The three UCLA basketball players walked slowly through the airport terminal, a barrage of camera flashes reflecting off their gray jackets as questions were shouted at them.
“Did LaVar pay for your bail? … Do you have a message for Trump? … Why would you take that stuff?”
LiAngelo Ball, Cody Riley and Jalen Hill said nothing upon their return from China on Tuesday evening. The 111/2-hour Delta flight carrying the trio of freshmen had just arrived at Los Angeles International Airport from Shanghai, ending a nearly weeklong ordeal in which they had been questioned over the alleged shoplifting of designer sunglasses.
The players do not face any charges in China, according to a person close to the situation not authorized to comment publicly because of the sensitivity of the situation, but any punishment levied by UCLA has not been determined.
It was not clear whether the resolution of the case in China came as a result of insufficient evidence or a negotiated deal involving President Trump, who intervened on the players’ behalf last week with Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping.
Trump, speaking to reporters on Air Force One on Tuesday, implied that there had been some type of misconduct involving the players.
“What they did was unfortunate,” Trump said. “You know, you’re talking about very long prison sentences. ... They do not play games” in China.
Trump credited Xi with assisting in the matter, saying the Chinese leader “has been terrific on that subject. But that was not a good subject. That was not something that should have happened.”
UCLA prevailed in the Pac-12 China Game without the three freshmen, beating Georgia Tech 63-60 in a somewhat disjointed performance during both teams’ season opener. The Bruins used only eight players while struggling to put away an opponent who was also shorthanded because of its own disciplinary concerns involving two suspended players who received improper benefits.
Ball, Riley and Hill were all expected to be an important part of UCLA’s improved depth this season. Ball and Riley came off the bench during the exhibition victory over Cal State Los Angeles on Nov. 1 and Hill did not play because of knee soreness.
The No. 21 Bruins will play their home opener Wednesday night at Pauley Pavilion against Central Arkansas. Ball, Riley and Hill are scheduled to deliver statements to the media several hours before the game on campus without taking questions. UCLA coach Steve Alford and athletic director Dan Guerrero are also expected to speak with reporters.
Although they escaped punishment in China, the players could be disciplined by their school. UCLA Chancellor Gene Block released a statement expressing relief over the players’ return but acknowledging that the school was assessing the matter to determine any punishment.
“I want to be clear that we take seriously any violations of the law,” Block said in his statement to the UCLA community. “We remain one of the world’s top academic institutions in large part because of our values and standards, which we work hard to infuse throughout our campus community.
“When members of the UCLA family fail to uphold these values, we review these incidents with fair and thorough processes. In this particular case, both Athletics and the Office of Student Conduct will review this incident and guide any action with respect to the involved students. Such proceedings are confidential, which limits the specific information that can be shared.”
The freshmen had spent most of the previous week inside a lakeside hotel in Hangzhou after being questioned by authorities over allegedly shoplifting from a nearby upscale mall.
Dressed in black athletic pants and light jackets with blue UCLA backpacks slung over their shoulders, the players exited through the departures level of the Tom Bradley terminal upon their return Tuesday. They eluded about 15 reporters and cameramen perched above the ramp where international passengers typically enter the arrivals area on the lower level.
But the players could not escape another 15 or so journalists and paparazzi who thrust microphones into their faces and made references to LaVar Ball, LiAngelo’s father, as well as Lonzo Ball, the Lakers rookie who is LiAngelo’s older brother. Riley held his right arm over his eyes to shield them from the glare of cameras.
Accompanied by Chris Carlson, the UCLA associate athletic director who oversees basketball, and Doug Erickson, the team’s director of basketball administration, the players remained silent amid repeated inquiries from the paparazzi who walked alongside them on their way out of the terminal and into an uncertain future.