Last season had so much promise for the Atlanta Hawks.
The city of Atlanta was buzzing. The Hawks were going to the NBA playoffs again, but this time it was different.
Fans in Atlanta usually expect an early-round exit, but in late March 2015, the Hawks had already clinched the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, wrapping up one of their best seasons in franchise history. Realistically, the NBA Finals were within reach.
But that dream started to unravel April 8, 2015, in New York City, when the Hawks lost one of their key players for the season because of injuries. Those injuries, forward Thabo Sefolosha has said, were caused by police, for which he is now suing the city and several police officers.
“It was tough,” Sefolosha said Saturday at Philips Arena in Atlanta, ahead of Game 1 of the fourth-seeded Hawks’ first-round playoff series against the fifth-seeded Boston Celtics.
“It was one of the toughest times in my career, probably, especially after the year that we had. …The whole city, the whole organization was super excited about those playoffs. To not be able to play because of that incident was heartbreaking.”
“A black man wearing a hoodie”
In the early hours of April 8, 2015, Sefolosha, who is from Switzerland, and then-teammate, center Pero Antic, from Macedonia, were arrested near the scene of the stabbing of then-Indiana Pacers forward Chris Copeland and two women outside a New York nightclub.
Police said Sefolosha and Antic were not involved in the stabbing incident, but they were charged with misdemeanors, including disorderly conduct and obstructing governmental administration.
Shortly after the incident, TMZ Sports released video that shows a group of police officers arresting the 6-foot-7 Sefolosha and taking him to the ground. It also shows an officer within that group getting out a baton and extending it near him, but what may have caused the injury is not clear in the video. Sefolosha appears to be limping as officers lead him away.
Sefolosha, who suffered a fractured fibula and ligament damage when he was arrested, said after the incident that police caused his injuries. He was forced to miss the rest of the 2015 regular season and the entire postseason.
In October, a New York jury found Sefolosha not guilty on three misdemeanor charges. The charges against Antic were dismissed in September.
On April 6, Sefolosha sued the city of New York and several police officers. Antic filed his own lawsuit a few days earlier.
According to Sefolosha’s lawsuit, police targeted him because he was a “large black man wearing a hoodie.” He also accuses five NYPD officers involved in his arrest of assault and battery, false arrest and imprisonment.
The NYPD has refrained from commenting on the lawsuits filed by Sefolosha and Antic. Both players have requested jury trials.
Copeland, who underwent surgery on his abdomen and left elbow for stab wounds, played for the Milwaukee Bucks this season before he was waived in February. Antic now plays for Fenerbahçe in the Turkish Basketball Super League.
“We missed him a lot”
With Sefolosha sidelined, the Hawks felt a void. He was especially missed during the Eastern Conference finals, in which LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers swept Atlanta in four games. Sefolosha, known for his defensive prowess, likely would be been assigned to guard James.
“We missed him a lot,” Hawks center-forward Al Horford said Saturday. “Thabo is a big part of our team. We felt that, last year, if he was healthy, we could have been a lot better as a group. Just his presence, his leadership, his defense, we missed him, so we’re very happy to have him back this year. He’s the type of player that can change a series with the energy and the way that he plays.”
Sefolosha, who turns 32 on May 2, plays a vital role, particularly defensively. Coming off the bench, he has had a productive season, averaging 6.4 points, 4.5 rebounds, 1.4 assists and 1.1 steals per game this season.
“He’s kind of a little bit of a quarterback or a leader defensively,” Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer said before the game Saturday. “I think all of those things become even more valuable in the playoffs. You can put him on different type of guys, different matchups, so he’s somebody that we value greatly and it’s very important for him to be with us.”
A year after the incident, Sefolosha says he needs a little bit of extra time on the training table to prepare for games, but he otherwise is healthy.
“It’s still a process,” Sefolosha said. “I’ve got to go through a few things before I can get on the court and play at this level, but I feel pretty good and I’m confident on my abilities and my body, so I feel good.”
And a year after having to sit one out, Sefolosha is happy to be back in the postseason.
“I think a lot of times, we take it for granted,” Sefolosha said. “Last year helped me a lot on that aspect. I’m excited about those games. Being where we are right now, it’s a great chance, a great opportunity.”