It was February 2019 and Ann Sealy was back at the Garden, back in the arena she spent so many nights watching her youngest son dazzle capacity crowds.
A friend had wanted to see the Red Storm play, and Villanova was in town. Former St. John’s assistant coach Ron Rutledge set them up with tickets and it was now halftime.
Soon, she was swarmed, one fan after another approaching her. University president Conrado Gempesaw came down to shake her hand. People in the sections above waved to her. They all wanted to say a nice word about her son, to meet the woman who raised the St. John’s legend.
“Oh, my goodness,” she thought to herself then.
Two decades after his tragic passing at the age of 30, Malik Sealy’s legacy lives on. His impact remains. Talk to coaches, friends, family members, teammates, adversaries — anyone who crossed paths with the 6-foot-8 Bronx native — and there are so many fond memories, sadness he was taken so young, killed by a drunk driver in a car accident on May 20, 2000, and a sense of privilege to have known the former St. John’s star and first-round pick of the Pacers.
“When you lose [someone] special like that, you don’t ever not think about them,” said Sam Mitchell, a teammate in two spots during Sealy’s eight-year NBA career and a close friend. “You can’t pull them out of your heart.”
On May 20 every year, Malik’s wife, Lisa Sealy, marks the solemn occasion by “remembering to breathe.” Ann simply tries to get through the day. Amir Sealy celebrates his brother by thinking of the good times they had. Twenty years ago Wednesday, Sealy was driving home from Kevin Garnett’s 24th birthday in St. Louis Park, Minn., when his car was hit by a pickup truck going the wrong way on a divided highway. Souksangouane Phengsene, the truck’s driver, was intoxicated and served four years in prison. By the early morning hours, the Timberwolves had found out the grim news: Sealy was gone.
“It’s like time stood still,” Mitchell recalled.
Mitchell broke the news to Lisa, accompanying police to make sure she didn’t hear it from a stranger. When Ann was told, her brain couldn’t process it initially. She informed her husband, Sidney, who started violently coughing. People all over The Bronx who knew Sealy — from the Fulton Towers to Twin Parks Apartments — broke down.
His funeral was held at Riverside Church. The building was full, 3,000 mourners packed in, and people were lined up across the street to pay their respects. Representatives from three different religious groups spoke.
“All his school teachers [were there]. I couldn’t breathe. His team came in. I couldn’t breathe,” Ann recalled. “For my baby boy? And then we got a police escort to the cemetery by state troopers.”
Sealy became a star because of his ability with a basketball, his success from high school through the NBA, but the stories people share rarely include his on-court achievements.
In Minnesota, then-Timberwolves vice president of marketing Chris Wright remembered him as a go-to guy for community events, particularly for young children. Years after he graduated from St. John’s, he would return to mentor younger players. When the 1998-99 St. John’s team lost in the Elite Eight to Ohio State, Sealy helped ease the pain with words of encouragement. When the Johnnies won the Big East Tournament the following year, he was the first one to offer congratulations. He routinely visited his junior high school to speak to kids, would help pay for young men to attend prep schools and once paid for a friend’s cancer treatment.
Amir heard a story recently from a woman who knew Sealy. He was in his truck and she waved to him one day. He pulled the car over and they began chatting. Her son was having trouble in school and Malik spent 90 minutes offering him life lessons. In high school, he played in the famed Wheelchair Classic, which raised money for Coler-Goldwater Hospital. He kept going back to play chess with patients there. As a freshman at St. John’s, he was the team’s designated driver, always the one to convince his teammates to call it a night early. He frequently left tickets for kids to attend NBA games. Legendary local scout Tom Konchalski described him as a “prince” who had “regal character.”
“He was like Derek Jeter before Derek Jeter in his own way,” said Alex Evans, who coached Sealy on the renowned Riverside Church AAU team and at St. John’s.
“He was kind to everyone. He had the ability to make everyone from the boardroom to the mailroom feel seen and heard,” said Lisa, who created Hello Healing, a company that helps women deal with many levels of loss, after her experience with such trauma. Her son, Malik Remington Sealy, recently turned 23 and just graduated from Rhode Island School of Design with a degree in animation. He inherited his father’s creativity, having worked on two shows that are streaming, “Midnight Gospel” on Netflix and “Tooning out the News” on CBS All Access.
“I pray he is pleased with the job I did without him,” Lisa said.
After a star-studded career for St. Nicholas of Tolentine, which he capped with a 30-1 record, city and state championship his senior year, Sealy developed into a superstar at St. John’s, playing in three NCAA Tournaments and reaching the Elite Eight his junior year. He finished as the school’s second all-time leading scorer (2,401), behind only Chris Mullin, and was a two-time All-Big East first team selection and two-time Haggerty Award winner, given to the area’s top player. Jayson Williams could tell right away Sealy was unique. In his first game, he scored 15 points, including four dunks.
That was only part of his legacy at the Queens school. He was an exceptional student, earned a management degree and was well-liked by seemingly everyone.
“As far as the perfect student-athlete for the St. John’s Redmen, it’s Malik Sealy,” said Williams, a former NBA All-Star, “as far as getting an education and showing what St. John’s was all about and the way he carried himself on and off the court.”
The Pacers drafted Sealy 14th overall in the 1992 NBA Draft, adding him to a veteran contender. He didn’t play much in his two years there, starting just seven games. When he was on the floor, Sealy didn’t hold back. During one game his rookie year back home at the Garden against the Knicks, on three consecutive trips down the floor, he tried to dunk on Patrick Ewing and couldn’t finish off any of the drives. During a timeout, coach Larry Brown ripped into him.
“How many more f—ing times does this guy have to block your shot until you have to do something else?” Brown fumed.
“As long as I’m in the game, I’m going to keep trying,” Sealy responded.
“That was Malik’s mentality,” Mitchell remembered. “He wasn’t going to back down and quit.”
Former Pacers [and later Knicks] general manager Donnie Walsh, who drafted Sealy, told The Post: “I think he would’ve developed into a pro’s pro type of player. He was the kind of guy you wanted on your team.”
After bouncing around, from the Pacers to the Clippers to the Pistons, he found a home in Minnesota, enjoying one of the best seasons of his career in 1999-200, averaging 11.3 points and career-bests of 4.3 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 47.6 percent shooting from the field. His biggest impact, though, was the bond he created with Garnett, the future Hall of Famer.
Garnett had gone from high school to the NBA and Sealy helped immeasurably to get him to come out of his shell. He introduced Garnett to people in New York City and Los Angeles. He got him to embrace his abilities, not let them be an albatross.
“He made him comfortable,” Mitchell said. “They had so much fun together.”
Garnett idolized Sealy when he was young and wore No. 21 with the Timberwolves in response to Sealy wearing the same number at St. John’s. When Garnett was traded from the Celtics to the Nets in 2013, he wore No. 2, Sealy’s number with the Timberwolves. After his death, Garnett got a tattoo with Sealy’s name on his right arm.
“Great man, great person, great friend,” Garnett told The Post via email. “That’s how I will always remember Malik. … GREAT.”
There’s no telling where exactly Sealy’s life was headed at the time of his death, other than upward. He had dabbled in acting, appearing in the movie “Eddie,” had his own tie and clothing line, called Malik Sealy XXI, and opened a recording studio, Baseline Recording. As a rookie, he left his playbook at the airport during a playoff series against the Knicks and it was delivered to WFAN’s “Imus in the Morning” show. It was read over the radio and Sealy was ripped for losing it. He created new ties featuring pages from the playbook that became a best-seller.
“As Malik would say, he turned lemons into lemonade,” Evans said.
Mitchell saw a career for him in Hollywood. Williams believes he would be helping run St. John’s now as a member of its board, because of how much he cared for the school.
“If you told me he was the Mayor of New York City, it wouldn’t shock me,” Evans said. “He was in his element in Hollywood, on Madison Avenue, on the Grand Concourse, and on Union Turnpike.”
It’s uncertain what avenue he would have taken in life after basketball. That answer, of course, will sadly never be known. Instead, there are memories — so many memories — that are still shared to this day. For his wife, for his mom and his siblings, that matters.
“The biggest thing is just the fact his legacy lives on through people and they have such beautiful memories or beautiful ways of speaking about him,” Amir said. “You can’t ask for anything better than that I don’t think.”
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