They were tears six months in the making.
Thabo Sefolosha’s eyes welled as a jury found him not guilty of three misdemeanor charges in a New York City courtroom following a weeklong trial on Friday. The Hawks player was able to stand to hear the acquittal on a surgically repaired right leg severely injured during his arrest in April. The injury abruptly ended his season as the Hawks were making franchise history in a run to the Eastern Conference finals.
A day later, Sefolosha returned to the basketball court with his name cleared and eager to put the past behind him.
“It was a release,” Sefolosha said of the verdict after a team practice Saturday.
Sefolosha could have taken a plea bargain in the case but chose to go to trial to fight the charges.
“I don’t know what the (public) perception was,” Sefolosha said. “I know the people close to me (know) my version, the way I was telling the story, was the truth. That’s the people I rely on. They are my support system. They never doubted me. … It was emotional (when it was over).”
Sefolosha said he relied on his wife, children and mother for support during the difficult times. The frustration mounted as the Hawks finished the regular season with the best record in the conference and won two playoff series. The team could surely have used him during the conference finals loss to the Cavaliers. Even the basketball court, once he started to mend, was not a complete sanctuary.
“It was but at the same time it was so frustrating because you want to be on the court and take your mind off of it,” Sefolosha said. “I was not able to run and I know why I’m not able to run and it brings me right back to it. At the same time it was tough coming back. Even now, I’m not 100 percent and it kind of brings me back to it. It’s been tough but I try to move on.”
Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer and former teammate Pero Antic testified on Sefolosha’s behalf. Antic was also arrested in the early morning hours of April 8 outside a nightclub. The charges against him were later dropped. Antic was coincidentally in New York with his European team to play an exhibition game the night before the trial began.
Budenholzer said Sefolosha handled the trouble well but it was clear it weighed on him.
“At the end of the day you could see he had a lot on his mind,” Budenholzer said. “It’s something that was important to him and important to his family. Having said that, he did a very good job in (training) camp and the whole month of September and his rehab, focus, effort was very good.
“We are very supportive of Thabo. As an organization we are very proud of who Thabo is, what he stands for, his principles. He is a high-character person. For all that to play out and be confirmed in what we believe of Thabo. … You feel like this is what Thabo deserves. He’s a heck of a person and he deserves to have his name cleared.”
A civil suit against the New York City police department could come but Sefolosha insisted Saturday he has yet to make up his mind about more litigation. He said he has had enough of being in a courtroom and needs time to think about the next step for him and his family. He also said he is not sure how much of an activist he will be concerning police brutality cases.
“I haven’t made any decision but I think it’s an important cause,” Sefolosha sai. “If my story can put some light on something bigger it’s great and I hope it brings some change. But I haven’t made any decisions on being an activist.”
Sefolosha has been cleared for all basketball activities and participated in much of training camp before having to leave for the weeklong trial. Budenholzer said he could make his return to game action on Wednesday. It would be his first game since April 7, the day before the incident and arrest.
It will be playing time six months in the making.