UCLA’s basketball team continued to make news in some unlikely places Sunday, including President Trump’s Twitter account and a pregame media scrum involving the coach of the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors.
First there was a tweet from Trump, scolding the father of LiAngelo Ball for failing to acknowledge Trump’s role in the return of the freshmen guard and two teammates from China after they were ensnared in a shoplifting scandal.
“Now that the three basketball players are out of China saved from years in jail,” Trump tweeted, “LaVar Ball, the father of LiAngelo, is unaccepting of what I did for his son and that shoplifting is no big deal. I should have left them in jail!”
Trump apparently was responding to LaVar Ball reportedly replying “Who?” when asked about Trump having intervened with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
LiAngelo Ball and fellow freshmen Cody Riley and Jalen Hill publicly thanked Trump on Wednesday when they admitted they shoplifted from multiple stores at an upscale mall near the team hotel in Hangzhou, leading to their indefinite suspension.
The back-and-forth between Trump and LaVar Ball was brought to the attention of Golden State coach Steve Kerr — who’s been a vocal critic of Trump — leading to the verbal equivalent of an eye roll.
“Modern life,” Kerr told reporters. “Two people seeking attention and they’re both getting it. I’m sure both guys are really happy. You know what would help? If all of you just stopped covering both of them. Is that possible? You could probably stop covering LaVar. I don’t think you could stop covering the President. I don’t think that would work. It would be nice for all of us if both of them would just be quiet. That’d be great."
As if on cue, Trump weighed in again later in the day about the potential punishment the UCLA players faced.
“Shoplifting is a very big deal in China, as it should be (5-10 years in jail), but not to father LaVar,” Trump tweeted. “Should have gotten his son out during my next trip to China instead. China told them why they were released. Very ungrateful!”
Forgotten was the fact that UCLA is on the verge of its toughest test of the season. The No. 23 Bruins (3-0) will face Creighton (3-0) on Monday in the Hall of Fame Classic at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo.
UCLA arrived in Kansas City on Saturday, giving the Bruins an extra day to work on their free throws, one of their biggest concerns in the season’s early going. UCLA is shooting only 59.7% from the line after making 73.8% last season.
“It’s an easy shot,” coach Steve Alford said Friday after his team made only 12 of 24 free throws during a 96-68 victory over South Carolina State. “It’s a 15-foot shot with nobody guarding you, so you can kick it if you want, you can throw it backwards if you want, you can throw it underhand if you want, you can do anything else as long as you stay behind the charity stripe.
“And then nobody has to guard you, so other than the uncontested layup, in my opinion it’s the easiest shot of the game. And to me it’s about clearing your mind, and part of clearing your mind is toughness. If I miss one, I can’t go into a turtle shell and think I can’t shoot it anymore. I gotta be tough enough that I'll get the next one.
“If I have to miss that one, then I'm gonna focus on the next eight or nine, and we just got too many guys that I think are thinking about it and they’re worried about it versus having that tough approach of just like the guy that strikes out. Your best hitters, they strike out and they can’t wait to get back up again to swing it.”
When: 4 p.m. PST.
Where: Sprint Center, Kansas City, Mo.
On the air: TV: ESPNU; Radio: 570.
Update: Guard Marcus Foster averages a team-leading 19.3 points per game for the Bluejays (3-0), who have defeated No. 20 Northwestern on the road in addition to easy home victories over Yale and Alcorn State. The winner will play the winner of No. 25 Baylor and Wisconsin on Tuesday in the Hall of Fame Classic championship.
Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch