Atlanta Hawks guard-forward Thabo Sefolosha has remained largely silent since an altercation with law enforcement on April 8 in New York, during which he suffered a broken leg and ligament damage. A few days following his release from police custody, Sefolosha made a public statement that the injuries were caused by police.
ESPN's Kevin Arnovitz sat down with Sefolosha at his home in Atlanta to discuss his condition, some of the events of that night, the larger issue of policing, and how the incident has informed his experience as an immigrant in America.
Kevin Arnovitz: First off, how are you?
Thabo Sefolosha: I'm doing pretty good. I'm doing OK. Now that the season is over, things are slowly changing a little bit, just like after every season.
Arnovitz: How have you been spending your days while you haven't been playing basketball?
"When the playoffs come, you want to be healthy and with the team and ready to go. For me not to be able to do that, especially after the year we had, it was heartbreaking, to be around the group and feeling helpless. I was looking forward to those playoffs and to these moments."Thabo Sefolosha
Sefolosha: I was pretty much immobilized for a while with the surgery that I just had. So my days were mostly spending time here at home recovering and, when permitted, going with the group, watching practice and going to the games, trying to give my support to the team.
Arnovitz: What's that experience like -- being at the facility, not being able to get on the floor, hanging around, not really participating? That's got to be difficult.
Sefolosha: Really difficult for a competitor. When the playoffs come, you want to be healthy and with the team and ready to go. For me not to be able to do that, especially after the year we had, it was heartbreaking, to be around the group and feeling helpless. I was looking forward to those playoffs and to these moments. To not be able to participate fully and be on the court, it was very hard.
Arnovitz: How is the leg? What is the diagnosis and where are you in the recovery process?
Sefolosha: I had surgery about a month ago, so it's a slow process. It's my first surgery, so I don't know the exact timeline and how the recovery is going to be. But I expect there are going to be some long months ahead. Right now, I can slowly start putting some weight on my leg, so I'm a little bit more mobile, which really helps.
Arnovitz: Walk us through that night. The team gets a big win at home over Phoenix. You fly up after the game to New York. You arrive. What happens next?
Sefolosha: What I can speak on -- that night we had quite a bit to celebrate. We had secured the first spot in the Eastern conference. And I like New York. It's a city I enjoy. I have friends there. So me and one of my teammates decided to go out and have a good time in the city.
Arnovitz: Whenever your situation -- or one like it -- comes up, there's often this line of thinking that, "What is a guy doing out at that hour, where he's putting himself at unnecessary risk. He should be back at the hotel." What do you make of that?
Sefolosha: I totally understand. I think it's a fair question to ask, "Why were you out at 4 in the morning?" I think I'm not a criminal for it. I've always been a professional guy when it comes to basketball, and I put it first. Of course, it's my priority. So even when I do go out, I always think about the repercussions of anything I do could have on my teammates, on the team and on the NBA as a whole because we're looked at as NBA players. What one does often reflects on the others. So I try to conduct myself in a professional way. But at the same time I don't think it's a crime to be out, you know, even at 4 in the morning. It's something I can say I was OK doing due to the circumstances.
Arnovitz: In your first statement after the incident, you said, "I will simply say that I am in great pain, have experienced a significant injury and that the injury was caused by the police." Can you tell us specifically how the injury was caused?
Sefolosha: It's a legal matter so I can't speak on the specifics. I've been advised not to speak on that. I can't tell you much about that.
Arnovitz: Can you tell us if there an acceptable use of force applied during your arrest?
Sefolosha: I don't want to comment on that either. No. It's a legal issue.
Arnovitz: Is there anything else you can tell us about from the time you and your teammate went out to the time you were released from police custody the next day?
Sefolosha: I'm looking forward for the truth to come out and for me being able to speak on it, but right now I think it's not the right time to do it.
Arnovitz: You're arguably the highest profile person who's in the middle of this national debate on policing. Does that come with a certain responsibility?
Sefolosha: I'm saddened by it and it definitely can happen to anybody. That's why I think my having a platform to speak on it, I think it's an important subject and something that needs to be discussed because I think I'm the proof that, again, this can happen to, honestly, anybody. I can't really say how much I can help the cause or just speak on it, but really I just want to share my story a little bit, how I feel as an athlete, also, being in a situation like this, and how much it affected everything around it. I think the national debate that's going on is not necessarily for me to speak on it, but I definitely have an opinion on it.
Arnovitz: You say you want to share your story. What is your story?
Sefolosha: There are a lot of things I cannot talk about with the facts of that night. But I can say I was injured in the hands of the police, and it took away a lot from my everyday life from being able to help put the kids in bed, going up and down the stairs. We are talking about the stress that it has brought to the entire family, you know, my mom and dad in Switzerland, my brothers and sisters, my wife. Also, the damage to my reputation. I've had people texting me about what they saw in the newspaper and things like this. Every aspect of my life was affected by something like this, and I think putting light on the aftermath of something like this, I think that's also something that's important.
Arnovitz: You grew up in Switzerland as a Swiss citizen. Your father is of South African descent. Your mother is Swiss. Seventeen-year-old Thabo in Switzerland, walking down the street, looking the way you looked that night, hooded sweatshirt. When you encountered police on the streets in Switzerland, was it a source of reassurance? A source of anxiety? What was that experience like as a young guy growing up there?
Sefolosha: As a young black male in Switzerland, I was perfectly comfortable with the police and with life in Switzerland. You see the police, it's for good reason. The problems are very different than the ones in the U.S. So for me, it's never been something that brings anxiety or nervousness. I never felt like [I was] being profiled. I'm not saying I did feel this way in the U.S. before [the incident on April 8] ... As long as you respect the law there shouldn't be any problem.
Arnovitz: Has the incident changed the way you see America, as an immigrant?
Sefolosha: No, I cannot say that it did. I think I'll be better equipped to answer this once the legal matter is behind us and the recovery of my leg is something of the past. But what I can say is I don't think I had a naive eye on anything that was going on around the world. As a young man, I came to the U.S. nine years ago. There were things that I questioned, just as there were things that I questioned about Switzerland or South Africa. But at the same time, there are a lot of things that I like about the U.S. So that vision is still there. Maybe there are a few things on racial issues and police brutality that's in the media nowadays. It's a little bit closer to home now for me.
Arnovitz: Let's say a young European ballplayer of African descent is coming over to the States to play professionally. He calls you and wants your advice. Does he have anything to worry about off the floor? What would you tell him, and has that answer changed since the incident?
Sefolosha: No. I've always been someone who respects the law. So just like before I would say, do things according to the law. In that aspect, it wouldn't change. But there are a lot of things I could say as a veteran guy. There a lot of things I've seen and experienced and I could definitely share that -- about money, how to save your money and be smart with the decisions that you make. All the aspects of everyday life that change drastically when you become an NBA player.
Arnovitz: Your former teammate Reggie Jackson recently told Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press, "I think a lot of people fear black males, so it's scary. I'm not gonna lie, it's kinda unfair at times as a black male." What's your impression of what he said?
Sefolosha: That's his vision, but I think there's some truth. Coming from a different country, I have this view that's probably different than a lot of people who are from the U.S. and have been in the U.S. their whole life. Coming to the U.S., you see a lot of marginalization, maybe, and stigma being portrayed about black people. This is something that is real, you know, to me, at least with the background I have. It's something I see as being real, being portrayed in the media and I think that probably fuels or adds to the gap between races or between lower-income or higher-income.
Arnovitz: Do I hear you saying that, in some sense, this incident made you more American?
Sefolosha: Not really, but I think it definitely made me understand a lot better what some people are talking about and going through. When you come to the U.S. with an NBA contract, you're not just in the mix. You're a pro athlete and sometimes put on a pedestal in the community. So I think that definitely brought me closer probably to what a lot of people go through.
Arnovitz: Were you at all surprised, given the prominence of the issue right now and given NBA players' recent willingness to express themselves more in societal issues that your situation wasn't more of a cause? That there weren't, say, No. 25 insignias or your initials on stitched onto warmups?
Sefolosha: I had some of my teammates asking me what they could do about it. We spoke with the team also, as it was right before the playoffs. And it was decided that we weren't going to make a big splash out of it because the focus was on the playoffs. I didn't want to be in any kind of way a distraction to the team. The focus had to be on the guys who were playing and winning.
But at the same time, I think it's an issue all of us in the U.S. are affected by. So I think me being an NBA player and being able to have a platform like this one today, it's definitely something that is important to touch on. For me being able to share a little bit of my story I think is something that can help in some way, maybe to have a better understanding of what is going on. I don't want to be the face of any movement or anything like this, but I think at the same time, it's a responsibility that I have to speak about what happened to me.
Arnovitz: What are some things we, as a country, can do about this?
Sefolosha: It's a big question and I don't know if I'm the guy to answer it. All I can say, regardless of my case, which I think is in a different category than the ones that we've seen on TV. I don't want to compare what happened to me to people losing their lives. That's not what I'm here for, to cry out loud about what happened to me. But I think to touch on a subject that's important, and it's a real issue right now in the U.S.
One thing I want to say is I was in New York with my wife, we got caught in the middle of the protests for Eric Garner. And I got out of the car and took a picture and posted it on my Twitter, supporting the movement. I think it's a healthy thing when people can protest and say they disagree with something, as long as it's done in a peaceful way. I thought it was a great act and I just was supportive of it. Actually, #Icouldbenext. That was in December of 2014. Again, it can happen to anybody. Everyone should be aware of what's going on and we should find solutions together.