The Thabo Sefolosha Case: Police Brutality’s Effect On The NBA Playoffs


If you follow professional sport, you’re likely all too familiar with the role injuries play in the game. However players can sometimes suffer due to incidents that happened elsewhere.

That last sentence is especially hard to digest for fans of the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks, who lost their starting shooting guard, Thabo Sefolosha. Sefolosha fractured his leg in a struggle with police outside a New York nighclub on April 8. Sefolosha, a black man of Swiss and South African descent, was arrested on that night, charged with misdemeanor, obstructing government administration, disorderly conduct, and resisting arrest.

In short, Sefolosha was accused of disobeying an officer’s orders to leave a crime scene in the wake of a stabbing incident involving fellow NBA player Chris Copeland. His teammate, Pero Antic, was also arrested on that night although charges were dropped against him. News site TMZ was able to obtain two separate videos of parts of the incident, seen below. Sefolosha is the man in the black hoodie, surrounded by five or six officers. Antic is the bearded man in grey, already on the ground. At this point, Thabo has already been arrested, there’s no clear video evidence of what he did that resulted in him getting the handcuffs thrown on him.

Although he was found not guilty of the charges, Sefolosha was forced to watch from the sidelines as his Atlanta Hawks team, who earned the #1 seed in the conference, sputtered out of the NBA playoffs, swept by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals. It’s impossible to know how Atlanta would’ve fared if Sefolosha was able to be in the starting lineup as he had been all season. These sorts of “what ifs” as they relate to injuries are commonplace among fans. It’s a harder pill to swallow when the reason for an injury is due to excessive force by the New York Police Department. For the numerous black fans of the NBA, it hits a little harder, a reminder of the racial targeting by police that’s become an all-too-frequent part of the news cycle in 2015.

Most people in situations similar to Thabo’s will take plea bargains, as opposed to paying for a lawyer and fighting the case.With the salary of an NBA player, he was able to afford to bring this case to trial instead of accepting a plea bargain; which would have meant he would complete one day of community service, be on six months of probation and had the charges dismissed.  This is not him fighting against the NYPD, although that remains a possibility for the future.

His trial was for the charges that came with to his arrest outside the nightclub. His attorney has been quoted as saying that Thabo is going to trial on principle, but there has been speculation that he’s done so because a not guilty verdict will be a much better outcome than taking a plea bargain if he chooses to file a civil suit against the city of New York for the incident. If one looks at the following accounts of the trial, it’s not terribly surprising that Sefolosha was able to obtain a not guilty verdict.

The basis of the prosecution (the city of New York)’s  case against Sefolosha is that Thabo ‘refused to clear the scene after being told upwards of 6 times,’ ‘lunged at an officer who was trying to clear‘, and ‘resisted arrest’.

The prosecution called forward six witnesses, all police officers. When questioned by the defense, the officers admitted that the incident ‘started 50 feet west of the stabbing’. One officer described the lunge as ‘charge. An aggressive motion, a run’. The defence’s argument was that Sefolosha was attempting to give money to a homeless man. Both parties, Sefolosha and the homeless man, testified that this was the case. Upon the presentation of the TMZ video to this officer, he concedes that Sefolosha ‘was getting in his car to leave’ and that he ‘saw a man standing, Sefolosha got out and interacted with him.’ The officer agreed with the defence’s statement that Thabo is approaching with ‘what appears to be consistent with money’ in his hand. The TMZ video appears to corroborate this story, a woman can be heard saying ‘he was just trying to give him money’.

The police officer’s reaction to a 6″7 black man making a sudden movement when surrounded by cops was to arrest him forcefully, and for one officer to swing his police baton at him. But why was Sefolosha surrounded by cops in the first place? There was a group of individuals at a pizza restaurant closer to the crime scene than he was, they were neither instructed to leave nor arrested. One of the testifying officer’s reasoning behind this is that ‘they might have been undercover [policemen]’. If the officer is willing to make the assumption that people at a pizza restaurant might be undercover police, it’s no real stretch of the imagination that he would assume a large black man was dangerous, and a threat.

In this case, it seems like the New York Police Department got unlucky in making that assumption towards a public figure with enough money to fight the case, and enough of a public profile to make news headlines across the United States. Again, Thabo was a starting player in the best NBA team in the Eastern Conference last year, and this incident happened as the playoffs were quickly approaching. The media should have been covering this – the ‘debate shows’ that are ever popular in American sports media should have been discussing this on a daily basis. Should, unfortunately, is the key word here.


Daniel Fitzpatrick is a MA Transnational Studies student hailing from Windsor, Connecticut in the United States.

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