The NBA Finals may be determined by an act of police violence. This is an incendiary fact, yet a curious media silence surrounds the saga of injured Atlanta Hawks guard Thabo Sefolosha. The nine-year pro has been absent from the playoffs after a group of New York Police Department officers broke his leg in April following a late-night confrontation outside a Chelsea nightclub. The police accounts about what took place conflict dramatically, with video that emerged of a group of officers surrounding Sefolosha, with one brandishing a nightstick. Sefolosha, with assistance from the National Basketball Players Association, is planning a lawsuit against the City of New York. How this is not a continual firestorm is, frankly, bewildering. Given that there is a national movement confronting racialized police violence, and given that last winter saw the most prominent players in the NBA—LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose, even Kobe Bryant—speaking out in solidarity with this movement, it seems like a story too magnetic to ignore. It’s also unprecedented. My first editor told me, “The sun going up is beautiful, but it’s not a story. The sun not coming up, now, that’s a story.” This is the sun not coming up. It’s a narrative that would appear ripe for big-budget investigative reporting, regular updates, or even chatter. It would especially seem tailor-made for an era in sports media when everything is numbingly over-discussed; an era when Tom Brady’s vigorously rubbed footballs or the presence of adorable children at NBA press conferences qualifies as subjects of endless debate. But somehow it’s not.
Now, as the Hawks square off against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals, this story should be re-emerging with a vengeance, and not only because Sefolosha is the only Hawk with deep playoff experience, as well as an effective defender of Cavs’ all-world superstar LeBron James. In game one, Hawks guard Demarre Carroll, their top playoff scorer and chief defender of James, went down with a knee injury. This has elevated Sefolosha’s absence from nettlesome to near-cataclysmic. Now, without Carroll or Sefolosha, the Hawks might as well assign a matador to guard James with a red cape. (Carroll’s situation, which initially looked gruesome, is officially day-to-day at this point, and he should be back later in the playoffs, although how effective he’ll be with a hyper-extended knee is anyone’s guess.)
Yet Carroll’s injury did not provoke a re-examination of what happened to Sefolosha. This near-silence has been across the sports media landscape, so it feels churlish to pick on one example, but it was both too high-profile and too evocative to ignore. On Thursday morning, Mike Greenberg, hosting ESPN’s national Mike and Mike radio show, talked about how the Hawks could possibly be able to guard LeBron without Carroll, and mentioned Thabo’s absence as well. In describing for his audience why Thabo isn’t playing, all Mike Greenberg said was, “We all know what happened there.” That was it. No mention of the NYPD, the conflicting stories, or the fact that NBA players have gone out of their way to speak about police mistreatment. Just “We all know what happened there.” Actually, we don’t all know what happened there, and that’s the point. Instead of retelling or even illuminating what we know, this line was dead on arrival. And yet “we all know what happened there” were six words more than most sports media offered this past week. Even the notably outspoken TNT team of Ernie Johnson, Kenny Smith, Shaquille O’Neal, and Charles Barkley had nothing to say about it on Inside the NBA, broadcast immediately after the Hawks lost to Cleveland and in the aftermath of Carroll’s injury. Yes, given Shaq’s history as a volunteer police officer and Barkley’s own comments about the Black Lives Matter movement, it might not have exactly been a rousing call for social justice, but to not even mention it was bizarre. Even Marv Albert discussed Sefolosha briefly during the broadcast. But to the TNT studio team, he was the invisible man.