In the 1980s, a New York City middle or high school basketball star looking for an AAU team to play for had only two truly acceptable options: the Bronx Gauchos or the Riverside Church Hawks.
Malik Sealy, a wiry forward from the Bronx, played for Riverside, originally joining the squad when he was just 13. His teammates included legendary NYC hoopers like Kenny Anderson, Brian Reese and Adrian "Red" Autry. Simply put, the group was amazing, winning game after game after game; during the Daily News Golden Hoops tournament in August of 1987, they defeated the rival Gauchos in the semifinals (Sealy finished with 25 points, 13 rebounds, 5 steals and 4 blocks) and the New Jersey Road Runners in the finals to claim bragging rights throughout the City.
Just a shade under 13 years later, Anderson, Reese, Autry and an estimated 3,000 others gathered in Riverside Church, the same building in which they once practiced.
But they weren't there for a practice, or a game, or anything positive whatsoever. They were there for a funeral. Sealy, driving home from then-teammate and close friend Kevin Garnett's 24th birthday party, had been hit and killed by a drunk driver speeding down the wrong way of a highway a few nights earlier in Minnesota. He was 30.
"This is real life," a shaken-up Garnett told the New York Times before the service. "Real life."
Those looking for solace in the moment needed only to watch the tribute video played at the funeral to learn what most of those in attendance already knew: Malik Sealy lived a prosperous, successful life. He brought together so many, whether it was teammates on the basketball court, partners of his in business or the friends and family who loved him dearly.
"I followed him around, tried to be like him," Reese says. "I'm 43 now, and I still do."
Malik Sealy was born in 1970, the child of Sidney and Ann Sealy. Malik's father, a former Golden Gloves boxer, had been a bodyguard for Malcolm X; he was present, but not working security, when Malcolm X was slain in Harlem of 1965. (Sidney named his son "Malik" after Malcolm X's middle name.) Sealy's mother was a graduate of the Fashion Institute of Technology, and, having been involved in the fashion world her whole life, taught Malik to sew at a young age.
Malik attended St. Nicholas of Tolentine High School in the Bronx, where he flourished in almost every imaginable way. Off the court, he was president of the student body and an honor student who scored a 1,200 on his SAT back when it was graded out of 1,600. Before his hoop dreams crystallized, he played bass guitar and hoped to one day become a professional musician.
"Although he ended up being an NBA player, he did not need basketball to be successful," says John Sarandrea, who coached Sealy at Tolentine. "He chose it, but if for some reason the ball would have to stop bouncing, he'd have been wildly successful anyway. He was that kind of kid."
But Sealy, of course, did just fine on the court. In '87-88, alongside Autry (who went on to play for Syracuse) and Reese (who'd later play for UNC), the team finished 31-1, losing only to Jersey City (NJ) St. Anthony—a team that featured point guard Bobby Hurley. And, it should be noted, playing on a top high school basketball team in New York City in the late '80s was nothing like it is today, when the best NYC high schools would get washed by prep powerhouses located in places like Nevada and Florida and Virginia. The best high school teams in New York City were the best high school teams, period.
"Let me give you an idea of how good New York City [basketball] was at the time," says Sarandrea, who was doubling as a firefighter by night while teaching at Tolentine by day and coaching in the afternoons. "In our league, there was also Cardinal Hayes—they had [future NBA Lottery pick] Jamal Mashburn. He was another awesome kid, and his team didn't win a game in the league. Here's my point: The city was loaded, just loaded, with talent. I'm talking about guys that would go on to be, some of them, NBA All-Stars. So for us to be as good as we were, we had to play at a high level every night."
"Every team you played had at least two or three high-major guys," Autry says. "The basketball was at an all-time high. All the teams were great. To get recognized in that era, you really had to work at your game and be good, because there were so many guys."
Tolentine (which closed in 1991) established itself as the top team in the nation in the spring of '88 by winning the State Federation championship in Glens Falls, where Sealy went for 38 and 12 in the semis and then 21 and 15 in the final. A couple of weeks earlier, Tolentine had defeated Anderson's Molloy High in the Catholic High Schools Athletic Association championship, Sealy leading the way with 26 points and 10 boards. He was named New York state's Mr. Basketball for the '87-88 season.
"He had everything God can give you," Sarandrea says. "He was 6-7. He was an exceptionally quick jumper. Everybody else was getting ready to jump and explode—he was already up there. Quick everything—hands, feet. He'd come out of nowhere and block a shot. He wasn't even in your line of sight, and then all of a sudden here comes Malik like he was shot out of a cannon and pins it to the glass."
The aforementioned numbers certainly speak volumes, but talk to anyone who was around Sealy during those years and the first thing that comes up is the intangibles. "We'd be in the locker room pre-game, and I would give a quick scouting report, then I'd leave," Sarandrea says. "And Malik would do the ‘Ra Ra, let's go!' We finished 31-1—we did that every game. People would ask me, ‘What did he say?' My answer would always be, ‘I don't know! I wasn't there!' He was just that kind of leader. He brought something to the game that if you could bottle it, and sell it, you'd be a bazillionaire."
"He was a winner," Reese says. "If he had to be the rebounder that day, he'd get 15 rebounds and have 10 points. He contributed to the game."
Naturally, his college recruitment was a big deal, with multiple programs vying for Sealy to join their school. Dan Rather, then the host of a CBS news show called 48 Hours, did a segment about the insanely intense recruiting process, and Rather himself came to visit Sealy at Tolentine to learn more about what it was like. "I don't think he realized that Dan Rather didn't just come visit anybody," Sarandrea says. "He was walking down the streets of the Bronx with Dan, and Dan's conversing with him, and just the ability he had to articulate—he was the total package."
Ever the New York City kid, Sealy chose to play for legendary coach Lou Carnesecca at St. John's University. "Everybody kinda went out of the city [for college], and he was that guy who was New York City, in and out," Autry says. "That was big, that he stayed home."
Sealy was decent as a freshman—averaging 12.9 points and 6.4 rebounds per—as he transitioned from the power forward/center position he played at Tolentine to the role of small forward. The 6-11 Robert Werdann, another Molloy product who battled against Sealy in high school, was the Red Storm's starting C.
"His game had to evolve, because he wasn't going to always be able to play in the paint," Werdann says. "He was gonna be a small forward, and that's what he turned into. You saw his game evolve into a guy who could handle the ball, a guy who could shoot."
That evolution became even more pronounced over the ensuing three years. Sealy's scoring average leapt to 18.1 his sophomore year, then 22.1 as a junior and 22.6 as a senior. St. John's made the Elite 8 in 1991, when Sealy was named First-Team All-Big East. He broke Chris Mullin's record of 100 straight games scoring in double figures (Sealy notched 102), and finished his collegiate career with 2,402 points, second in school history behind only Mullin.
Which is all to say: To this day, Sealy remains one of the best players to ever don a St. John's uniform. In 2011, ESPN ranked the greatest St. John's basketball alums of all-time; Sealy finished third on the list behind Mullin and Walter Berry, who won the John Wooden Award for best player in the country and brought the Red Storm to the Final Four in '85.
Sealy was drafted 14th by the Indiana Pacers in the '92 NBA Draft, and though he struggled to find his footing for his first two seasons with Indy, he progressed into a very solid NBA role player. He was traded to the Clippers for fellow New Yorker Mark Jackson in June of '94; the best statistical seasons of his career came in L.A., where he averaged 13.0 ppg in '94-95 and a career-high 13.5 in '96-97.
But it was in Minnesota a couple of years thereafter where he truly found a home. He mentored and played alongside Kevin Garnett, a lanky small forward who had worshipped Sealy from afar for years—KG wore No. 21, Sealy's college number, when he entered the NBA.
Sealy's scoring never again matched his '96-97 output, but in '99-00 he started more games, grabbed more boards and dished more assists than he had ever before. On an up-and-coming team that included KG, Wally Szczerbiak, Joe Smith and Terrell Brandon, the then-29-year-old Sealy acted as an elder statesman, the squad's glue.
"He preached closeness," Sam Mitchell, Sealy's teammate in both Indiana and Minnesota, would later tell the Times. ‘'He said that if we put all the jealousy, all the contract business on the side, we could win.''
By the late '90s, Sealy had also established himself as a bit of an off-the-court star, confirming what Sarandrea said all along about the Bronx native not truly needing basketball to thrive. He had a clothing company—Malik Sealy XXI—and a line of neckwear and suspenders that sold in stores like Barneys and Bloomingdale's. He designed the uniforms the Indiana Pacers' dance team wore in 1993.
"He knew what he wanted and he attacked it," Reese says.
Sealy and some of his friends also founded Baseline Studios, a Manhattan recording studio where much of Jay Z's The Blueprint and Cam'ron's Come Home With Me were recorded. (Producer Just Blaze would eventually purchase the space, closing it down in 2010.)