Thabo Sefolosha makes emotional playoff return for Hawks

The significance of Thabo Sefolosha's 22 minutes for the Atlanta Hawks in Game 1 couldn’t be found in the box score, couldn’t be extrapolated through even the most advanced analytics data. This was a matter of emotions for Sefolosha, who stepped onto the court in a postseason game this weekend for the first time since he participated in the 2014 Western Conference finals with the Oklahoma City Thunder. It marked the conclusion of a life-altering, year-long saga that cost him precious time on the court and introduced him into the national discourse on race and the police.

His initial season with the Hawks was halted last April when he and then-Hawks teammate Pero Antic were arrested outside a New York nightclub in the disorder that followed the stabbing of fellow NBA player Chris Copeland. Sefolosha suffered a broken bone in his leg when he was taken to the ground by police officers.

The Hawks didn’t have the complete group that won 60 games when the playoffs began and the defensive-minded Sefolosha’s absence was particularly notable when LeBron James ran roughshod over Atlanta in the Eastern Conference finals. Sefolosha called it “heartbreaking” to miss the 2015 playoffs.

“Especially after the season that we had,” Sefolosha said. “We felt the excitement around the team, in the city and amongst ourselves. It was heartbreaking not to be able to play.”

He healed in the offseason and also won a legal victory, being found not guilty of the disorderly conduct and resisting arrest charges brought against him. (Charges against Antic had previously been dismissed.) Sefolosha, who is of African and Swiss descent, discussed his encounter with the police with ESPN, among others, adding his voice to the ongoing debate about police brutality.

“I don’t want to be the advocate of anything, but after what happened to me it opened my eyes to a problem that American society had for a long time,” Sefolosha said. “It’s in the discussion right now on the national level. I think if my story can help bring some awareness to some people about the situation and help in any kind of way to improve the situation of many others, that’s something that is greater than basketball, and I’m definitely willing to do that.”

Earlier this month he filed a civil lawsuit against the arresting officers and the city of New York. That’s a significant undertaking on the eve of the playoffs, but Sefolosha said, “I’ll let the lawyers and different people take care of it.”

“I’m definitely focusing on basketball,” Sefolosha said. “It’s good to be able to put my mind 100 percent into one thing and not think about all of this. It’s been a long year. As soon as I was able to be on the court playing, that definitely helped me a lot mentally.”

He said the leg injury still bothers him.

“Some days it feels better than others,” Sefolosha said. “I just try to keep bringing the energy, get some extra rest and get my body ready for every game.”