Pictured: Hyatt Regency in Hangzhou and the three arrested UCLA players (from top to bottom: LiAngelo Ball, Jalen Hill, Cody Riley)
One of the biggest China sports stories of the past year concerned three UCLA basketball players who shoplifted from three stores in Hangzhou in advance of a season-opening showcase game. The story went viral for two main reasons: News of their arrest broke just as President Donald Trump arrived in China for a state visit, and one of the players was LiAngelo Ball, younger brother to Los Angeles Lakers guard Lonzo and son of motormouth LaVar, whose reality show Ball in the Family has helped turn the family into the Kardashians of the sports world.
By a stroke of luck, ESPN reporter Arash Markazi had been in China to cover the League of Legends World Championship final in Beijing the previous weekend, and stuck around to catch up with the basketball players. His reporting kept the story at the top of the sports news cycle for 10 days, until the players — Ball, Jalen Hill, and Cody Riley — were allowed to go home, a few days after their teammates had departed.
In a re-creation of the timeline, Markazi has now published a full account of what went on behind the scenes. Hotly debated at the time, he exposes Trump’s claim that he was responsible for negotiating the release of the trio:
UCLA sources say they didn’t become aware of Trump’s involvement until Sunday [November 12] when White House chief of staff John Kelly called the players to say that Trump was intervening on their behalf and that he was optimistic of a quick resolution.
“The situation was already resolved by the time we heard about Trump’s involvement,” one team source said. “That’s not to take away from the fact that he got involved, but the players already had their passports back and their flights booked to go home Tuesday night [November 14] when Gen. Kelly called the players.”
That plan had already been negotiated by a combination of people from UCLA, the Pac-12, Alibaba (which sponsored the game in Shanghai against Georgia Tech), and the Chinese authorities, with flights booked on Friday, November 10. Even so, Trump tweeted this on November 15:
Do you think the three UCLA Basketball Players will say thank you President Trump? They were headed for 10 years in jail!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 15, 2017
And at a press conference following the players’ arrival in Los Angeles, everyone — all three players, plus UCLA coach Steve Alford and athletic director Dan Guerrero — thanked Trump for his involvement. Markazi reports:
One UCLA source stressed that the school can’t know for sure everything that Trump and Kelly did behind the scenes, so the school felt a thank you was in order.
“It just seemed like the right thing to do,” the source said. “Everyone wanted to move on and put this behind us. Why get into it with the president? Let’s not create another story by not thanking him. He had already tweeted about getting a thank you the morning of the press conference, so thank him and move on.”
Markazi’s otherwise solid report could use a little supplementary information, however. At one point, the article quotes a UCLA source saying, “I think they saw how hard we were working to make things right and how sorry the players were and, quite frankly, how mad we were at them.”
Emphasis mine. Because the players weren’t sorry. At all.
A source with firsthand knowledge of the negotiations between the two sides told me that the trio achieved the rare feat of pissing off everyone on all sides, from the Chinese police to UCLA and the Pac-12. Just when they were about to get released after the initial Louis Vuitton theft had been resolved, footage then emerged of a second incident, and then a third, showing that the players had never voluntarily come clean about what they had done.
However, the players never showed genuine remorse — at least, not during their time in China. They were, the source says, only sorry they got caught.
The players apparently also indulged in junk food — more or less exclusively — despite being surrounded by plenty of fine southern Chinese cuisine. Here is a screenshot of one of their deliveries from KFC:
And another one from a local sports bar:
For what it’s worth, Wade’s Bar & Grill does appear to have some healthy options, but the players clearly decided to avoid them.
Finally, one important detail is Markazi’s role in keeping the story at the top of the news cycle. On Wednesday, November 8, LaVar Ball told Markazi that he planned to hold a press conference in his hotel room later that day, ostensibly just for Markazi (often the only reporter covering the case), who then tweeted he was trying to persuade his SportsCenter colleagues to air the press conference live.
I’m working on getting LaVar Ball press conference live from Shanghai on SportsCenter but will Periscope as well. It should start in about 20 minutes or so.
— Arash Markazi (@ArashMarkazi) November 8, 2017
That tweet alerted UCLA and Pac-12 officials, who then told Ball in no uncertain terms that he might jeopardize the ongoing deal to release the players if he talked about it on live TV and the Chinese police didn’t like what he said. The players had already posted bail and were back in their hotel room, but the deal to allow them to fly home still had to be finalized.
As a result, Ball abruptly canceled his press conference in a rare — or perhaps only — example of Ball Sr. rejecting the chance to go on live television. But LaVar already knew at that time that LiAngelo and the others would likely be fine — days ahead of Trump’s “involvement” — which is why, when asked if he was worried, Ball gave the following, now famous, quote: “He’ll be fine. He’ll be fine. Everybody making it a big deal. It ain’t that big of a deal.”
All three kids had all charges dropped and returned to Los Angeles, but were immediately suspended by UCLA for the rest of the season. While Jalen Hill and Cody Riley have now been allowed to return to practice, LaVar Ball decided to pull LiAngelo from the program and send him over to Lithuania with his 16-year-old brother LaMelo — thought to be the most talented of the three boys — where they have struggled to make an impact in the professional league.
Toward the end of the ordeal last November, LiAngelo took time to thank one of the hardworking staffers who assisted the trio during their enforced hotel stay in Hangzhou:
For our money, China is a much more fun place to visit than Lithuania. Let’s see how long before the allure of Chinese yuan brings the family back to this country.