The three UCLA freshman basketball players detained in China are finally coming home, but the embarrassing story isn’t over.
What do the Bruins do with them now?
LiAngelo Ball, Cody Riley and Jalen Hill were on a flight back to Los Angeles on Tuesday after being confined to their Hangzhou hotel for a week on suspicion of shoplifting during UCLA’s recent visit, but their saga continues.
Once back, will they be allowed to return to the basketball court?
It is important to note that the players were freed without charges being filed in China. Yet indications are that something happened, and it wasn’t good.
There was one media report that the players were caught on surveillance video stealing sunglasses from a Louis Vuitton store, and another that they shoplifted from several stores.
President Trump said Tuesday that he spoke with Chinese President Xi Jinping about the situation. Describing that conversation, he implied that some wrongdoing had occurred.
“President Xi has been terrific on that subject,’’ Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One near the conclusion of his two-week visit to Asia. “But that was not a good subject. That was not something that should have happened.’’
Trump also said: “What they did was unfortunate. You know you’re talking about very long prison sentences. They do not play games.’’
The players are scheduled to appear in front of the media with school officials and make a statement Wednesday morning, but here’s guessing they won’t offer many concrete answers.
Unless that surveillance video is released, the public may never know exactly what happened. But UCLA surely knows. And if the three students had any sort of involvement in something so appallingly entitled and dumb while on a school trip to a foreign country, UCLA’s next move should be clear.
Their students and alumni will be watching. Their worldwide business connections will be watching. The Chinese government will be watching. If a wrong has been committed, everyone will be waiting for UCLA to do the right thing, and a swift and strong penalty is the only thing that makes sense.
They should say nice to have you back, but you are suspended for a year.
If UCLA officials are looking for precedent here, they don’t have to look far. In the summer of 2010, three of UCLA’s incoming freshman football players were charged with felony theft after being caught stealing a backpack containing items worth about $1,200.
Paul Richardson, Shaquille Richardson and Josh Shirley were decent kids who did a dumb thing. They were also excellent athletes and top-50-in-the-nation recruits whose loss would eventually cut into the football’s team depth.
But they never played a down for the Bruins. All three players were quickly suspended for the season by then-coach Rick Neuheisel. They were not allowed to continue summer school or enroll for the fall quarter. A few days later, all three decided to transfer.
The felony was downgraded to a misdemeanor, and all three eventually found homes at Pac-12 Conference rivals, and all three went on to have careers in professional football, with receiver Paul Richardson currently playing well for the Seattle Seahawks.
But Neuheisel made the right statement about student integrity and accountability. The three had broken rules and, despite their athletic prowess, they needed to be educated on the responsibilities of representing the university.
“I decided I’ve got to teach those kids that playing college football is a privilege, not a right,’’ recalled Neuheisel, now a CBS Sports college football analyst. “I told their parents, I want them all to take a quarter off, I want them to see what they gave up, see exactly how they screwed up.’’
The season-long suspension raised some eyebrows, particularly since Neuheisel was fighting to keep a job he would lose a season later. The move was debated further in the summer of 2011, when Bruins basketball player Jerime Anderson was arrested and convicted of stealing a laptop, yet was just suspended for two games by then-coach Ben Howland.
It was a tough decision, but it was the right decision, and Neuheisel said he would do the same thing again.
“I know this, I slept well,’’ Neuheisel said. “Those kids had to know, they can’t do something like this.’’
If they were part of any similar behavior, these three Bruins basketball players need to know the same thing. And if Bruins coach Steve Alford holds true to the ethical values that he claims to have brought to the program, he will tell them.
The players could use their lost season as a redshirt year, or they can go elsewhere like the three football players. It doesn’t matter. But if they committed a crime, they cannot suit up, because this is far bigger than the Bruins.
“This is about more than just UCLA now, this is the university’s integrity, this is our country’s integrity, all of that is at stake if the appropriate penalty is not given,’’ Neuheisel said.
While none of the three Bruin freshmen were likely to be stars this year, a season-long suspension would decimate the Bruins bench and significantly impact the team’s chances of making March Madness.
Too bad. The statement would be more important than a record.
Also, there is a chance that, if suspended, Ball would leave school altogether, considering his blustery father LaVar has already said that his son would only play one season. This could also mean that his little brother LaMelo, currently a high school junior, would not eventually enroll in UCLA as planned.
Again, too bad. The Bruins can no longer be beholden to a family whose patriarch’s constant smack talk can infect a college locker room.
The Lakers can ignore Ball and his ramblings about oldest son Lonzo. For UCLA and its impressionable young people, it’s more difficult.
Last season, LaVar Ball said of UCLA: “Realistically, you can’t win no championship with three white guys because the foot speed is too slow.’’
Last week, after the shoplifting allegations surfaced, LaVar Ball told ESPN: “Everybody is making it a big deal. It ain’t that big of a deal.’’
Oh yeah? It became a big deal, an international deal, and if a crime has been committed, here’s hoping UCLA properly deals with it.