They expressed their regrets in low monotones, occasionally looking up from prepared statements while glancing around a room jammed with 20 television cameras and about 75 media members who had come to learn their fate.
UCLA basketball players LiAngelo Ball, Cody Riley and Jalen Hill on Wednesday admitted to stealing merchandise from inside a mall in Hangzhou, China, last week. They apologized for their actions, thanked President Donald Trump for intervening on their behalf and left, without taking questions, to an uncertain future.
The trio, all freshmen, were suspended indefinitely from their team as the university reviews the thefts from three upscale stores during a goodwill visit in which the Bruins opened their season by defeating Georgia Tech in Shanghai.
“I know that this goes beyond letting my school down, that I let the entire country down,” Riley said from behind a table in a room inside Pauley Pavilion.
Each of the players read their statements, one immediately following the other, before exiting the room together. As Hill rose to leave, coach Steve Alford tenderly patted him on the back.
“What I did was stupid, there’s just no other way to put it, and I’m not that type of person,” Hill said. “This mistake will not define me as a person, but it shows that I have messed up and can learn from it. I don’t want to be known for this dumb mistake, I want to be known for my respectfulness and my love and passion for the game of basketball.”
Said Ball, whose older brother Lonzo starts for the Lakers: “We’re young men; however, it’s not an excuse for making a really stupid decision. I don’t feel sorry for myself and I’ve learned my lesson from this big mistake and I’m 110% sure that I’m not making a bad decision like this one again.”
The charges the trio faced in China have been dropped. Any discipline the players face will be determined by UCLA.
After the players read their statements, Alford and athletic director Dan Guerrero issued statements of their own.
Alford said the school’s office of student conduct was assessing the incident to determine the length of the players’ suspensions. They will not be allowed to travel with the team during their suspensions, Alford said, but may eventually be permitted to participate in team workouts, practices and meetings.
“They will have to earn their way back,” said Alford, whose team played its home opener Wednesday night against Central Arkansas. “They will cooperate fully with the university review with this matter, and will use this time to focus on their academics. My expectation is that they will work hard to demonstrate why they deserve to be a part of this program.”
Even though the players were expected to come off the bench this season, an extended absence of the trio would considerably deplete the Bruins’ depth and hinder its ability to apply the kind of intense defensive pressure Alford wants. UCLA used only eight players during its 63-60 victory over Georgia Tech.
Alford addressed the team “about the expectations and responsibilities that go along with representing UCLA,” on multiple occasions during its weeklong trip, Guerrero said. “He and the staff did this as a means to proactively to try to prevent a negative situation of any kind.”
Ball, Riley and Hill engaged in the thefts from three stores on Nov. 6, during a 90-minute outing to an upscale mall adjacent to the team hotel, Guerrero said.
The next morning, Guerrero said, police arrived at the team hotel and interviewed players from both Georgia Tech and UCLA while attempting to identify who was involved in the thefts. The police also searched bags in the hotel and on the team bus before determining that Ball, Riley and Hill were the likely suspects.
The players were escorted to a police station along with associate head coach Duane Broussard and Pac-12 Conference associate commissioner Gloria Nevarez, with Alford and associate athletic director Chris Carlson following shortly thereafter. Guerrero learned of the arrests while on a flight to Shanghai and university officials began the process of securing legal counsel.
Guerrero said the students underwent questioning by authorities before being released on $2,200 bail the morning of Nov. 8. As part of the condition of their release, they were required to surrender their passports and agree to travel restrictions. UCLA officials decided the players would remain in the hotel in Hangzhou, Guerrero said, “out of an abundance of caution and respect for the process” while their teammates traveled to Shanghai to play Georgia Tech in the Pac-12 China Game.
Guerrero said he traveled from Shanghai to visit the trio and offer reassurance.
“In my meeting with them in Hangzhou, their expression of remorse, regret, sadness and embarrassment was as genuine as it gets,” Guerrero said. “They know they made a huge mistake and as you can see, they’re deeply sorry for it.”
Carlson and Doug Erickson, the team’s director of basketball administration, stayed with Ball, Riley and Hill in Hangzhou until Chinese authorities told them they were free to leave. The group returned to Los Angeles on Tuesday evening.
Earlier that day, President Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One upon his return from a trip to Asia that Chinese President Xi Jinping had helped arrange the players’ release. “That was not something that should have happened,” Trump scolded.
Early Wednesday morning, Trump tweeted, “Do you think the three UCLA Basketball Players will say thank you President Trump? They were headed for 10 years in jail!”
Hours later, the players did exactly that. Each mentioned the President’s role and thanked him.
Guerrero said the players’ bail had been refunded by Chinese authorities, and that he was working to assess who would ultimately be responsible for the expenses that UCLA incurred to house the players and obtain legal counsel so that NCAA rules are satisfied.
Alford said that what amounted to a media blackout from UCLA during the ordeal was necessary to help ensure that the players could come home.
“We were informed that anything said during the process could have jeopardized the success of their return to Los Angeles,” Alford said.
Guerrero and Alford each thanked a lengthy list of people who contributed to the speedy resolution of the incident, including government officials, Pac-12 executives and UCLA administrators, staffers and coaches.
“To say that our young men are incredibly fortunate to have this kind of support system that’s around them,” Alford said, “is certainly an understatement.”
Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch