With Trump's help, LiAngelo Ball, teammates are headed home, but now it’s up to UCLA coach Steve Alford to bring the hammer

Dan Wetzel
Columnist

The “UCLA Three” are free.

Yahoo Sports confirmed that LiAngelo Ball, Jalen Hill and Cody Riley were leaving China and flying back to Los Angeles on Tuesday morning. The Wall Street Journal, citing airline employees, first reported that the accused shoplifting basketball players were seen checking into a Delta flight from Shanghai to LAX. They had spent the previous week under Chinese detention, although most of it occurred at their high-end Hyatt hotel.

The players were arrested for shoplifting last week in Hangzhou, China. They could be back on campus by Wednesday.

Their punishment, by Chinese standards at least, is minimal as they return to America.

For that, they, and the UCLA Bruins, might have to put Donald Trump’s name in for consideration for team MVP. And outspoken entrepreneur and basketball dad LaVar Ball might want to comp the man a pair of his signature Big Baller Brand sneakers (retail: $495).

If nothing else, everyone should thank their good fortune that their outrageously foolish criminal act came in the same week Trump just happened to be visiting the country, allowing him extended direct access to Chinese president Xi Jinping, whom Trump claimed he lobbied for leniency.

“The basketball players, by the way — I know a lot of people are asking — I will tell you, when I heard about it two days ago, I had a great conversation with President Xi,” Trump told reporters on Air Force One as he returned from Asia. “What they did was unfortunate. You know, you’re talking about very long prison sentences. [The Chinese] do not play games.

“[Xi] was terrific, and they’re working on it right now,” Trump continued. “And hopefully everything is going to work out. And I know they’re very grateful because they were told exactly what happened. But it’s a very, very rough situation with what happened to them.”

LiAngelo Ball and two other UCLA basketball players are headed home. (AP)

Trump was asked for clarification. Is Xi really helping out?

“I was with him — yes, he is,” Trump said. “And he’s been terrific. President Xi has been terrific on that subject. But that was not a good subject. That was not something that should have happened.”

Do you expect to see them coming home soon, Trump was asked?

“I hope so,” Trump said. “I hope so.”

And then, boom, it appears the players were cleared to catch the next flight out of Shanghai. Their teammates and coaches, who were in China to play Georgia Tech on Friday (the Bruins won), left the country after the game without them.

“Without instructions from above, they [would] not let the students out easily because the authorities want to prove foreigners are treated equally here,” Wen Yu, a lawyer based out of Guangzhou, China, told Yahoo Sports.

This could have been a whole lot worse for them without the unexpected crossing of paths between two publicity-seeking, reality-television stars — The Donald and LaVar. Maybe Trump can get a guest spot on the next edition of “Ball in the Family,” LaVar’s reality show featuring his sneaker business and life with his three sons, including Los Angeles Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball.

The players, all highly touted recruits, were accused of shoplifting sunglasses from a Louis Vuitton store in a high-end mall near the team hotel early last week. ESPN has reported there is surveillance video of them also stealing from two additional stores. They were detained last Tuesday after some 20 police officers came to the hotel and interviewed players on both teams.

They were released from police detention within 48 hours — an unusual development for the Chinese – but were confined to their hotel, a form of pseudo house arrest. A UCLA assistant athletic director remained with them. LaVar Ball and his reality television crew, meanwhile, headed to Hong Kong to open a pop-up shop selling Big Baller sneakers.

The speed and leniency provided to the Americans were a surprise to Chinese lawyers, who noted that authorities can wait up to 37 days before deciding whether to press charges, there is no mechanism for American-style bail, and penalties for stealing can be inflated to require serious prison time, perhaps even years, depending on the amount stolen. With the potential of multiple shoplifting charges, the case was difficult to predict.

“Generally, the process is slow,” Teng Baio, a visiting professor at the U.S.-Asia Law Institute at New York University, told Yahoo Sports.

For an American in China, “generally” generally goes out the window when you’re famous, connected and, in this case, have an apparent ally in the White House who just happens to be hanging around the President of China.

Of course, now it’s up to UCLA coach Steve Alford to take over the role of judge, jury and executioner.

While there is no excuse for stealing, young people should be given some leniency to acts of stupidity — and this was about stupidity more than anything else. The Ball family lives in a mansion in Chino Hills, California. LiAngelo drives a Ferrari that his father got him (and filmed live on Facebook). He can afford all the Louis Vuitton sunglasses he wants.

Acting like an idiot knows no tax bracket, though.

Besides, there is youthful stupidity and there is shoplifting in a communist country. These guys are over 18 and were high functioning enough to become UCLA basketball players.

Shoplifting shouldn’t be done in America. It shouldn’t be done in Canada or England or Australia. To do it in China, where defendant rights are but a rumor, is a remarkably brain dead and insulting action. These three started an actual international incident that required the attention of two of the most powerful people in the world.

Alford needs to be tougher than the Chinese on his players, even if Donald Trump calls and lobbies for leniency for LiAngelo and the guys on his new favorite team.

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