Indiana Pacers forward Chris Copeland suffered an injured abdomen and elbow. Atlanta Hawks forward Thabo Sefolosha sustained a fractured tibia. Both players are out for the season.
Ask any casual follower of the NBA how these injuries occurred, and they would probably assume that there must have been an ugly collision at a Pacers-Hawks game the night before. Of course, if that had been the case, Hawks forward Pero Antic would not have spent time in a New York City jail, and Sefolosha would not be at the center of a police brutality investigation.
On April 8, a little after 4 a.m., Copeland and his ex-fiancee left New York City’s 10AK nightclub and were approached by a stranger who would not leave them alone. It is unclear whether a verbal altercation broke out, but a comment of Copeland’s spurred the stranger to take out a knife and swing at the couple, injuring them both. When Copeland’s driver finally wrangled and subdued the stranger, the police showed up — and that is when the story takes a strange turn.
Sefolosha and Antic, who were in town with the Hawks prior to their game against the Brooklyn Nets but were not with Copeland’s party at 10AK, reportedly prevented the police from setting up a crime scene. As a result, both players were charged with obstruction of governmental administration and resisting arrest. To make matters more complicated, Sefolosha was thrown to the ground by a group of officers, breaking his leg in the process.
To start with the most immediate consequence, the Hawks lost a key rotation player in Sefolosha at the worst possible time in the NBA schedule. Having clinched the one seed in the East, the Hawks theoretically have the easiest path to the Eastern Conference Finals. However, with the Boston Celtics red-hot as of late, and with superstar Paul George back in the Pacers lineup for 20-25 minutes a game, even the Hawks’ first series may prove to be challenging for the Atlanta-based team.
Sefolosha has been a “glue guy” for the Hawks this season, coming off the bench for an average of 18 minutes a game and making a living with his defensive abilities and basketball IQ. Without him, the Hawks’ only option to back up DeMarre Carroll at the small forward position is Kent Bazemore, a less savvy player who is not the same wing defender Sefolosha is. Without Sefolosha, it seems highly doubtful that the Hawks will be able to maintain their third-ranked defense throughout the playoffs.
However, this debacle is bigger than basketball. Video of the incident shows Sefolosha concerned and trying to interact with Copeland, who was lying prone on the sidewalk before the ambulance arrived. It was at this point that Sefolosha was dragged by four police officers onto the street and forced onto the ground. It was a baton whack by one of the officers that ultimately caused the season-ending injury to Sefolosha.
At a time where police brutality is a nationwide issue, one that is especially pertinent in New York City, this is a remarkably high-profile instance of what appears to be an inappropriate and violent police response that has been swept beneath the rug.
The NBA Player’s Association is now in the process of launching its own investigation into the incident. The Hawks have come down on the side of their players, evidenced by Antic playing against the Charlotte Hornets two days after his arrest.
I expect that this case will blow up in the coming months as more testimony paints a clearer picture as to what really happened that Wednesday morning. These are not events instigated by reckless professional athletes, like Plaxico Burress shooting himself in the leg or Tony Parker nearly going blind in a bar fight. Thabo Sefolosha was a victim of police brutality and, if the “I Can’t Breathe” movement is any indication, the NBA will likely respond to the incident.
Whether players throughout the league come out in solidarity with Sefolosha or either the players union or the Hawks organization pursues legal recourse for the damage done to Sefolosha’s career and dignity, the New York City police department will certainly have consequences to suffer.
Max Fiege is a freshman in the School of Foreign Service. OUT OF OUR LEAGUE appears every Tuesday.
Have a reaction to this article? Write a letter to the editor.