Close said. “Once the ball goes up, I’ll be focused in on the game. But I wouldn’t doubt if there are things that pop into my head as the day and the game goes on.”
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball