The NBA versus the NYPD: How a tragic nightclub incident could impact the NBA Playoffs

Thabo Sefolosha limping out of the 10th Precinct. Photo by Daily News.

Thabo Sefolosha limping out of the 10th Precinct. Photo by Daily News.

Article by Janos.nyc guest writer, Crispus Knight.

This might just be the craziest NBA story of the year.

On the night of April 7th into the early hours of April 8th, Chris Copeland, an NBA journeyman currently on the roster of the Indiana Pacers, was out in Manhattan with a close female friend. They visited the popular nightclub 1 Oak, located on West 17th street in Chelsea, staying just briefly before heading back towards their car which had been parked a short distance from the club. The Pacers were set the play the New York Knicks the next evening and Copeland had to be at the team shootaround at 11am the following morning. But by the end of the night, Copeland would be receiving treatment in the Bellevue intensive care unit and two more NBA players from the Atlanta Hawks would be spending the night in police custody, one with a badly injured leg requiring surgery. Neither Hawks player would appear in their scheduled game against the Brooklyn Nets the following night.

Sometime after the events, Chris Copeland issued a statement apologizing for his decision to be out so late on a game night. “…I also want to apologize to everyone, particularly the NBA and the Pacers for my bad choice at being out at that time.”

Copeland, who by all accounts is a grown-ass man fully capable of managing his free time and still fulfilling his work and contractual obligations, would not have been forced into this apology if not for the string of events that occurred shortly after he exited 1 Oak sometime between 3am and 4am. According to the police report, Copeland and his companion, Katrine Saltara, were approached by an unknown male and an argument broke out. Although the origin and content of the argument is not fully known, at some point this individual, later identified as Shevoy Bleary-Murdock, stabbed Copeland in the abdomen and elbow and slashed Saltara. Another woman, allegedly an associate of the attacker, was also injured by the knife during the altercation.

Pero Antic: NBA Center or Bond villain?

Pero Antic: NBA Center or Bond villain?

Meanwhile, inside the club, two teammates from the Atlanta Hawks, Pero Antic and Thabo Sefolosha, were celebrating an earlier home victory against the Phoenix Suns with bottle service and probably getting plenty of attention from club goers. They were scheduled to play the Brooklyn Nets the following day and as is often the case for visiting teams to New York City (playing either the hapless Knicks or the dysfunctional Nets) they were probably not too concerned with a bit of partying before a relatively stress free game the following day. It should be said that 1 Oak is known for its popularity among celebrities and sports icons and so it is not so surprising that visiting NBA players would be there the night before a game. Antic and Sefolosha knew Chris Copeland but claimed they were not with him that night, didn’t know he was at the club, and were in no way involved in the stabbing and slashings.

“We don’t have nothing to do with what happened with that,” said Antic after the incident. “We weren’t together. We didn’t even see the guy and whatever happened, happened way before.”

In released statements, the club has maintained that the stabbing incident occurred in front of the Fulton Houses – a housing project down the street from the club near to where Copeland had parked, and out of view of the club’s security. A driver was waiting for Copeland to return (proving that not all sports stars fail to use designated drivers while drinking) and a spokesman for 1 Oak further indicated that after the attack, Copeland’s driver detained the attacker as Copeland and his companion made their way back to the club to seek help. Video of Copeland collapsed and leaning against a building next door to 1 Oak and photographs showing blood residue on the street would appear consistent with the club’s claim.

At some point after the attack it seems that Antic and Sefolosha became aware of the situation – either they were themselves leaving the club and saw the commotion outside or someone else alerted them to the fact that an NBA player had been injured. They exited the club but remained at the location and were present when NYPD officers began to establish a crime scene to gain control of the situation. It is unclear at this time what exactly Antic and Sefolosha were doing or hoping to accomplish by remaining at the scene. It has been speculated that they might have been attempting to prevent photographs from being taken of Copeland or perhaps, they merely wanted to provide support to Copeland while help was being rendered. The NBA is a kind of fraternity, which explains in my eyes why players from a different ball club would attempt to aide Copeland in a time of duress. In any case, the situation escalated when responding officers arrived on the scene.

Here’s where reports start to diverge. The NYPD claims that officers asked Antic and Sefolosha to clear the area six times and the two failed to comply, only moving a few feet away from Copeland when asked. The police report states that Sefolosha then charged officers in an “aggressive manner”, leading directly to his arrest. As he was apprehended, the report further claims that Sefolosha flailed his arms, twisted his body, kicked his legs, and struggled against the arresting officers. Four officers were needed to finally place Sefolosha in handcuffs. Antic, a 6’11 beast of a man from Macedonia, allegedly grabbed one of the officers attempting to arrest Sefolosha, prompting his own arrest.

However, unconfirmed sources have claimed that Sefolosha and Antic were not in the immediate vicinity of the crime scene at the time of their arrest but were instead more than 100 feet away, which is corroborated by video evidence showing their location. Witness statements to the media contest the officers’ version of events, with one source even claiming the situation was escalated by an individual police officer who pursued Sefolosha and Antic as they left the scene.

NYPD establish a crime scene outside of Meatpacking club.

NYPD establish a crime scene outside of Meatpacking club.

Additionally, there are at least two videos captured by cell phones showing part of the confrontation. The first video shows Sefolosha being wrestled to ground with what looks like a headlock. The second video is even more telling and shows the arrest from a different angle with at least one officer clearly deploying a police baton, though it’s unclear if the baton ever made contact with Sefolosha. Sefolosha is pulled in multiple directions by about a half dozen officers who look more like little children arguing and fighting over the possession of a toy rather than cops performing an arrest. Sefolosha does not appear to be flailing his arms, twisting his body, kicking or struggling with the officers. Meanwhile, Pero Antic sits on the sidewalk surrounded by officers and there is no sign that he grabs anyone or takes any menacing actions – acting “menacing” is one of the charges Pero Antic is facing.

Whatever actually happened, Sefolosha’s tibia was broken in the struggle and he suffered ligament damage around the bone as well. He’s been ruled out for the entire playoffs.

The tibia is your shinbone and is indispensable in the use of your legs, obviously crucial for Sefolosha’s line of work. We don’t know yet how badly his tibia was damaged – whether this was a bad fracture or a full on break. It could have been caused by stress and pressure, perhaps when a police boot descended on his taut leg suspended over a curb, or by a well placed baton strike – it’s all speculation at this point. It’s possible that the break could have been caused by his body being twisted in different directions during the arrest and was inadvertent. In any event, both Sefolosha and Antic spent the night at NYPD’s 10th precinct. Sefolosha, interestingly enough, did not receive medical attention until after he had seen a judge the following morning. It is unclear whether he declined medical treatment at the time, or was not provided with it after his intake.

In the aftermath of the attack a few things are known for sure. An NBA player and two others were injured in a knife attack outside of a popular New York City night club. The alleged assailant was arrested at the scene and charged with felony assault and criminal possession of a weapon. Two other NBA players are facing three misdemeanor charges each, related to obstruction and resisting arrest. The NYPD has authorized the Internal Affairs Bureau to conduct an internal review of the arrest – they requested to interview Sefolosha but he declined, stating that all communication would be done through his lawyers. The NBA players union has launched its own independent review of the incident and may recommend legal action depending on what they find. And perhaps the most interesting and coincidental piece of this whole story is that the Atlanta Hawks will be returning to New York City to take on the Brooklyn Nets in the first round of the NBA playoffs. The first game of the series will be played on Sunday afternoon in Atlanta without Sefolosha, who will miss the entire playoffs due to the injuries he sustained during the altercation. In other words, it’s a gigantic shitshow.

____________________________________

Police Tactics and the Need for Body Cameras

A friend of mine (yes, Janos Marton) recently put it quite succinctly when he said something to the effect of: “this story is one of the strangest intersections I can remember of three of my primary interests: New York City, police brutality, and basketball.”

The past year has seen numerous national news stories involving the use of excessive force and institutionalized racism that appears rampant in police departments across the country, with the Eric Garner incident involving the NYPD being among the most high profile. Illegal chokeholds, stop and frisk tactics, arrest quotas, racial profiling – the list of alleged misdeeds goes on and on. That Sefolosha, who is black, was seriously injured during his arrest, while his teammate, Pero Antic, a caucasian, was not, adds credence to the notion that the police have a natural bias towards people of color. Is it a coincidence that the black NBA player, a much smaller man than his teammate, was injured in the scuffle and aggressively arrested while Antic sits calmly on the sidewalk surrounded by officers?

While the facts have yet to be proved conclusively, many critics of the NYPD believe this case might represent a prime example of the police rewriting the facts of an incident in police reports to justify their actions at the scene. It’s similar to what we saw following the shooting in South Carolina of Walter Scott – initial media reports and police statements are often taken as the gospel truth, even when they may be contradictory to witness statements or the word of the accused. This would not be the first time that an official NYPD police report conflicts with witness and video evidence. Resisting arrest seems to be a common charge to justify the detainment and arrest of individuals who have committed no crime other than seriously pissing off the police. The NYPD might be able to get away with falsifying a police report to justify an arrest with a less public figure but those in NBA circles are in disbelief at the official version of events as “charging” an officer seems so out of character for Sefolosha, who has never been in a violent incident in the league.

At what point do we stop taking the word of police officers at face value when they clearly have a vested interest in covering their own asses? Even Ray Kelly has now come out in support of body cameras on all officers in the wake of the Walter Scott shooting. Cameras won’t end institutionalized racism or stop the use of excessive force overnight but they will at least make it easier to hold offending officers accountable after the fact. Surely the cost of body cameras for the NYPD doesn’t outweight the amount of damages they routinely have to pay to victims of brutality who are able to successfully sue the city. It’s an idea at least worth trying.

In the aftermath of the incident, it seems likely that Sefolosha’s camp will file a complaint against the arresting officers and the city. A civil suit may be forthcoming. The NYPD will conduct an extensive review of the arrest in this case. Based on what I’ve seen so far, I doubt the prosecutor’s office will pursue all of the charges against Antic and Sefolosha (perhaps allowing them to plead down to a lesser offense) and some of the arresting officers may receive some internal discipline, but will likely not lose their jobs. The City would be wise to settle this one quickly to prevent additional details from being released that would show the NYPD in a negative light. The ultimate cost of this whole incident will be a huge burden for New York taxpayers.

_______________________________

A Thabo-less Atlanta Hawks

It’s fitting that the Hawks will play the Brooklyn Nets in the first round of the NBA playoffs, after all, playing the Nets is what brought Antic and Sefolosha into contact with the NYPD in the first place. Atlanta will play at least two games against the Nets at Barclays Arena in Downtown Brooklyn, during which the New York and national media will likely eat up this storyline and bombard players on both sides with questions about alleged police brutality – tough questions to answer when their focus should be solely on winning these ultra competitive playoff games. But perhaps the most difficult question to answer will be whether this bizarre and unfortunate incident will have any effect on Atlanta’s playoff hopes.

The Atlanta Hawks have been one of the best basketball stories of 2014/15. They finished the year 60-22, which represents the franchise’s best season ever in terms of win totals and winning percentage. This year is their best chance for an NBA title since the franchise moved from St. Louis to Atlanta in 1968 (the St. Louis Hawks won the Championship in 1958 – their only title). They sent four players to the 2015 All-Star game in New York (Jeff Teague, Al Horford, Paul Millsap and Kyle Korver) and their leader, Mike Budenholzer, coached the All-Star game and has been a top contender for coach of the year throughout most of the season. Many analysts and writers believe that the Hawks are the only team standing in the way of Lebron James reaching an incredible fifth finals appearance in a row.

But lately the Hawks have struggled and this has partially been by design. In March and April the Hawks posted a 13-8 record which includes losses against Philadelphia, Detroit, Denver, and Charlotte – not exactly juggernauts of the National Basketball Association. Their up and down record can largely be attributed to coach Budenholzer’s willingness to rest his starters down the stretch (in back to back situations especially) in an effort to keep them fresh and injury free for the playoffs – a tactic he seems to have picked up from his mentor, Gregg Popovich. Atlanta relies heavily on its starters and when they are on the court they are among the most formidable lineups in the league. Coach Bud was smart to keep them fresh by strategically resting them down the stretch but as a result, the Hawks don’t have much momentum heading into the playoffs and now, given the distracting events of April 8th and the season ending injury to Thabo Sefolosha, the Hawks may find themselves in more trouble than they anticipated.

Thabo can guard elite wings like Lebron James. Photo by Hoops Habit, last season.

Thabo can guard elite wings like Lebron James. Photo by Hoops Habit, last season.

Thabo Sefolosha is a key component of Atlanta’s bench. He’s probably their best perimeter defender after Demarre Carroll, who he backs up for long stretches. There is also the added bonus of having him as a locker room and floor leader as the only member of the team to have previously reached the NBA Finals. I wouldn’t quite call Sefolosha an “elite” perimeter defender at this point in his career but he is still very, very good and can potentially stifle the opposing team’s best bench scoring threat and guard elite perimeter players such as Chicago’s Jimmy Butler and Cleveland’s Lebron James for stretches of the game.

In games without Sefolosha this year the Hawks are 17-13, not exactly representative of the excellent season they had. It’s true that some of the losses came down the stretch when Atlanta was resting other players but a case can be made that Sefolosha is a crucial piece of the second unit, which struggles to defend when he isn’t on the court. Atlanta’s strength is in the effectiveness of their starting unit – they’re top heavy – so any losses to rotational guys have a trickle down effect as they are forced to play lesser role-players like Kent Bazemore and Austin Daye additional minutes while Sefolosha is out. Neither fit into the Hawks system of ball movement and team defense as well as Sefolosha does, and advanced statistics bear out that Sefolosha is a significant upgrade as an individual and team defender over Bazemore.

That isn’t to say the Hawks can’t win without Sefolosha, but dispersing his minutes elsewhere will be a downgrade. Even still, losing Sefolosha should theoretically not impact the effectiveness of most of Atlanta’s lineups, given his offensive shortcomings, like his inability to create his own shot. He is competent from the corner three (as he was in his years with the Thunder) but his primary asset is that he can guard the other team’s best perimeter scorer for long stretches, preventing the opposing team from going on scoring runs when Atlanta’s starters rest. If Atlanta’s role players pick up the slack, commit fewer turnovers, improve their offensive efficiency and make the correct switches on defense while starters rest, the team should still be able to cruise to the conference finals.

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Media Distraction or Rallying Cry?

The psychological impact of the Copeland incident may actually outweigh any tangible on-the-court side effects. Remember the Donald Sterling incident during last year’s playoffs and how following their elimination, Clippers players and their coach, Doc Rivers, commented on how the scandal affected their ability to stay focused during and between games? Off the court distractions and their impact on players is often a storyline the media focuses on during high profile sports matchups and there are some studies out there backing the validity of this narrative. Mental fatigue is known to impact physical performance as Kyle Ott, B.S. & Marieke Van Puymbroeck pointed out in their study on the effect of media distractions on Athletic performance:

“Distractions evoke negative mood responses, detrimental arousal and anxiety levels, and stress, thus resulting in the consumption of mental energy. Mental energy is a vital element needed to be able to concentrate one’s attention and maintain a positive mental attitude. By concentrating effectively, an athlete can conserve physical energy by maintaining good technique and focus, executing skills properly, and pushing the body through pain and fatigue barriers. Time spent fretting over distractions drains mental energy so that performance suffers.”

Players on both teams, but especially the Hawks, will likely have to field a myriad of questions regarding the incident: whether they have spoken to Sefolosha, if he is traveling with the team, if the incident has been a distraction, if they feel the police acted with excessive force and so on. They will have to spend time preparing for the media question that they could have instead spent on X’s and O’s. Now, the Nets barely limped into the playoffs themselves and Atlanta should have no problem exploiting Brooklyn’s porous defense with their precise ball movement and inside/out game. I honestly don’t see the Wizards or Raptors putting up much of a struggle against them in the second round either. By the time the Hawks meet the Cleveland Cavaliers or Chicago Bulls in the conference finals, the public outcry over the event may have faded, allowing the Hawks to focus on the task at hand.

Whether the incident outside 1 Oak will have any real impact on the NBA playoffs will probably be impossible to determine without some sort of post-series psychotherapy analysis on the players. The players in question will either rise to the occasion or perhaps underperform due to the mental fatigue. There is already such a small margin for error in these matchups that is is conceivable that the Hawks will be unable to go as far into the playoffs as they could have with Sefolosha in the lineup.  It’s also entirely possible that the incident, instead of distracting the Hawks, inspires them to play even better. Only time will tell. It’s an unprecedented situation in the NBA, one in which the NYPD probably wishes it were not so intimately involved.

——

Crispus Knight is a writer and basketball fan from Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of Three for Ship: A Swan Song to Dartmouth Beer Pong.

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