SHANGHAI — It was supposed to be a shining example of U.S.-China sporting cooperation and a chance for an elite group of students to learn from another culture.
But Saturday’s Pac-12 China Game between the University of California at Los Angeles and Georgia Tech basketball teams was overshadowed by three players who weren’t even there, and by an entirely unwelcome learning experience.
Three UCLA players — including a younger brother of Los Angeles Lakers rookie sensation Lonzo Ball — were stuck in a hotel more than 100 miles away after being arrested this week for allegedly shoplifting from a store, or stores, in the lakeside city of Hangzhou.
Their teammates, seemingly unfazed by the holes in their squad, led for most of the game, and held off a late Georgia rally to close out a hard-fought contest, 63-60. Both coaches praised their respective teams’ fighting spirit, even if there was more effort than experience on offer in squads filled with rookies.
On Saturday, the team arrived back in Los Angeles without the three freshman players, according to ESPN.
“It’s certainly very unfortunate and very disappointing to me as commissioner of the conference, when we’re guests in another country, guests of our partners, that any of our students should be involved in this incident,” Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott told a news conference before the game.
“That’s not the standard we hold our students to, especially when they are traveling and they are ambassadors of their university and the United States.”
Freshmen LiAngelo Ball, Cody Riley and Jalen Hill were reportedly arrested Tuesday morning, accused of shoplifting sunglasses from a Louis Vuitton store next to their hotel, but were released the following morning.
ESPN, which broadcast the game Saturday and has been traveling with the squad, quoted a person with firsthand knowledge of the investigation as saying the players could be in Hangzhou for “a week or two.”
Liza David, a spokeswoman for UCLA Athletics, told The Washington Post on Saturday night that the university had no comment on the players detained in China.
The person also told ESPN that there is surveillance footage purportedly showing the players shoplifting from three stores inside the high-end mall near the team’s hotel, which also houses Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent and Salvatore Ferragamo stores.
But staff members working in the mall this weekend said they were only aware of the Louis Vuitton incident.
In a basement office where images of the mall appear on an array of screens, a private security officer said police arrived Tuesday morning with a warrant and took away a copy of footage from the previous night. He said police were interested in video showing two black men, accompanied by a woman who spoke Chinese, in the mall about 8 p.m. Monday night.
Individual stores also have their own security cameras, staff in the mall said.
In the Louis Vuitton store, most pairs of men’s sunglasses were on sale for 4,900 yuan (about $750). Under Chinese law, anyone caught stealing goods worth between 4,000 and 7,000 yuan faces between one and two years in jail, although mitigating circumstances can cut the sentence.
Police in Hangzhou said the legal process for the case was still continuing.
UCLA coach Steve Alford declined to comment on the case after the game, saying he would not go beyond a statement already issued by the university that merely confirmed there had been an “incident” and that it was cooperating with the authorities.
Scott, the Pac-12 commissioner, said this wasn’t just a basketball game; it was an example of the power of sport to foster cultural exchanges and a rare opportunity for the players to take a break from the rigors of elite sport to travel to another country and to learn from the trip.
Many had obtained their first passports for the trip, and for most, if not all, it was their first time in China, he said.
He admitted the arrests had been “a real distraction” and “unwanted publicity” but did not negate what had overall been a tremendous experience. “We had a chance to apologize for the unwelcome attention,” he added. “We are monitoring the situation, staying in close contact with the students, and we hope the situation resolves soon.”
The game was sponsored by Alibaba Group, China’s e-commerce giant, and held on its annual Singles Day, an online shopping extravaganza held on the 11th day of the 11th month every year. The e-commerce giant announced before the game it had extended its sponsorship of the Pac-12 China game until 2020. Next year’s game will be between Yale and the University of California at Berkeley.
The teams toured the Alibaba corporate campus in Hangzhou on Monday, the day before the arrests, and visited Shanghai Disneyland later in the week. Players and coaches all spoke enthusiastically after the game about the welcome they had received in China.
Joe Tsai, the vice chairman of Alibaba Group, who recently reached an agreement to buy 49 percent of the Brooklyn Nets, said he was proud and thrilled to be supporting the Pac-12 China game, and suggested the shoplifting incident was a learning experience.
“I think the spirit of sport is that we do not pursue perfection; what we pursue is progress,” he said. “Young people are bound to make mistakes, but the key is that after you have made a mistake, how do you respond to this situation?”
In the end, everyone from the Hangzhou police to the players and the university had handled the incident “in a very professional and calm way,” he said, so that Alibaba had increased its respect for Pac-12 and the Pac-12 schools. “They have also increased their respect for us, increased their respect for our country and its citizens,” he added.
LiAngelo Ball’s father, LaVar Ball, who was in China for his own promotional purposes, had been a potential wild card and had initially caused some friction by telling ESPN the incident “ain’t that big of a deal.”
But on Friday night, his management had him, and the news media, firmly under control, excluding reporters from a promotional event in a Shanghai store for his Big Baller Brand sporting apparel.
LaVar Ball, who has a reputation for never shunning an offered microphone, twice ignored questions as his entourage rushed him past the media.
While the eldest son remains in the United States with the Lakers, the rest of the family, including LaVar Ball’s wife, Tina Ball, are also in China filming episodes of “Ball in the Family,” the Facebook reality show that already has been picked up for a second season.
The stadium had as many empty seats as fans, with foreigners helping to make up for a small crowd of locals. Most seemed to enjoy the game and weren’t too worried about the missing players.
"I don't think it had a huge impact on the team. I'm still proud of my school team," said Paris Ge, a UCLA graduate from Beijing. "Everyone makes mistakes. Instead of blaming them, we should make the effort to help them. The thing has already happened, and we should make the situation better."
Jeremy Banks, a 25-year-old Chicago Bulls fan, enjoyed the game and also said the trio's absence had not had an impact: "I think it's a bad decision made by a privileged kid to steal from a high-end shop. It's a mistake."
The UCLA Bruins’ win was led by freshman Kris Wilkes, with 18 points, and Jaylen Hands, with 14 points. Ben Lammers stood out for Georgia Tech, scoring 18 of his 24 points in the first half, before appearing to tire and often being double-teamed in the second half.
Luna Lin contributed to this report.