UCLA faces the embarrassing prospect of opening its season without three freshman players who have been benched after being released on bail following an alleged shoplifting incident in China.
LiAngelo Ball, Cody Riley and Jalen Hill will not play when the Bruins open the season against Georgia Tech at 11:30 p.m. Eastern time Friday in Shanghai, their coach announced Wednesday. ESPN, which will carry the game, first reported the news.
Details surrounding the arrests remain unclear, but Coach Steve Alford announced that he would not be using the players. “The university came out with a statement, so I won’t have any further comment on this other than in answering that question — those individuals won’t play on Saturday,” Alford said (via the Associated Press). In a statement, the university said it was cooperating fully with the investigation.
A State Department official told The Washington Post in an email that it is “aware of reports of three U.S. citizens arrested in China and subsequently released on bail in China. We stand ready to provide appropriate consular assistance for U.S. citizens. Due to privacy considerations, we have no further comment.”
ESPN, citing an unnamed source, reported that police came to the team hotel in the city of Hangzhou early Tuesday morning to apprehend the student-athletes, who were reportedly not allowed to speak to coaches. They have reportedly been accused of stealing sunglasses from a Louis Vuitton store next to the hotel.
“They weren’t messing around,” the source told ESPN. “The kids were scared.”
Ball is the son of outspoken basketball dad and nascent shoe-company magnate LaVar Ball, who is in China with his wife, Tina, and their youngest son, LaMelo. The patriarch, whose oldest son, Lonzo, is a rookie with the Los Angeles Lakers, reportedly planned to hold a news conference in his Shanghai hotel room Wednesday morning, but was advised not to speak “due to the legal nature of the matter.”
“I’m going to wait until I get more intel on what’s going on,” he said via ESPN, adding that he wasn’t worried. “He’ll be fine. Everyone’s making it a big deal. It ain’t that big a deal.”
LiAngelo Ball and his teammates could face as many as three-to-10 years in prison, according to a Yahoo report. Washington Post correspondent Simon Denyer reports from Beijing that someone who takes goods worth between 1,000 yuan ($150) and 2,500 yuan ($380), for example, could face a maximum sentence of six months, but might escape with only a fine. Stealing anything worth more than that would be punished with jail time. Someone convicted of stealing goods worth between 7,000 ($1,050) and 10,000 yuan ($1,510) would face between two and three years in jail under Chinese law. Theft of something worth 2,500 yuan to 4,000 yuan could result in a sentence of 6 months to one year and 4,000 yuan to 7,000 yuan, one to two years. ESPN reports that the players will not be allowed to leave their hotel in Hangzhou until the legal process is over.
“I would say they could be in quite a bit of trouble if they have solid proof that they shoplifted,” Amnesty International’s William Nee, an expert on the Chinese court system, told Yahoo Sports. “However, part of it will depend on whether their lawyers, the university, or the U.S. consulate can advocate and negotiate on their behalf.”
The Bruins arrived in Shanghai on Sunday evening for a week-long trip for the Pac-12 China Game. Georgia Tech officials said some of their players were also questioned at the Hangzhou hotel Tuesday but were later determined to be “not involved in the activities being investigated,” the school said in a statement to the network.
According to an itinerary posted on the Bruins’ website, the team spent Monday in Hangzhou, where they visited the campus of the Alibaba Group, the world’s largest retail commerce group, which is often compared to Amazon. Tuesday’s activities appeared to be largely taken up by practice and travel. The team was scheduled to return to Shanghai on Wednesday, holding a practice and visiting a Disney resort that day.
“We’ve got six freshmen here — it’s a younger group — so it’s just a matter of getting our guys on the plane, guys to the bus and then into that hotel room,” Alford said ahead of the trip. “It’s a long journey between the flight and a three-hour bus trip. We want our guys to take this all in. Each evening, we’ll talk about what we’ve seen . . . I really want our guys to be able to grasp the educational part of this trip.”
Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott said in a statement, “We are very disappointed by any situation that detracts from the positive student-athlete educational and cultural experience that this week is about. Whether in the United States or abroad, we expect our student-athletes to uphold the highest standards. We will continue to closely monitor the situation.”
LiAngelo Ball debuted for UCLA on Nov. 1 during a preseason game against Cal State-Los Angeles, against whom he scored 11 points in the Bruins’ 111-80 win. Riley had 8 points in 18 minutes. Hill did not play.