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President Trump reminds UCLA basketball players of life’s ‘pitfalls’ upon return from China

Three UCLA basketball players were arrested Nov. 7 in Hangzhou, China, on suspicion of shoplifting. (Video: Victoria Walker/The Washington Post)

LOS ANGELES — President Trump reached out Thursday morning to the three UCLA players whose arrest on shoplifting charges in China created an international incident, tweeting at them to “HAVE A GREAT LIFE!” and admonishing them that “there are many pitfalls on the long and winding road of life!”

Freshmen LiAngelo Ball, Cody Riley and Jalen Hall were suspended indefinitely Wednesday from the Bruins men’s basketball team after their arrest created a stir that involved Trump and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping. In his tweets Thursday, Trump added that the three should “give a big Thank You to President Xi Jinping, who made your release possible.”

UCLA Coach Steve Alford announced the suspension Wednesday at what the school billed as a news conference, but in reality was a series of statements from all three players, as well as Alford and Athletic Director Dan Guerrero. None of the five took questions from the more than 50 reporters in attendance at Pauley Pavilion, where the Bruins were set to host Central Arkansas that evening.

Alford said the three players will not participate in workouts or practices, will not travel with the team and will not dress for home games during the suspension, which is indefinite because the school is going through its legal process with the three students.

“These men are going to have to prove, through their words and actions, that this isn’t who they are, and that they will not let their identity be defined by this incident,” Alford said. “I know [LiAngelo], Cody and Jalen well, and I am confident they have already begun to use this experience as a life lesson. They are going to have to regain the trust of this athletic department, of this university, and because this was such a high-profile international matter, that of the general public. … My expectation is they will work hard to demonstrate why they deserve to be part of this program.”

All three gave short, similar statements expressing remorse. All three admitted to stealing from the stores, and made a commitment to trying to make things right. They did not elaborate on what was stolen, though it had been previously reported that one of the items was a pair of sunglasses from a Louis Vuitton store.

“I’d like to start off by saying sorry for stealing from the stores in China,” said Ball, the younger brother of Los Angeles Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball. “I didn’t exercise my best judgment, and I was wrong for that.”

In addition, all three players — as well as Alford and Guerrero — personally thanked Trump for his support and help in bringing the players home. As The Washington Post reported Monday, Trump personally appealed to Xi to intervene on the players’ behalf during the U.S. president’s two-day state visit to Beijing last week. Wednesday morning, before the news conference at UCLA, Trump tweeted: “Do you think the three UCLA Basketball Players will say thank you President Trump? They were headed for 10 years in jail!”

Guerrero also thanked Trump’s chief of staff, John F. Kelly, for personally calling the three players while they were in China to check on them.

For their part, the Chinese government wasn’t eager to say that Xi had followed through on Trump’s request to intervene.

“I am not aware of the details, but I believe the Chinese police would have handled the case in strict accordance with the law,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said at a news conference Wednesday, when asked if Xi had intervened.

Guerrero laid out a timeline of events on Wednesday, officially spelling out what happened for the first time.

On Nov. 6, players and staff from UCLA and Georgia Tech — the Bruins’ opponent for a game Saturday in Shanghai — visited the campus of Alibaba, the e-commerce giant that sponsored the teams’ game and whose executive vice president, Joe Tsai, recently purchased 49 percent of the Brooklyn Nets, as well as the option to buy a controlling interest in the team. After the tour, Guerrero said the teams returned to their hotel, where players were allowed 90 minutes to explore the city.

During that time, Guerrero said, the three players went to three stores in the mall adjacent to the hotel and stole the items before returning to the hotel. The following morning, local police arrived and interviewed players from UCLA and Georgia Tech to determine which players had stolen the goods, before eventually settling on Ball, Riley and Hall.

At that point, the players were taken to a police station, where they were further questioned. They were joined at the station by UCLA associate head coach Duane Broussard and Pac-12 Associate Commissioner Gloria Nevarez, where they were later met by Alford and Chris Carlson, UCLA’s associate athletic director.

Guerrero said the players were released the morning of Nov. 8 on bail of approximately $2,200, with the conditions of release that the students had to surrender their passports and agree to travel restrictions. Chinese authorities did not require the players to remain at their hotel, but Guerrero said the school chose to do so “out of an abundance of caution, and respect to the process.” He added that the bail has since been refunded by Chinese authorities.

Eventually, the school — with permission of the players’ parents — found them legal representation and escorted them through the process. Carlson and Doug Erickson, UCLA’s director of basketball administration, stayed with the players while the rest of the team and staff traveled to Shanghai, about 100 miles away, and then back to the United States. After Ball, Riley and Hall were given permission to come home by Chinese authorities, the school got them on a flight that left Shanghai on Tuesday around 9 p.m. local time, and arrived at Los Angeles International Airport at 5 p.m. to a horde of television cameras awaiting their return.

UCLA players head home from China after arrest on shoplifting charges

That the three escaped so lightly can only be attributed to the fact they are high-profile foreigners, who could command support from the presidents of the United States and China, as well as Alibaba.

One significant question that has yet to be answered is who will pay legal fees and other expenses incurred by the incident. Guerrero said Wednesday that the school “provided the necessary resources to ensure the timely release and safe return of the UCLA athletes.

“We now have the task of working to reconcile who is ultimately responsible of the cost incurred, in addition to addressing any NCAA implications.”

David Ridpath, an associate professor of sports administration at Ohio University and a veteran college athletics administrator, said he expected the NCAA would rule in favor of UCLA being able to pay for the expenses incurred. While some could argue that it was an extra benefit, he said the unique circumstances involved made it likely in his eyes that the NCAA would look to put the issue to bed.

“I guess you could say by the letter of the law it’s an extra benefit, but I think it would fall under actual and necessary benefits, and the NCAA would look at this in a vacuum and likely permit it,” Ridpath said in a telephone interview. “I don’t know if the NCAA wants to come out and add more insult to injury here and say, these kids or the kids families, have to pay for it.”

It does not appear, however, that the players will be removed permanently from the team or the university. During their statements, all three sounded like they expected to be part of the program again at some point, and neither Alford nor Guerrero gave any indication that they had closed the door on their eventual return to full playing status.

Until the school’s legal process plays out, however, the three will remain in limbo. On that point, Guerrero said the athletic department is working with the school’s Office of Student Conduct to determine what the school’s ultimate punishment would ultimately be.

“We will work together and prudently come to some resolution in short order,” Guerrero said.

Simon Denyer contributed from Beijing.

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