Hours before President Donald Trump landed in Beijing earlier today, news of a potential diplomatic crisis in the making emerged when the Wall Street Journal and other media outlets reported that three UCLA college basketball players had been detained in China for shoplifting.
While authorities wouldn’t confirm if the three players - allegedly including high-profile freshman LiAngelo Ball, a member of a prominent college-basketball family - were detained in China, WSJ managed to confirm the news with several sources, including the staff at the hotel where the Bruins, ranked No. 21, were staying before beginning their college basketball season Saturday in Shanghai against Georgia Tech.
Sources said the other two players detained were Cody Riley and Jalen Hill.
UCLA has acknowledged the incident.
“We are aware of a situation involving UCLA student-athletes in Hangzhou, China,” UCLA said in a statement. “The university is cooperating fully with local authorities on this matter, and we have no further comment at this time."
The team was staying at a hotel in Hangzhou, where a representative of the team said: “We are not taking questions right now."
Details on the alleged shoplifting were unclear, though ESPN reported that the incident occurred at a Louis Vuitton store. A spokeswoman for the luxury brand said by email: “There is an investigation going on at the moment and we are not able to further comment."
It was unclear where the three players are, or if they’re in the custody of Chinese authorities. According to WSJ, Hangzhou police have been involved in an investigation that began Monday and included the questioning of three players at a station-house but they, along with a team staff member, have returned to their hotel in the city as evidence is being gathered, according to a person in the news department of the local Public Security Bureau. She said the three aren’t formally under arrest. “We didn’t limit their personal freedom."
Three Georgia Tech players were questioned by local authorities at their hotel, according to a Georgia Tech spokesman, and it was determined they “were not involved in the activities being investigated.” Those players have resumed their activities with the team.
Speaking in Beijing, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, without confirming details on the matter, said “China will handle this case in accordance with the law and ensure the legitimate rights and interests of the people involved."
A US State Department official told WSJ via email “We are aware of reports of three U.S. citizens arrested in China. We stand ready to provide consular assistance for U.S. citizens. Due to privacy considerations we have no further comments."
A representative of the Hyatt Regency Hangzhou hotel said the UCLA team had stayed there and three players were detained by local police. She said she had no further information.
The two teams were in the country as guests of Hangzhou-based Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. and its billionaire co-founder, who recently bought into the Brooklyn Nets professional basketball team. Alibaba has since 2015 sponsored an annual regular-season Pacific-12 Conference basketball game in Shanghai.
While the incident may not have received so much attention under normal circumstances, the timing - coinciding with Trump’s first official visit to China - and Ball’s celebrity have become complicating factors, as WSJ explains.
Lonzo’s rise to stardom was accompanied—and in the eyes of many, superseded—by the brash outspokenness of LaVar Ball, his father, who entertained and infuriated fans as he loudly promoted his family, himself and their brand. He became a celebrity in his own right by making the boldest, headline-grabbing claims to anyone who would listen. He said he could have beaten Michael Jordan in 1-on-1 and that his son would be better than Golden State Warriors superstar Stephen Curry.
These theatrics combined with Lonzo’s ability made the Ball family a national phenomenon—especially with Lonzo’s two younger brothers, LiAngelo and LaMelo, talented basketball players set to follow in Lonzo’s foot steps by playing at UCLA. LaMelo is still in high school.
LaVar converted the family’s fame into a Facebook reality series “Ball in the Family” that has drawn tens of millions of viewers. He and Lonzo also eschewed the mega shoe deals that players of his caliber typically get out of college to start their own venture—Big Baller Brand—with a signature shoe that cost $495, a decision that only added to the spectacle.
LaVar Ball didn’t respond to messages left at his Shanghai hotel room.
Even if Chinese authorities give them a pass, by the sound of it, the three players will face some type of disciplinary action when they return to California.
In a statement, Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott said: “We are very disappointed by any situation that detracts from the positive student-athlete educational and cultural experience that this week is about.” He said players are expected to uphold the highest standards and that the league is monitoring the situation.
Luckily for the players, Trump's fueding with athletes has been confined mostly to professional sports leagues. Let’s hope, for their sake, that Trump has three extra seats on Air Force One. If the three get jammed up, maybe Trump can work something out - assuming they're prepared to promise never to kneel during the National Anthem.