It took a highly unusual assist from President Donald Trump for a trio of promising young UCLA basketball players to score this week.
Not just any score — they scored their freedom from Chinese authorities after being detained for shoplifting a pair of sunglasses from a Louis Vuitton store in a high-end shopping center next to the hotel where the team had been staying in Hangzhou, China prior to a highly-publicized game with Georgia Tech.
The three miscreants – LiAngelo Ball, Jalen Hill and Cody Riley — the president called them “knuckleheads” — made the colossal blunder of trifling with laws in a foreign country, something that doesn’t always work out so well for Americans abroad.
The incident happened just before the president arrived for meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Trump raised the issue of the players’ detention with the president, asking him to resolve it in an expeditious way.
“What they did was unfortunate,” Trump said later, “You know, you’re talking about very long prison sentences. They do not play games in China.”
John Kelly, Trump’s chief of staff, who met with the trio of players while they were under detention in their hotel, echoed that and said, “These (Chinese authorities) are law and order guys; they have pretty swift justice. An awful lot of American kids don’t realize that the kinds of things that in United States society we tolerate with a slap on the wrist, a lot of countries they take very seriously.”
We have only to look back to the horrific case of Otto Warmbler, a University of Virginia honors student who was traveling in China in 2016 and decided to take a five-day side trip to North Korea through a Chinese touring company. Warmbler was detained at Pyongyang airport and convicted of trying to steal a North Korean propaganda poster from his hotel. He spent 17 months in prison and then was sent home in a coma and died four days later.
The UCLA trio is very fortunate that the U.S. president was able to put in a good word for them and secure their release. Kelly said that had the trio been charged with felonies — because of the high cost of the merchandise — they could have received sentences of five to 10 years in prison.
Ten years. That would have taken them out of the freshman class at UCLA and put them back on the basketball court well after their college days and certainly dented or dismissed their chances for lucrative NBA contracts.
What a lucky bunch the “Hangzou 3’ is.
After a lengthy flight from China, the trio arrived back in Los Angeles looking hang-dog and contrite, as well they should have been.
Their actions abroad not only caused an international stir, but it disgraced their university and their country and potentially caused UCLA some serious financial damage because it heavily recruits international students from China at high tuition rates.
While Chinese authorities said they are satisfied with the outcome, that still leaves UCLA with the determination of what action to take over the students’ conduct.
The university set the tone for that review and indicated they were taking it seriously on Wednesday when UCLA coach Steve Alford announced the three student athletes were suspended from the team indefinitely and will not suit up for home games or travel with the team until the Athletic Department and Office of Student Conduct do that review.
“These are good young men who have exercised an inexcusable lack of judgment and now they have to live with that,” Alford said.
While some may argue the students should be expelled for being bad ambassadors for UCLA and harming its reputation, that strikes us as harsh given that none of the three have had any previous run-ins with the law. More appropriate would be a several-game suspension from the basketball team coupled with community service.
And they might want to drop a personal thank-you note to the president, not just thank him in their statements Wednesday where they apologized for their action.