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Trump personally asked Xi Jinping to help resolve case of UCLA basketball players arrested in China

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

MANILA — President Trump acknowledged Tuesday that he personally asked his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, to help resolve the case of three UCLA men's basketball players who were arrested for shoplifting while in Hangzhou for a tournament last week.

“They’re working on it right now,” Trump told reporters in reference to Chinese authorities as he prepared to return to Washington after a nearly two-week trip in Asia. Trump added that he hoped the detained players could be on their way home soon.

"Hopefully everything is going to work out," Trump said.

Trump raised the arrests during a two-day state visit to Beijing, arriving a day after the three freshman players were accused of stealing sunglasses from a Louis Vuitton store next to the team's hotel, according to people familiar with the conversation. Guard LiAngelo Ball, brother of Los Angeles Lakers rookie guard Lonzo Ball, and forwards Cody Riley and Jalen Hill did not play in the team's victory over Georgia Tech on Saturday in Shanghai. They did not fly home with the team, and ESPN has reported that authorities have surveillance footage and that the players could be required to remain in Hangzhou for a week or two.

After Trump raised the matter, Xi promised to look into the case and ensure that the players are treated fairly and expeditiously, said a U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation. Chief of Staff John F. Kelly has been in touch with the families of the players and has spoken with UCLA Coach Steve Alford, and Kelly remains in contact with Chinese authorities, the official added. This official indicated that charges against the players have been reduced and that the case is proceeding toward a resolution.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders confirmed in an email that Trump raised the matter with Xi. On Tuesday, Trump told reporters in Manila that he indeed spoke with Xi about the case. Xi has “been terrific,” Trump said. Asked if he expected a resolution soon, Trump added: “Hope so.”

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The fact the charges have been reduced, and that the case appears headed toward some kind of resolution in the near future, indicates the three players have cooperated with authorities. According to the China Law Translate, the penalties for shoplifting can vary greatly.

While stealing goods worth more than 2,500 yuan ($380) is supposed to merit jail time — and stealing goods worth between 7,000 and 10,000 yuan ($1,050 and $1,510) could bring between two and three years in jail — the site says the fact the players are teenagers could reduce the severity of the punishment, as could their cooperation to try to make the situation right. Doing so could include admitting wrongdoing, as well as providing compensation for the stolen goods.

The State Department typically takes the lead on cases involving U.S. citizens who are arrested abroad, and the U.S. Embassy in Beijing is aware of the case, officials said. UCLA is one of the top basketball programs in the country, and the Ball family — including LiAngelo's outspoken father, LaVar Ball — has become well-known in the sports world.

Monday afternoon, UCLA officials declined to comment on the latest developments, referring to the school’s original statement on the matter last week. After Saturday’s win in Shanghai over Georgia Tech, Coach Steve Alford also elected not to elaborate beyond what he originally said in the wake of the initial reports.

News of the arrests was widespread, not only in the United States but also in China, breaking just a day before Trump arrived in the country. The president spent most of two days with Xi, a stay that included a tour of the Forbidden City, a state dinner and meetings. The two leaders discussed North Korea's nuclear threat, bilateral trade relations and a host of other issues. They made no public mention of the UCLA case.

Trump learned about the details of the case from aides, including Kelly, said the official familiar with the internal discussions. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also might have spoken about the case with Trump, the official said.

The arrest of the three college players overshadowed the trip UCLA and Georgia Tech took to China last week, which included a tour of the Chinese mega-corporation Alibaba. While touring the company, they met with its executive vice president, Joe Tsai, who recently came to an agreement to purchase 49 percent of the Brooklyn Nets from Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, with the option to purchase another chunk of the team — believed to be 80 percent — that would make him the controlling owner in four years.

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The story also eclipsed the Ball family’s entry into the Chinese market. In concert with the middle son’s expected participation in the game, the family’s shoe and apparel business, Big Baller Brand, opened the first of two pop-up stores in Shanghai on Friday. At the event, LaVar Ball declined to answer questions about the incident, which came after he had canceled a news conference to promote the opening. The father appeared to get himself in hot water last week after telling ESPN he didn’t think the incident was a big deal.

“I'm going to wait until I get more intel on what's going on,” LaVar Ball said at the time. “He'll be fine.

“Everyone's making it a big deal. It ain't that big a deal.”

It is notable that LaVar Ball has gone quiet on the subject, given he has refused to be quiet about virtually anything for the past several months. As his son prepared for the NBA draft — eventually becoming the No. 2 overall pick by his hometown Lakers — the Ball father became a household name across the country by virtue of his willingness to speak his mind. Most recently, he criticized Lakers Coach Luke Walton for his rotations, saying that was partly to blame for Lonzo's shooting struggles so far this season.

While LiAngelo Ball remains in custody in Hangzhou, his older brother continues to suit up for his NBA team. Speaking to reporters in Phoenix Monday morning ahead of a game against the Suns, Lonzo Ball said in speaking to both his youngest brother, LaMelo, and father over the past few days, that it seems like the situation is moving closer to a resolution.

“Hopefully [Trump] helps him, and everything works out,” he said.

“When I talked to my dad and my little brother, it seemed like everything was going fine, so I assume everything is going cool out there.”

When asked when he thinks the situation could be resolved, and when his brother and teammates could return to the United States, Lonzo Ball said, “Hopefully within the next week or two.”

Meanwhile, the rest of the family — LaVar Ball, his wife and youngest son — have traveled to Hong Kong, where its second pop-up store is set to open Tuesday. UCLA’s next game is at home Wednesday against the University of Central Arkansas.

Brian Murphy contributed to this report.