NYPD on trial: NBA player Thabo Sefolosha fights back after police beating

 

The police broke Thabo Sefolosha’s leg. His testimony, and the testimony of witnesses, could mean that they will not get away with it.

by Dave Zirin

NBA player Thabo Sefolosha had his leg broken by the New York Police Department, an undisputed fact that is still stunning to contemplate. This week, Thabo has been in criminal court as prosecutors attempt to imprison him for the crime of “resisting arrest.” In actuality, he is being prosecuted for not going away quietly: choosing instead to fight back.

NYPD officers lead Thabo Sefolosha, grimacing in pain, out of the police station after booking him.
NYPD officers lead Thabo Sefolosha, grimacing in pain, out of the police station after booking him.

And fight back, he has. We learned this week that the prosecution, in an effort to make this go away, offered a plea deal where Thabo would just have to do a day of community service and all would be forgiven. They did not want this going to trial. They did not want a civil case, much more dicey for Thabo if he had pleaded guilty. They did not want a light shined on events of last April in the wee hours of the morning. They did not want this, but Thabo Sefolosha demanded it, even with the risk of a much harsher punishment.

We also learned that Thabo would take the stand to proclaim his innocence, a rarity in a criminal case. It marked the first time that Thabo had given, in full, his account of what took place outside a Manhattan nightclub called 1 Oak last April.

Thabo described a scene where he was walking away from a melee outside the club alongside (white) teammate Pero Antic and two women. He talked about being singled out and followed by a police officer named JohnPaul Giacona, who said to him, “With or without a badge, I’m going to f— you up, and I can f—you up.” He then said they attacked him when he extended his arm to give money to a homeless person who went by the name “True.”

“I said, I’m just going to give the guy some money,’” Sefolosha said. “(The officer) grabbed my arm. I dropped the money. He said, ‘That’s it, you’re going to jail.’ I turned and tried to put my right hand behind my back. I had a lot of money in my left hand and I tried to put it in my pocket.

“Two or three officers were pulling me. I said, ‘Relax.’ They never gave me a direct order. One is pulling on my right. One is pulling on my left and someone had a hand on my neck. After five seconds, I realized they wanted me on the ground. I felt my leg going up, with somebody kicking me on my right leg.”

Thabo Sefolosha, now with the Atlanta Hawks, was born in Switzerland to Patrick Sefolosha, a South African musician, and Christine Sefolosha, a Swiss artist. – Photo: AP
Thabo Sefolosha, now with the Atlanta Hawks, was born in Switzerland to Patrick Sefolosha, a South African musician, and Christine Sefolosha, a Swiss artist. – Photo: AP

The three people who were with Thabo, including Pero Antic, all testified to this version of events. They said Thabo was targeted and attacked.

The police counter-testimony was very simple. They said that Thabo Sefolosha gestured at them in a manner they found threatening and refused to “move along” from a crime scene. So they broke his leg.

The most damning testimony against their account was given by two people from dramatically different walks of life. The first was the homeless man, True. Somehow, True was located and he testified that the “threatening gesture” allegedly made toward police was in fact Thabo handing True a $20 bill.

The second person was his Atlanta Hawks coach, the reigning NBA Coach of the Year Mike Budenholzer. Coach Bud described Thabo’s character as being “of the highest order” and pledged that if Thabo was saying it, then his word was good. Every single person with whom I have spoken has said the same. If you were going to think of the last NBA player who would be involved in a situation like this, Thabo would top that list. This truth about his character did not, of course, protect him from the NYPD.

The State of New York vs. Thabo Sefolosha bears startling similarities to another high profile incident involving the NYPD and a top athlete: retired tennis star James Blake. This week, a city agency confirmed Blake’s account that two police officers used excessive force in taking him down to the pavement and erred in not identifying themselves. The only difference between the Blake and Thabo situations is that we have video of Blake being approached and roughed up. Our only video of Thabo was taken by someone in his party after the police began to attack, with one officer seen swinging a nightstick.

As a jury now attempts to untangle whether Thabo Sefolosha is guilty of resisting arrest, the uncomfortable truth of this matter was said bluntly by Thabo’s lawyer Alex Spiro: “I think [the NYPD] saw a Black man in a hoodie. They grab him, they pounce on him, they pull him limb from limb, they smash him on the ground.”

As for the prosecution, they closed their case with this argument: “Imagine a world where we are allowed to say no to an officer … that’s chaos.” (Sounds more like the missing line from a certain John Lennon song.)

This is a familiar story in New York City, but the difference this time was that Thabo Sefolosha had the financial means and political will to fight back. Even though this could have all gone away, he chose instead to seek justice. Clearly, the NYPD grabbed the wrong “Black man in a hoodie.”

Dave Zirin is the author of “Brazil’s Dance with the Devil.“ Receive this column or contact him at edgeofsports@gmail.com.