After being detained last week on suspicion of shoplifting, LiAngelo Ball and his two UCLA teammates boarded a plane on Tuesday bound for Los Angeles following US President Donald Trump’s personal intervention into their case.
In China for a season-opening game against Georgia Tech, the three freshmen members of the UCLA men’s basketball team were taken into police custody last Tuesday in Hangzhou, accused of stealing sunglasses from a Louis Vuitton store next to the team’s hotel where they were staying as they visited the headquarters of e-commerce giant Alibaba, the game’s sponsor.
Early last Wednesday morning, LiAngelo Ball, Cody Riley, and Jalen Hill were all then released on bail and confined to their luxury hotel to await their fate.
The incident quickly made headlines both in China and the US. LiAngelo Ball is the younger brother of Lonzo Ball, the 2nd pick in this summer’s NBA draft, and the son of LaVar Ball, a former professional athlete turned world’s most outspoken dad. Initial reports on the case claimed that the UCLA players could face three to ten years in jail if they were convicted.
Uncharacteristically, Lavar Ball responded to his son’s detainment by mostly keeping quiet. In Shanghai to open up some pop-up shops for his family’s Big Baller Brand, Ball canceled his appearance at the opening along with a press conference.
On Saturday, UCLA defeated Georgia Tech in Shanghai without its three hotel-confined freshmen. Working as the color commentator for ESPN, UCLA legend Bill Walton began the game by apologizing “on behalf of the human race for this travesty.”
“I am sad, disappointed and embarrassed. This is a very big deal,” Walton said. “The noble purpose here has been stained. Our host, Alibaba China, the people, they have been better than perfect in everything. They‘ve done everything right to make this all work. Now members of our family have displayed an appalling lack of honor, a lack of respect, a lack of decency by doing something in someone else’s home that they would never do in their own.”
Following their win, the UCLA team flew back to Los Angeles without Ball, Riley, and Hill. ESPN reported that the trio were likely stuck in Hangzhou for another week or two, adding that surveillance footage shows them “possibly shoplifting items from two more stores in the same high-end shopping center that houses Louis Vuitton.” That footage has not been released.
But on Tuesday in Manila, on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit, Trump told reporters that during his two-day “state visit-plus” to Beijing last week, he had brought up the UCLA players’ difficult situation with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
“What they did was unfortunate,” Trump said. “You know, you’re talking about very long prison sentences. [The Chinese] do not play games.”
However, Trump added that Xi “was terrific” about the matter, claiming that “they’re working on it right now.”
Speaking with Reuters, a senior White House official gave Trump the lion’s share of the credit for the trio’s speedy release. “It’s in large part because the president brought it up,” the unnamed official claimed.
In a statement, Larry Scott, the commissioner of the Pac-12, UCLA’s collegiate athletic conference, said that the matter ”has been resolved to the satisfaction of the Chinese authorities,” thanking Trump for all his help.
We sense a Ball family trip to the White House in the future.
While the American teenagers were realistically never going to be sentenced to 3-10 years in Chinese prison, the personal intervention of the US president helps to explain why they weren’t even slapped on the wrist for shoplifting that was apparently caught on tape.
The Washington Post notes the Louis Vuitton sunglasses the trio allegedly swiped were likely priced at around 4,900 yuan ($750). In China, the punishment for stealing items worth between 4,000 and 7,000 yuan is one to two years in jail, though that sentence can be reduced if the individual confesses, shows remorse, pays compensation, etc.
“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, the influential e-commerce giant that sponsored UCLA’s game in Shanghai,“ the Post writes.
However, following the release of the three college basketball players, some have wondered if Trump could not also have used his influence to press the case of other individuals. On Twitter, Sophie Richardson, the China director of Human Rights Watch, asks if the president also made time to speak with Xi about figures like Liu Xia, the Panchen Lama, and Ilham Tohti.
— Sophie Richardson (@SophieHRW) November 13, 2017
Indeed, the speedy release of Ball and company stands in stark contrast to the case of Wendell Brown, an American who was working as a football coach in Chongqing before he was jailed last September following an altercation at a local bar. He reportedly still remains in jail without a verdict more than a year later.
Wendell Brown, a former college football player, says he defended himself in a bar fight in China. More than a year later, he is still detained without a verdict. His family hopes the UCLA story will bring attention & bring him homehttps://t.co/Aw6HBEFw3w pic.twitter.com/ifUmawuuiH
— David Gardner (@byDavidGardner) November 9, 2017
Back in July, many worried that the same fate would befall Guthrie McLean, an American college student who was detained in Zhengzhou following a scuffle with a cab driver. However, McLean was freed after just one week after his mother managed to attract the attention of international media.
UPDATE – Trump is now looking for a thank you from the players.
Do you think the three UCLA Basketball Players will say thank you President Trump? They were headed for 10 years in jail!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 15, 2017