There are days when things seem normal for Thabo Sefolosha, and there are others when he is apprehensive after an altercation with New York City police outside a nightclub in April left him with a broken right leg and ligament damage.
The well-publicized incident cost the Hawks swingman the remainder of last season, and he responded by rejecting a plea deal from the city and pursuing a trial, in which he was found not guilty of three misdemeanor charges, including resisting arrest. He then decided to sue the city.
“It was a tough decision,” he said. “At the same time, with what I believe in, I thought it was the right decision. I had to stick to my principles in life more than anything.”
Sefolosha, the first NBA player from Switzerland, found himself a central figure in the fight against police brutality. What was supposed to be just another outing following a late-night arrival in a city turned into an altercation with police that made national headlines.
Sefolosha is nearing full health, having played in seven of the Hawks’ first 10 games, following surgery to repair a broken tibia and ligament damage. And while he is trying to regain normalcy after being a largely anonymous player during his first eight NBA seasons, Sefolosha understands he has gained notoriety for something that has nothing to do with basketball. He also understands that basketball could have been taken away from him on that night in Manhattan.
“It’s a reality that I was faced with the whole time,” Sefolosha said. “With the help of family and friends, it’s been easier to face that reality, but at the same time, of course, you love playing basketball and you’re not ready to put it behind you, but at the same time you might be forced to. It’s a very difficult situation.”
The Hawks arrived in New York in the early morning of April 8 for a game against the Nets that night. Sefolosha and teammate Pero Antic were outside the 1 Oak club in Manhattan when they got into a dispute with police, minutes after the stabbing there of Pacers player Chris Copeland, whose team was in New York to play the Knicks.
Video footage showed that police hit Sefolosha with their batons, and he and Antic were arrested after being restrained. Sefolosha was diagnosed with a broken tibia and was forced the miss the Hawks’ playoff run. He and Antic were charged with three misdemeanors, although the charges against Antic were dropped before a trial.
The case of Sefolosha, who is black, received more attention because of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“In a way, I don’t want to be in the middle of [the controversy],” Sefolosha said. “I speak for what happened to me. But at the same time there is a bigger picture out there and there are some situations with police brutality. It’s good just to keep the conversation open and for people to talk about those issues.”
Sefolosha returned to New York for the trial, and again with the Hawks this month when they played the Knicks. He said he has been contacted by many fellow NBA players, as well as others who have offered support. One was film director and activist Spike Lee.
“It was cool to talk to him, especially in the city of New York where he has shown support of the Knicks for years,” Sefolosha said. “I know he had some movies in the past where he took a stand and made a point, so that was pretty cool.”
When asked if the incident changed him, Sefolosha said, “Not a different person. But when you play basketball, you’re so caught up into what you’re doing and into that life.
“I’m a little bit more relaxed now because the world is so much better than basketball. What we do as basketball players can influence a lot of young people, and the fact we have the spotlight to speak on things we believe in, we can support good causes by the things we do just by being visible.”
The incident showed that NBA players are not above and beyond real-life occurrences.
“We can live in a bubble in a way,” Sefolosha said. “We travel with charter planes and [stay] in five-star hotels, and we go to restaurants. You don’t see the big picture of how lucky we are, even though we don’t take it for granted because we work hard at what we do. We make sacrifices and work really hard, but at the same time it’s a big world. We have to stand for what we believe in.”
Sefolosha is back doing what he loves, but after suffering a serious leg injury, he’s apprehensive. He’s 31 and his NBA mortality has been challenged.
“To this day I’m still battling with that in a way, because I don’t know how I’m going to feel two months from now, or I think I’m taking the proper steps [to get better],” he said. “I think I was focusing on getting back so much that I didn’t have time to focus on what if. It’s a process every day.”
Beal, Wizards aim for long run
The Wizards did not sign Bradley Beal to a long-term contract extension, something that seemed a certainty as he approached eligibility for a new deal. The Wizards put Beal on hold while they intend to pursue premium free agents, such as Kevin Durant, and told him they will sign him as a restricted free agent.
It’s now Beal’s responsibility to establish himself as a standout player as part of one of the most talented backcourt tandems in the NBA with John Wall. Despite early nagging injuries, Beal is averaging 22.7 points and shooting 47.1 percent from the 3-point line through six games.
Beal is only 22, meaning he is likely to garner at least two mega-contracts in his career. His concern now, however, is helping to take the Wizards to the next level after they reached the Eastern Conference semifinals last season.
“We know what our goals are,” Beal said. “We know what’s expected of us and we know we’re a targeted team. We’re not a low-tier team. We’re an elite team and people are going to come after us.
“We have the mind-set we’re a playoff team, but at the same time we set goals that we want to get far in the playoffs. We just don’t want to get to the second round like we did the last two years.”
The Wizards may be on the hot seat. Coach Randy Wittman has never been beloved in Washington, while players such as Nene, Kris Humphries, and Jared Dudley are trying to make the best out of the final year of their contracts. The Wizards have seven players 30 or over, and two age 29. This is their time, unless they are able to reboot by signing Durant next summer.
“I think our focus is the best that it’s been since I’ve been here,” Beal said. “It’s only getting better. No matter what other teams may run or what their offenses or defenses may have, we feel like we’re going to beat them.
“We feel like we’re the best team. We’re going to continue to do that. We don’t worry about what other teams do.”
Beal is close with Celtics forward David Lee, a fellow St. Louis native who also played at the University of Florida.
“That’s my boy, he took me under his wing when I was a young pup,” Beal said. “We went to the same high school, same college, and got the same agent. So it’s kind of like a lineage.
“He’s terrific, I’m happy for him. I’m happy that he’s in a great situation and he won a championship last year, and his success has been tremendous.
“He’s like a huge mentor. He’s been in the league for a long time. He’s a great person off the floor. He’s in a great situation where he can lead this young team to victory and lead them in a lot of categories and just be the vet that they need him to be.”
Powe’s career brief, rewarding
Leon Powe knew his NBA career wouldn’t last long. He already had endured two knee surgeries before he was drafted in 2006. His career lasted 239 games, and he won a championship with the Celtics in 2008.
It was a rewarding run for Powe, considering he came from homelessness and despair to reach the NBA. His name surfaced this past week when the Grizzlies, the last team Powe played for, in 2010-11, renounced his rights to facilitate a deal to acquire Mario Chalmers and James Ennis from the Heat.
Renouncing retired players is common for teams that are below the salary cap.
Retired players occupy cap holds, just in case they decide to return. Some of those cap holds exist for years, such as more than a decade for Grant Long, who finished his career in Boston and whose rights were renounced last summer to allow Boston to sign Amir Johnson and Jonas Jerebko.
Powe is 31 and now works in community relations for the Celtics. He was unaware of the renouncement until told by Celtics assistant coach Jay Larranaga. The move allowed Lowe to reflect on his playing days.
After the 2010-11 season with the Grizzlies, Powe had every intention of playing the next season. Then came the lockout. The work stoppage robbed players who needed injury rehabilitation of using NBA facilities.
“My leg just wasn’t feel--ing right,” he said. “I tried to play a little bit more but it wasn’t feeling right. After the lockout, I didn’t get the proper treatment I needed.
“It just didn’t feel back [to normal] and I didn’t want to have no more surgeries. I’ve got a young son. I wanted to be able to walk. I already had five surgeries on one knee and I didn’t want to have no more, just to get back there and try to play again.”
Powe was considered a can’t-miss first-round pick before he blew out his left knee before his sophomore year at Cal. After that, he was considered a player who couldn’t overcome his injuries.
Powe knew he likely wouldn’t last 10 years on his surgically repaired knees, but the decision to retire at 28 still was difficult.
“It was a tough decision,” he said. “Everybody was put on Earth for a reason, and I was put on Earth to help people and do the best of my abilities, which I did that.
“It’s unfortunate I had some injuries that a lot of players go through. But I had three or four major ones on the same knee, so I figured it might have been that time where my knee was like, ‘You know what? It’s just not happening this time.’ All the other times I came back, but that time it felt kind of different.”
Powe can still play occasionally. The left knee doesn’t cause him much discomfort, but if he were to try to practice for a few hours, “my leg just can’t sustain it for a whole practice or whole game. Once you don’t have control over your knee, you can blow it.
“I probably needed some more NBA trainers to work out [during the lockout], and I just didn’t get the stuff that I needed. When you’re out there, you don’t want to be out there with your teammates at 40, 50 percent.”
So for Powe, those 239 NBA games meant a lot.
“It was a good thing I was able to play as long as I did,” he said. “I knew my knee could give out at any time. That’s what I had to take measures and do stuff that was preventative stuff every game. I did that well.
“We had playoff runs. We were playing deep into seasons. I was getting minutes. Doc [Rivers] was using me more, so all of the stuff added up, especially on a championship run. And then the year after that we made another good run, and that’s when [another knee injury] happened.”
Powe injured his knee in Game 2 of the first-round series against the Bulls in 2009. He signed with the Cavaliers a few months later, but Powe remains popular in Boston because of his contributions to the 2007-08 title team.
“You play the game to win the championship, win as many championships as you can,” he said. “You want to get to the best of the best, and I can say I was at the best of the best. I played with the best and I played the final game and actually came out of the final game the winner.”
Lottery picks predictably are making the biggest impact among this year’s rookie class. Jahlil Okafor is averaging 20.6 points and 6.9 rebounds for the lowly 76ers. Scouts wondered whether Okafor’s post game would translate to the NBA, but he has had no trouble scoring in the post, using an array of moves. Meanwhile, the Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns posted five double-doubles in his first seven games, and has become a force inside, helped by tutoring from Kevin Garnett . . . Speaking of Garnett, his minutes this season have been, as expected, about 15 per game, and he attempted just 18 shots in his first six games, hitting six. Despite the limited playing time, Garnett is second to Towns on the Timberwolves in rebounding, and he leads in defensive rating . . . One of the more disappointing teams has been the Rockets, who lost four of their first eight games, including three defeats of at least 20 points and a home loss to winless Brooklyn. The problem is defense. The Rockets are allowing an alarming 108 points per game, and opponents are shooting 48 percent. The Rockets are a much better defensive team with Dwight Howard, but he missed five of the first eight games to rest his back and surgically repaired knee. The problem is the Rockets have a bunch of offensive-minded players who don’t defend. The next-best defensive player to Howard is Trevor Ariza, whose defense has slipped in recent years. James Harden and Ty Lawson are not good backcourt defenders, placing even more pressure on Howard and backup Clint Capela . . . Former Celtic Glen Davis has signed a contract to be a commentator for the SEC Network.
Karl-Anthony Towns has the Minnesota Timberwolves playing well early in the season. He is aiming to become the 13th No. 1 overall pick to help the team that drafted him reach the playoffs as a rookie since 1970, when the league expanded to 14 teams.
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.