The itinerary called for a week of international goodwill events for UCLA’s basketball team leading up to its season opener.
There would be a trip to Shanghai Disney as well as a meet-and-greet with Joe Tsai, the co-founder of Chinese commerce giant Alibaba who extended his left arm and smiled while holding a cell phone aloft as he posed for a selfie with Bruins players standing behind him on a basketball court in Hangzhou.
Then came a most unwelcome diversion.
UCLA freshmen LiAngelo Ball, Cody Riley and Jalen Hill were involved in a shoplifting incident, according to a person close to the situation, clouding their futures and drastically altering the tenor of the Bruins’ trip.
It was not immediately clear whether those players had been detained by police or whether they would be allowed to play in their team’s game against the Yellow Jackets at Baoshan Arena in Shanghai.
UCLA chancellor Gene Block and athletic director Dan Guerrero made the trip with the team, but have not commented on the situation. A UCLA spokesperson declined to comment, but Pac-12 Conference commissioner Larry Scott, who also was traveling with the Bruins, issued a statement condemning the alleged transgressions.
“We are very disappointed by any situation that detracts from the positive student-athlete educational and cultural experience that this week is about,” Scott said. “Whether in the United States or abroad, we expect our student-athletes to uphold the highest standards.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that local police were called to the hotel where both teams were staying in Hangzhou and inspected the contents of the UCLA team bus as players waited to depart for practice. Police interviewed players from both teams before clearing three players from Georgia Tech, according to a statement released by the school.
The three UCLA freshmen involved in the incident comprise nearly half of a seven-man recruiting class that was ranked as high as No. 5 in the country. All three were expected to come off the bench this season.
Ball is the younger brother of Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball and a high-volume shooting guard from Chino Hills High who scored 11 points on four-for-eight shooting during the Bruins’ exhibition victory over Cal State Los Angeles last week. His father, LaVar Ball, told The Times that LiAngelo would attend UCLA for only one season before going on to the NBA.
Riley is an old-school, back-to-the-basket power forward from Chatsworth Sierra Canyon High who is also a tenacious defender. He forced a turnover in the backcourt and went in for a dunk during UCLA’s exhibition and finished with eight points, five rebounds and two steals.
Hill, a high-energy power forward from Corona Centennial High, did not play during the exhibition because of knee soreness. Coach Steve Alford said before the team departed that he was hopeful that Hill could play against the Yellow Jackets.
Riley said last week that he was looking forward to his first trip overseas.
“I had to get a passport, a visa, that whole process,” Riley said. “We took care of that during the summer.”
Did he have to get immunizations as well?
“Yeah, yeah, shots,” Riley said. “My arm was dead for at least a day. I ain’t had no shots like that.”
UCLA also visited China for an exhibition tour in 2012 as part of the Pac-12’s efforts to extend the global reach of its teams.
The Bruins’ game against Georgia Tech represents the third annual Pac-12 China Game and will be broadcast live on ESPN at 8:30 p.m. PST Friday.
“This week is about the game, but it’s also about much more,” Scott said before the incident in a statement. “Sport can play a role to improve the world by having peaceful, friendly exchanges between people. This is an example of how people getting to know one another, especially when they’re young, and having an appreciation for different cultures, societies, systems and ways of thinking can make our world a better place.
“We’re happy the young men from UCLA and Georgia Tech will have a chance to experience that and I’m sure that will leave an indelible mark.”
Times staff writer Bolch reported from Los Angeles.
Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch
2:36 p.m.: This article was updated with additional background on each of the players.