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UCLA’s Jalen Hill and Cody Riley find redemption after regrettable China incident

UCLA forward Jalen Hill watches during the first half against Stanford at Pauley Pavilion on Jan. 15.
UCLA forward Jalen Hill watches during the first half against Stanford at Pauley Pavilion on Jan. 15.
(Chris Carlson / Associated Press)

They heard it, all right, every delightful decibel.

The roars from fans. The encouragement from coaches. The howls of joy from teammates who piled upon them after they nudged UCLA toward this Disney-movie turnaround, Jalen Hill making a string of free throws in the final seconds of one victory and Cody Riley pouring in a game’s worth of points in the overtime of another.

“The guys on the team were more excited than me, to be honest,” Riley said, a naturally stoic power forward smiling at the memory of being swarmed in the locker room last month after scoring 11 points in those five minutes against Washington State. “But that’s all great.”

It was only two years ago that Hill and Riley, now redshirt sophomores, wanted to muffle all the noise.

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They were called criminals. Idiots. An embarrassment to UCLA and to the United States.

UCLA’s Cody Riley, left, LiAngelo Ball, center, and Jalen Hill speak during a press conference on No. 15, 2017.
UCLA’s Cody Riley, left, LiAngelo Ball, center, and Jalen Hill speak during a press conference on No. 15, 2017.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Riley couldn’t venture far from his Westwood apartment without hearing someone say something derogatory. Hill couldn’t escape fellow students who would try to surreptitiously take his photo with their cellphones, usually failing to avoid notice but always reaffirming the gravity of what he had done.

Even the Bruins games they had to watch on television provided uncomfortable reminders, Michigan students waving miniature Chinese flags. One student held a sign directed at teammate LiAngelo Ball, the other member of what some would dub “The China Three,” purporting to list his career statistics: zero points, zero rebounds, zero assists, zero blocks and one steal.

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The three players had become college basketball pariahs after stealing designer and throwaway sunglasses in addition to cheap beaded bracelets from three stores in Hangzhou, China, on the eve of the Bruins’ 2017-18 season. In an instant, in the eyes of some classmates and rivals alike, they went from promising freshmen to everlasting imbeciles.

Ball withdrew from UCLA a few weeks later, leaving Hill and Riley to face the uncertainty of their fate as Bruins. They would receive season-long suspensions, their punishment eventually lifted even if there was no way to scrub their mistake from memory.

Maybe that’s for the best. As he sat in the lobby of the Mo Ostin Center late last month, Hill said he wouldn’t have become the shot-blocking, rebound-snatching force that has helped propel UCLA to the verge of an unlikely NCAA tournament bid without the lows that preceded this newfound high.

“The pain that I felt when I was stuck over there and my team was playing and the pain that I felt when I realized that I would miss out on the whole season,” Hill said, “I definitely keep that not even in the back of my head but in the front, because just knowing that basketball can be taken away from you at any point and just reflecting back on that and remembering that, it helps me a lot just making sure I play as hard I can, work out as hard as I can, because that feeling of not having basketball anymore is the worst.”

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Hill sat in the car, his face conveying what his silence could not. The highly coveted prospect from Corona Centennial High and his parents lingered in a UCLA parking lot to contemplate his future after an unofficial visit to campus.

George and Tanisa Hill’s suspicions that their son wanted to commit to the Bruins during a meeting with coaches were confirmed when Jalen acknowledged that he had been giving them a look to signal his intentions.

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The parents called assistant coach David Grace, saying they wanted to talk. Grace and fellow assistant Duane Broussard met the family outside the parking garage, where Hill delivered the good news. He wanted to come to UCLA.

Riley was similarly smitten with the school, the native of Kansas City, Kan., picking the Bruins over Kansas, USC, Oklahoma and Connecticut.

UCLA forward Cody Riley, center, blocks a shot by Colorado guard McKinley Wright IV, right, as UCLA guard David Singleton pulls in the loose ball in the second half on Feb. 22 in Boulder, Colo.
UCLA forward Cody Riley, center, blocks a shot by Colorado guard McKinley Wright IV, right, as UCLA guard David Singleton pulls in the loose ball in the second half on Feb. 22 in Boulder, Colo.
(David Zalubowski / Associated Press)

“I just felt like UCLA is where I always wanted to be,” Riley said, “and I just love the atmosphere here, all the support that we have from the athletic directors down to everybody else.”

Hill and Riley weren’t on campus for even two full months before that allegiance was tested. They had traveled with teammates to China for a season-opening game against Georgia Tech that was to be played in Shanghai when they made what Hill now calls “the one mistake in my life.”

Given 90 minutes to stroll the area near their high-end lakeside hotel in Hangzhou, Hill, Riley and Ball committed the series of thefts that were caught on surveillance cameras.

“I just liked how they looked,” Ball would later say of the sunglasses on his family’s reality television show, “Ball in the Family.”

Police converged on the team hotel the next morning, questioning players from both Georgia Tech and UCLA. The three Bruins were identified as the perpetrators and escorted to jail, handcuffed beneath their hoodies. They were eventually released on bail of about $2,200 and allowed to return to the team hotel in Hangzhou while their teammates continued their preparations for the Yellow Jackets.

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After the shorthanded Bruins won the game and boarded a flight bound for Los Angeles International Airport, their humiliated teammates remained behind for three days before being allowed to come home. They apologized during a news conference inside Pauley Pavilion only hours before the home opener, each player reading from statements they had personally crafted.

As they waited to learn their fate from school officials amid an indefinite suspension, the players had their own decisions to make.

“I would be a liar,” Hill acknowledged recently, “to say I didn’t think about leaving.”

Ultimately, the same lure that had drawn Hill and Riley to UCLA kept them there even after Ball bolted for a professional league in Lithuania.

Arizona State point guard Remy Martin grew up watching some of the best high school players in Los Angeles. It helped make him one of the top players in the Pac-12.

“I didn’t want to feel like I was trying to run away from the situation or anything like that,” Riley said recently. “I felt like if I was at a good position where I was at, then I just had to stand tall, keep my head held high and overcome it.”

It helped that they each had someone to talk to who was uniquely qualified to understand their feelings.

“I look at J-Hill as like my brother,” Riley said. “I trust him and we can talk to each other about deeper things.”

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They were tireless workers long before they stumbled upon a new source of motivation.

As a teenager, Hill started every morning with a workout inside his high school gym, followed hours later by a team practice. When he reached UCLA, he once declined an invitation to come home over Christmas break to stay on campus for access to the Bruins’ practice facility. His dedication has transformed a once-sinewy player into a 6-foot-10, 245-pound mound of muscle who can capably counter almost any double-team.

“If you’re not playing basketball or trying to work on your game every day,” Hill said, “then you’re putting yourself behind.”

Riley’s skills first sprouted on a YMCA court, the grade-schooler arriving early each day after getting dropped off by his mother. He would play by himself at first before progressing to one-on-one and five-on-five games as others cycled through the gym, always among the last to leave.

“I’d still be there,” he recalled, “just working on my game.”

UCLA basketball players caught shoplifting while on a team trip to China, Cody Riley, left, Jalen Hill, not pictured, and LiAngelo Ball return from Shanghai, China at LAX on Nov. 14, 2017.
UCLA basketball players caught shoplifting while on a team trip to China, Cody Riley, left, Jalen Hill, not pictured, and LiAngelo Ball return from Shanghai, China at LAX on Nov. 14, 2017.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

When they were allowed to rejoin their teammates for practices after Christmas 2017 during what became a redshirt season, Hill and Riley pushed each other in head-to-head battles.

“We were in the gym as much as possible with each other,” Hill said, “because you can’t just sit back and not do anything.”

Their relentlessness endeared them to coach Mick Cronin upon his arrival at UCLA last spring, though there was plenty of work left to be done. Hill was a one-dimensional defender prone to frustration-induced lapses. Riley needed intensive conditioning to improve his stamina and increased patience to avoid his tendency to play out of control on offense.

As the months passed, both players slowly mastered the defensive concepts favored by their new coach and benefited from a tactical shift in which they now mostly avoid switching on ball screens in favor of hedging and recovering.

“They have totally bought into that tough part of the game and it’s really permeated throughout the team,” said assistant coach Darren Savino, who works extensively with the team’s big men.

Riley persevered through a brutal nine-game stretch from early January to early February in which he scored four points or fewer in each game. Lengthy film sessions helped him realize he was rushing his moves when he didn’t have to, leading him to slow down and become one of the Bruins’ most reliable low-post scorers by better leveraging his 6-9, 250-pound frame.

He has notched double figures in seven of UCLA’s last nine games and was unstoppable before and during overtime against Washington State, finishing with 19 points thanks to a variety of powerful moves around the basket.

Hill has been equally valuable, converting a critical three-point play late in a road victory over Arizona after getting fouled on a putback. He also made four free throws in the final 10 seconds of a road triumph over Oregon State and leads the team with 6.9 rebounds per game and 32 blocked shots.

Both players have become among the best free-throw shooters on the team, a rarity for power forwards. Hill has made 22 of his last 26 attempts (84.6%), including seven of eight during a road victory over Utah. Riley has made 17 of his last 20 attempts (85%), including two with nine seconds left that gave the Bruins a brief lead last weekend during an eventual 54-52 loss to USC.

Their improvement across the board has helped UCLA (19-12) recover from a sub.-500 record in mid-January, the Bruins having won 11 of 14 games to find themselves on the fringes of contention for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.

“Without their development,” Cronin said, “we’re not where we are.”

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Cronin told the two players that he would never mention what happened in China, that he was eager to help them show everybody they were great guys.

Besides, the coach reasoned, who hasn’t gone through early adulthood without any significant regrets?

“I think we all did something really stupid when we were teenagers, we just didn’t get caught,” Cronin said. “People want to say, ‘Well, no, I didn’t.’ OK. OK. I don’t wave the Bible around, but somebody knows the truth about all of us. I don’t think any of us walk the earth without making a mistake; theirs just happened to be really bad timing and really public.”

Hill and Riley have earned their coach’s trust, always showing up on time for meetings and practices while fully focused on what the team is doing, even if the fun-loving Hill can sometimes be a bit too goofy for his coach’s tastes.

Occasionally, of course, they still hear about the past.

During a game at Notre Dame in December, the Fighting Irish students seated behind one basket delivered a not-so-subtle reminder.

“I’m shooting free throws and they’re saying, ‘Thief! Thief! Thief!’ ” remembered Hill, who shrugged and made three of four attempts from the line. “I’m like, that’s not going to affect me at all, I don’t really care. I think the crowd heckling me and doing all that stuff, I think it’s funny, to be honest.”

More recently, Hill and Riley have been serenaded by more encouraging expressions, the swelling crowds inside Pauley showering them with adoration as the Bruins piled up late-season wins.

Sometimes it’s best to hear nothing at all. That was the case last month in Boulder, Colo., when Hill and Riley helped UCLA wipe out a nine-point deficit against nationally ranked Colorado in the final minutes of a victory that trumpeted the Bruins as worthy of NCAA tournament consideration.

As the two players walked off the court, their latest comeback complete, they savored the silence of another stop on their redemption tour.

“That’s when you find out who’s made of what,” Riley said. “Those are the moments I cherish the most.”


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