Sunday, December 27, 2009

Memories of Malik

Former Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders returned to Target Center again last night, this time as coach of the Washington Wizards. Before the game, he told the Star Tribune that every visit back to the place where he coached for a decade was nostalgic, but that the strongest emotion is always looking up to the rafters and seeing the retired jersey of Malik Sealy, who was killed by a drunken driver on May 20, 2000.

On that fateful night, Sealy, a 30-year-old guard who had played college ball at St. John’s, was headed home after attending a birthday party in downtown Minneapolis for his teammate and best friend, Kevin Garnett. On Highway 100 in St. Louis Park, his sport utility vehicle was struck head-on by a truck going the wrong way. The driver of the truck, Souksangouame Phengsene, 43, had a blood alcohol content of 0.19 percent − more than twice the legal limit in Minnesota − at the time he struck and killed Sealy.

Nine and a half years after Sealy’s death, his coach remains deeply affected by the tragedy. “I still wake up now at 4:06 because that’s when the call came from the police station,” Saunders told the Star Trib. “There are still times, even now, when I wake up at that time for some reason. Crazy.”

Crazy, too, is the justice system’s tolerance for chronic drunk driving offenders. At the time he caused Sealy’s death, Phengsene already had one previous drunken driving conviction on his record. After pleading guilty to criminal vehicular homicide in Sealy’s death, he served three years in prison. He was released in July 2003.

In 2006, however, Phengsene was arrested for DUI again − this time in the suburb of Crystal, with a blood alcohol level of 0.21 percent. He was sentenced to less than a year in the workhouse, but was given a 3 1/2-year probation term, on the condition that another DUI violation would lead to prison. Because Phengsene’s 2003 conviction was for vehicular homicide, not DUI, that conviction could not be used to enhance the sentence on the 2006 conviction.

In early April of 2008, when Flip Saunders returned to Target Center with the Detroit Pistons, Phengsene had just been arrested for DUI again. After drinking 10-12 beers, he was arrested on 35W near 36th Street in south Minneapolis with a blood alcohol content of over 0.20 percent.

This time, Phengsene was sentneced to a prison term of 4/1 years, with a requirement of serving at least 2/3 of that time behind bars, as well as 5 years on probation. The sentencing judge also revoked Phengsene's probation on the 2006 DUI sentence and chose to make the 2006 and 2008 sentences consecutive rather than concurrent. Adding 4 1/2 and 3 1/2, the Star Tribune came up with 8 years, though only 2/3 of that will actually be spent in prison. The remaining 1/3 will be on supervised release − followed by the 5 years of probation on the first sentence.

I doubt that any of these numbers run through Saunders’s mind when he wakes up at 4:06. And if the trauma and tragedy of Malik Sealy’s untimtely death are still so tangible for him, what must it be like for Sealy’s wife and son?

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