MIAMI - Staring at almost four years of legal troubles, Trevor Mbakwe was looking for for one final chance. At stake was the strength of the Gophers' 2012-13 season, Mbakwe's potential future in the NBA and his life as a free man.
At a hearing in Florida on Friday, Mbakwe got his break -- avoiding jail time, a possible team dismissal and a career barricade. Instead, Miami-Dade Judge Jose Fernandez handed down two years of probation and several other stipulations as punishment for the star forward's parole violation stemming from a July drunken driving arrest in Minnesota.
The judge did, however, offer this warning:
"You're not a cat; you don't have nine lives. You're going to do something and it's going to be the end of any chances you have. This may be it; this may be your last chance," Fernandez told the 23-year-old Mbakwe at the hearing.
The university declined to comment after the ruling, but a men's basketball team spokesman said Thursday that if the outcome was more probation, Mbakwe's status with the team -- he was held out of some summer activities but was allowed back and was practicing with the Gophers before this week's court appearances -- would not change. Mbakwe said he spoke with coach Tubby Smith on Friday morning and that the coaches support him.
Afterward, smiling and clearly relieved, Mbakwe said: "I've been thinking about this since July 1. It's been stressing me and my family out, and I'm glad it's over. I'm just going to stay on the right track now; no more slip-ups. The judge gave me another chance and I'm grateful for that. I'm just going to show everybody they were right in supporting me."
Mbakwe's legal troubles in Florida stemmed from an incident on April 3, 2009, when a woman who lived in his apartment complex accused him of punching her in the face twice, causing severe facial injuries. Mbakwe was playing for Miami Dade Community College at the time.
Mbakwe was put on probation in Florida as part of a pretrial intervention program for a felony battery charge and was still on probation when he was arrested on July 1 in Minnetonka for drunken driving. Before the hearing, Mbakwe and his attorney, Gregory Samms, reached a civil settlement agreement with the victim in the felony battery case. The monetary specifics of the settlement are confidential, but the amount will be on a sliding scale, increasing if Mbakwe gets drafted in the NBA.
Mbakwe and Samms were hoping to reach a plea deal ahead of the hearing but were unable to do so. They then asked the judge to consider four extra years of probation, arguing that the sixth-year senior is in Alcoholics Anonymous and is struggling with depression.
Fernandez ruled two years of probation along with 20 hours of community service per month during that time was suitable punishment. He said Mbakwe is "still amenable to treatment" and that he has "the ability to turn himself around," noting that "positive strides have been made already."
As part of the ruling, Mbakwe must also attend AA meetings three times per week and stay away from the victim, which includes direct contact, indirect and third person. Mbakwe, who is from St. Paul, will continue to meet with a University of Minnesota sports psychologist.
Previously, in addition to seeking psychological and substance-abuse treatment, Mbakwe had also already started speaking with high schools about his experience and volunteering at a detox center.
"Yes, he has a substance abuse problem, but look how he's dealing with it; look what he's done," Samms told the court.
Friday's hearing was the latest in a series of problems that has plagued Mbakwe since before he joined the Gophers. Mbakwe was bounced from a pretrial intervention program for the battery charge after violating a restraining order that a Ramsey County woman held against him in January 2011.
Mbakwe wore black pants with a blue short-sleeved dress shirt and black dress shoes, and maintained a steady face throughout hearing. He answered "yes sir" and "no sir" when called upon.
Samms was emotional after Friday's hearing was over. "I so didn't want him to go to jail," he said. "We've been together for so long now. He's like my son."
Mbakwe -- whose mother, sister and nephew were also at the hearing -- said he wanted to move back to basketball talk.
With the 6-8 Mbakwe as a key piece, the Gophers have elicited high expectations for the coming season. The NCAA granted him a sixth year of eligibility for 2012-13 after he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee last November, ending his season after seven games.
"Once we get through this, just move forward. Now it's just my job to fight for minutes, back to square one, showing and proving I belong on the team and deserve minutes," Mbakwe said.
Star Tribune staff writer Amelia Rayno wrote from Minneapolis. Steve Gorten is a special correspondent reporting from Miami.