Three days after officially announcing his intention to file a $50 million civil suit against the city of New York, the New York Police Department and the officers involved in the incident that left him with a broken leg that ended his 2014-15 season, Atlanta Hawks forward Thabo Sefolosha offered a detailed and harrowing first-person account of his April 8 encounter with NYPD officers outside a Manhattan nightclub in an interview with GQ.
Ever since the incident, which followed the stabbing of then-Indiana Pacers forward Chris Copeland outside Chelsea's 1Oak, the 31-year-old Sefolosha had asserted that the season-ending injuries he sustained — a fractured right fibula, plus significant ligament damage — were "caused by the police." He rejected the NYPD's offer of a conditional dismissal of his charges in favor of having his day in court in order to clear his name. (Charges against his former Hawks teammate, Pero Antic, who was also arrested in the incident, were dropped without condition; Antic, who returned to Europe this summer to play for Turkish club Fenerbahçe, said in an interview last month that "what happened that night wasn't our fault.")
From Sefolosha's account, via GQ's Nathaniel Penn:
About 4:15 A.M., they turned the lights on at the club and told us it's time to go. Something happened, we're not exactly sure what. The police are outside closing the place down—directing people, telling them to move.
An officer came over to me and said, "Get the hell out!" I said, "Did I do something wrong? You can talk to me in a nicer way." I didn't quite understand why he had to come at us so hard when there were so many other people around. We moved, but he kept telling us to get the hell out. I told him we were listening to him: "You are the police, but you don't have to act like you're the toughest guy on earth." He said, "With or without a badge, I can f*** you up." Like, whatever. We're not about to find out. I'm the last guy who gets physical with anybody, especially the police. At the same time, I felt singled out for no reason. He was much shorter than me. [Sefolosha is six feet seven.] I said, "You're a midget, and you're mad." I voiced my opinion, but I kept moving.
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Sefolosha's attorney claimed officers had wrongfully arrested and brutalized him after unjustly profiling him as "a black man in a hoodie." Prosecutors with the Manhattan district attorney's office claimed that Sefolosha "displayed a sense of entitlement and disdain" and behaved as if he "does not think he needs to obey the law."
Sefolosha and Antic testified that they'd vacated the crime scene as officers requested. Officers testified that Sefolosha charged at them, provoking a physical response showcased in a video later released by TMZ that seemed to show multiple NYPD officers encircling Sefolosha, with one officer seeming to grab Sefolosha by the back of the neck before the group brings him down to the street, with one officer appearing to swing his baton at Sefolosha's lower body:
Here's how Sefolosha recalls the takedown:
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I was just getting into a livery cab — one of the cops opened the door and said, "Get out of here" — when a homeless man asked me for money. I took out twenty bucks. When I made a few steps toward the guy, an officer said, "You're going to jail." Pero tapped the officer on the shoulder and said, "Relax, he didn't do anything." Another officer pushed him in the chest and he fell. That's what the first YouTube video showed — him on the floor.
More officers started grabbing me. I was trying to put the money back in my pocket. Usually I don't carry that much, but I had six or seven hundred dollars in my hand. One officer pulled me from my right arm, another grabbed me on my left, and another grabbed me on the back of my neck. I'm in, like, an on-a-cross type of position. I couldn't even move. It was just chaos. I had never been arrested before. I understood a little bit late that they were trying to put me on the ground, but if somebody grabs your arms and pulls you on your neck, you fall face first.
Somebody kicked my leg, more than once, from the back to force me to the ground. I knew something had happened as soon as they did it; I'm an athlete, so I know how my body should feel. They were stepping on my foot, too, I guess to try to keep me there. I didn't feel like there was anything I could do to calm it down. I tried to show them I was cooperating. I tried.
He's decided to pursue the $50 million suit — a step taken with the full support of the National Basketball Players Association, the union that represents NBA players — not to recoup income last during his absence (his current contract totals $12 million over three years) but rather, as Sports Illustrated's Michael McCann put it, to use "the enviable position of wealth and fame [...] to pursue a goal that goes well beyond his own self-interest."
As McCann notes, we can sometimes scoff at the notion of financial awards for "pain and suffering" in civil cases. Reading Sefolosha's description of what the aftermath of the incident did to his mental and emotional state in the months following the incident, though, might make you think twice about downplaying that:
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I had surgery in Charlotte a week later. They went in and reattached the ligaments with a wire. They told me it would be months before I could go back on the court. For a time I couldn't even go upstairs and put my kids to bed. I had nightmares. I would wake up sweating in the middle of the night. I was dreaming not necessarily of that exact moment but more of the whole feeling about it—half scared, half nervous. It felt like I had been just one wrong move away from something much more serious happening. It was a long summer for me. I had nights where I came back after watching the team play, just feeling defeated and angry that all this had happened, and for no reason. [...]
It was an act of police brutality, and I believe it could happen to anyone. Now I'm a lot more aware of everything that goes on. I've been, I don't want to say disillusioned, but brought back to earth in a harsh way. I look at videos of police brutality on YouTube or CNN.com. The other day I was watching this woman getting punched by the police for recording them arresting her husband. In a situation like this, you are helpless. If there's six people jumping me outside of the club, I scream, "Police, police!" If the police are doing this to me, who you want me to turn to?
Sefolosha didn't suit up for Atlanta's Thursday victory over the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden, but he did speak with reporters about his decision to move forward with the suit. From Howard Megdal for USA TODAY:
[Sefolosha] more than an individual victim looking for retribution, too. Asked if he is more cynical about police after the incident, he sounded like a statesman.
"More realistic, probably," Sefolosha replied. "And I think, having a platform as an NBA player, it's important for me to speak. Police have a tough job. And big responsibility with that job. But at the same time, they have to be accountable for how they interact with people. People spoke about the training, and that's probably a good place to start."
And in his mind, the video that earned him an acquittal needs to be in place far more often when police and civilians interact.
"I think so," Sefolosha said. "Definitely, with the body cameras, and things like this. In my case, and in many cases we can see throughout the country, taping and being an eye of what happened definitely helps."
Sefolosha could have decided to leave well enough alone after his exoneration, throwing all of his energy and focus on his return to the court. Instead, he's elected to put himself at the "eye of what happened," and what seems to continue to happen entirely too often, and keep the policies, procedures and conduct of the largest municipal police force in the United States — one that has had its fair share of high-profile incidents of late — squarely in the public eye.
"I think it's the right move and hopefully it'll push people to somehow bring some changes, just to keep the discussion open about it," he said Thursday, according to Brian Mahoney of The Assocaited Press.
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