How two anonymous UCLA players got in trouble and found themselves in an international incident

ByJoel Anderson ESPN logo
Thursday, February 22, 2018

LOS ANGELES -- One early-November afternoon, Cassius Stanley was sitting down for lunch in the cafeteria at Sierra Canyon School when the news of the day finally made its way over to his table: Three UCLA Bruins basketball players had been jailed for stealing during their trip to China.

It never occurred to Stanley, one of the nation's top players in the Class of 2019, that his longtime friend and former classmate Cody Riley would be among those embroiled in an international incident.

And why would it?

The Riley whom Stanley and most everyone at Sierra Canyon, an elite private school north of Los Angeles in the San Fernando Valley, had come to know would never be involved in something like that.

Not the straitlaced teen with a soaring flat-top haircut that made him seem even taller than his listed height of 6-foot-10. Not the same kid-giant who affably roamed the hallways and ruled the hardwood at Sierra Canyon, collecting friends from the founder of the school to the adolescent children of team staff. Surely not him.

"Oh, it's definitely got to be somebody else," Stanley said, recalling his thoughts upon hearing the reports from China. "I didn't believe anything until I heard the full facts."

The available facts were damning enough: Riley, Jalen Hilland LiAngelo Ball -- all true freshmen at UCLA -- were taken into government custody after being accused of shoplifting from three stores in a mall in the lakeside resort town of Hangzhou. The team had made a stop there before an exhibition game in Shanghai.

Hill was a virtual unknown outside of Los Angeles, a local star with lots of potential but wasn't expected to play much this season, if at all. Instead, it was the involvement of Ball, the middle son of paternal hypeman LaVar Ball and younger brother of former UCLA star and current Los Angeles Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball, that drove the early media coverage of their plight.

"It was a black eye for the program," said Etop Udo-Ema, director of the Compton Magic elite travel basketball program for which Hill played throughout high school. "But if [LiAngelo] isn't there, no one even cares. This wouldn't even be news."

They all became subjects of geopolitical interest when President Donald Trump mentioned their case to China's President Xi Jinping during an unrelated visit to Beijing.

The story became bigger and more bizarre from there: Trump and LaVar Ball would clash over the next week, starting with Ball's dismissing the importance of the president's involvement. Trump countered on Twitter that Ball was "an ungrateful fool." Ball continued to seek out an audience, joining CNN for a rambling, 22-minute interview, tweeting out an animated video of him dunking on Trump and, ultimately, pulling LiAngelo out of UCLA and placing him and youngest son LaMelo Ball in a low-level, professional league in Lithuania.

Soon after, UCLA announced Riley and Hill would be suspended for the rest of the season. UCLA declined to make them, head coach Steve Alford and athletic director Dan Guerrero available for comment.

The players' names and reputations are, for the moment, hostages to the tyranny of search engine optimization. Rather than contributing to a steadily improving team in the hunt for an NCAA tournament bid (UCLA is 19-8, 10-5 in the Pac-12, and among the "first four out" in Joe Lunardi's most recent Bracketology), Riley and Hill remain known mostly as role players in a wacky international incident -- mere fodder for headlines, for segments on sports-debate shows, for the Balls' reality show on Facebook.

"The story became about LaVar and his two kids," said Andre Chevalier, one of Riley's former high school coaches.

This is a story about who Riley and Hill were before they went to China as freshmen reserves and came back as footnotes.

BEFORE PRACTICE ON NOV. 1, Riley, junior guard Aaron Holiday and freshman forward Kris Wilkes met with members of the local media. In three days, the Bruins would board a 14-hour flight for Shanghai. Riley was asked about their preparations for the trip.

"We haven't watched a lot of film," Riley said, briefly launching into a scouting report of Georgia Tech, UCLA's opponent in China.

"What about the logistics and going over there and things like that," the reporter asked in a follow-up.

"Just that it's a 14-hour flight," Riley said. "We're going to have to adjust to the different time zones and all of that."

The trip to China had been scheduled the year before as part of a partnership between the Pac-12 and China's national organization for university sports. It was devised as a goodwill mission for the Pac-12, an ambitious but low-stakes way to bring the conference's brand and most glamorous basketball program to the world's most populous country.

This would be a valuable opportunity to promote the conference and UCLA in China, a nation with a growing economy that reportedly now sends 329,000 students to colleges in the United States.

Hall of Famer, former Bruins star and current ESPN analyst Bill Walton would goof around with local children at a basketball clinic, UCLA's spirit squad would host a cheer clinic for international students in Shanghai, and the team would take a well-publicized tour (it was one of the few events that had its own news release) of the campus of Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce giant and sponsor of the game. There would also be time -- much of it heavily coordinated and managed -- for the players to get out and soak up some of the Chinese culture.

And -- almost as an afterthought -- there would be the season opener against Georgia Tech on Nov. 10.

These overseas adventures weren't uncommon for UCLA, the program played three exhibition games in Australia in August 2016 and made a similar goodwill tour of China in August 2012. There hadn't been any hint of trouble during either of those trips, with the possible exception of poor outside shooting in a loss to an Australian professional team. This one figured to be more of the same: low risk, high upside.

"I know firsthand how valuable these once-in-a-lifetime cultural experiences can be for our student-athletes," Guerrero said in a statement announcing the game in November 2016.

On the day of the flight out of Los Angeles, the Twitter account for the UCLA men's basketball team posted a picture of four of their chummy freshmen. Riley had his arms around the shoulders of Ball and Hill.

Within a week, that picture -- with Hill and Wilkes wearing sunglasses while Ball and Riley weren't -- had become a snapshot of their tragicomic circumstances.

"I know who took the glasses just by this pic," said one tweeter, a reference to one of the items allegedly stolen in China.

THE BIGGEST -- QUITE LITERALLY -- RECRUITS in UCLA's touted freshmen class were Riley and Hill, a pair of homegrown, four-star, 6-foot-10 forwards.

They were something of a coup: the rare elite basketball prospects who spent all four years at the same local high school and wanted to go to college close to home. In a time of rootless, school- and team-hopping superstars, they were old-fashioned, hometown heroes.

Their choice of UCLA was almost quaint.

There was Riley, who once earned recognition as the country's top-ranked middle schooler and helped build the basketball program at Sierra Canyon School into a home for the talented progeny of former NBA dads such as Scottie Pippen and Kenyon Martin.

Then there was Hill, who came from Centennial High School in Corona, California, a school known more as a national football power but that went 104-29 in his four years there and was a perennial contender for the state title.

"He might be one of the more underrated prospects in the class. He has a very high ceiling because of his athleticism and physical tools," read an ESPN scouting report of Hill.

During the summer, Bruins Nation, a UCLA-focused sports blog, also ran a post with the headline: "Cody Riley Could Be The Most Important Factor To the 2017-18 UCLA Bruins."

"Defense will be the key to a title run, and Cody Riley will have to step in and dominate right away," the post concluded.

They were to be key reinforcements after last season's Sweet 16 team at UCLA, which lost Lonzo Ball, power forward T.J. Leaf and center Ike Anigbogu (one of Hill's former high school teammates) to the NBA draft. Some drop-off was to be expected but nothing like the pre-Ball year, which was only UCLA's fourth losing season in 60 years and had some at the time questioning the job security of Alford.

Also coming to Westwood would be Lonzo's younger brother, freshman guard LiAngelo.

At nearby Chino Hills High School, LiAngelo built a résumé that belied his modest stature among the nation's best players. He was the leading scorer for a team that included Lonzo, averaging 29 points per game as they went 35-0 and won a state championship and a mythical national title. He averaged 38 points the next year, even scoring 72 in a single game.

But LiAngelo was generally thought to be merely a bridge from Lonzo to his younger brother, LaMelo, a then-rising high school junior guard who ranked among the nation's top 10 recruits in the Class of 2019. LiAngelo was ultimately the lowest-rated of UCLA's six incoming recruits last fall; the Bruins' recruiting haul came in fifth nationally in the ESPN rankings, boasting a pair of five-star talents and McDonald's All-American selections in Hands and Wilkes.

In the preseason, the Bruins were picked to finish third in the Pac-12 -- behind Arizona and crosstown rival Southern California -- by media members who cover the league. To fulfill those expectations -- modest by UCLA standards -- Hill, Riley and their classmates would need to grow up quickly.

"So this year, there are a lot of question marks because we've got a big freshman class," Alford said in October. "That's kind of scary."

IN THE DAYS BEFORE the so-called Pac-12 China Game in Shanghai, social media posts and news releases showed the Bruins engaging the sort of cultural exchange the trip was meant to showcase.

They toured the Shanghai Disneyland Park with children from the Yao Ming Foundation. The Alibaba co-founder surprisingly picked Hands out of a crowd, saying he'd seen Hands play in San Diego against a rival high school attended by his children. Walton, wearing a tie-dyed shirt, charmed the locals.

Even the players' downtime was turned into a marketing opportunity; a video posted to the Pac-12 website showed Hands playfully agonizing over whether to buy a Mandarin-style suit.

"I thought it, like, had dragons on it or something," said Hands, shown a picture of one. He was quickly convinced.

"A classy look, you feel me?" he said, smiling into the camera after buying one of the suits.

The goodwill tour veered off script the next day, when Ball, Hill and Riley were arrested and questioned about stealing from three stores in a high-end shopping center next to the Hyatt on the Bund, where the team was staying in Hangzhou, a city of 9 million -- more than twice the size of Los Angeles -- about 100 miles from Shanghai.

The players were taken to the police station in Hangzhou, where they were held for several hours until posting bail on the condition they surrender their passports. Then they returned to the hotel, where they waited while the rest of the team continued on to Shanghai.

Their arrests didn't stop the main event -- UCLA defeated Georgia Tech 63-60 -- or the business opportunities.

Before the game, the Pac-12 announced next year's game would be a matchup between California and Yale, and Alibaba extended its sponsorship of the game through 2020. The Ball family had also come to China to film episodes of their Facebook reality show, which had just been renewed for a second season, and open pop-up shops in Shanghai and Hong Kong for their apparel brand, Big Baller Brand.

Then, Trump arrived in China as part of a 12-day trip across Asia. Trump would later say he asked Chinese President Xi Jinping during dinner whether he knew anything about the "knuckleheads" being held in Hangzhou. Xi wasn't familiar with the case and dispatched an aide to gather more information.

Trump's chief of staff, John F. Kelly, later claimed in The New York Times that the president's intervention led to the release of the players to their hotel. Kelly also said he spoke with the players by phone.

"To say the least, they were very apologetic," Kelly told the Times. "They were just profuse in their apologies for embarrassing the country and embarrassing the team."

Within a few days, Ball, Hill and Riley were finally on a plane back to California and Trump was on Twitter demanding appreciation for his efforts. The president also insisted that his involvement kept the players from serving five to 10 years in jail, a claim disputed by several Chinese legal experts and, of course, LaVar Ball.

"Who?" LaVar told ESPN then when asked about Trump's involvement in the matter. "What was he over there for? Don't tell me nothing. Everybody wants to make it seem like he helped me out."

Incensed by LaVar's lack of deference, Trump lashed out in his customary way: a tweetstorm. "I should have left them in jail!" he tweeted.

However, in front of the cameras filming the family's reality show, LaVar revealed a much different side. In an episode posted online last month, he openly fretted about his son's precarious situation and angrily pressed him about why he stole the sunglasses. "I just liked how they looked," LiAngelo told his father.

"You sound like a f---ing idiot," LaVar shot back at his son. "See, you going to jail with that s---."

Later, after the confrontation, he admitted that he was worried. "I always expect the worst."

THEY CAME OUT TO FACE A CURIOUS PUBLIC on Nov. 15, three humiliated teenagers staring out into a bank of cameras and microphones crammed into a room at UCLA's venerable Pauley Pavilion.

From left to right, Riley, LiAngelo Ball and Hill sat at a table draped in a cloth in the traditional deep-sky-blue color of their school, on a stage that left them slightly elevated above their audience. They each donned gray polo shirts with white pinstripes (UCLA insignia over their left breasts) and fitted jeans.

It was Riley who kicked off the news conference, leaning forward into a microphone with his arms folded on the table.

"I want to start off by saying how embarrassed and ashamed I am," he said, reading from a sheet of paper. He looked up and sighed. "I feel terrible, and I'm sorry to everybody who I have let down."

Ball followed, and then came Hill. "I hope that this mistake will not define me as a person," Hill said. "I don't want to be known for this dumb mistake."

They then hurried off the stage, taking no questions and leaving behind Alford and Guerrero to announce their indefinite suspensions from the team.

That would be Ball's only public appearance as a Bruin. Two weeks later, his father pulled him out of school and had him and LaMelo sign one-year contracts to play with Prienai-Birstonas Vytautas of the Lithuanian Basketball League. It was a divorce -- the Balls from UCLA -- that had seemed as necessary as it was inevitable.

Meanwhile, Hill and Riley were kept from suiting up, traveling and practicing with the program while their case was reviewed by the school administration. They were, however, allowed to use the athletic facilities and continue going to school.

"Their focal point has been on academics, because they missed a lot of class," Alford told reporters in early December. "The athlete part has been taken away, but the academic part has not. ... We're letting them get their feet back on the ground."

Stung by the severity of the suspensions, both players were predictably linked to transfer rumors on the social media and school fan sites. Those close to them say leaving Westwood was never a serious option.

"He loves UCLA," Udo-Ema said of Hill. "He's young anyway. He could use the redshirt year."

In the meantime, Riley sought refuge with his old friends at Sierra Canyon, even using his embarrassment as a teachable moment for some of the program's younger players.

"The way he looks at me and speaks to me now, I can tell he doesn't want me to make the same mistake," said Duane Washington, a nephew of former NBA coach and player Derek Fisher who has committed to Ohio State. "He's using something he did that was wrong to help others."

At a tournament hosted by Hill's alma mater, Centennial, in late November, Udo-Ema took the opportunity to ride his former player a little more as they watched games together.

"He was sitting there with me with his tail between his legs," Udo-Ema said. "I told him, 'You look like an idiot.'"

IN JUNE 2015, two years before he even would step on campus for his first classes, Hill committed to UCLA.

Then only a 15-year-old rising high school junior, Hill didn't have quite the national profile of Riley or the prolific scoring numbers of LiAngelo Ball. No, instead Hill just had loads of potential as a springy and versatile 6-8 forward and pedigree as the son of parents who both played at Kansas State in the early 1990s.

For Hill, UCLA seemed like a good fit, so there wasn't a need in drawing out the process; the campus was only an hour from his home in Riverside County, and he already had relationships with other future Bruins such as Anigbogu, Hands, and LiAngelo and Lonzo Ball, who lived about a half-hour away.

"The day I committed, I didn't think I was going to commit," Hill told the recruiting site in October 2015. "I took an unofficial [visit] there and thought to myself, 'Why not?' I just felt a certain way and decided to commit."

That summer was a coming-out party for Hill, who was chosen for the prestigious USA men's under-16 national team. He started with a two-week camp at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in June and then traveled to Bahia Blanca, Argentina, for the FIBA U16Americas Championship.

It was in Argentina where Hill showed he belonged on the floor with the world's best, averaging 8.6 points on a tournament-record 88.2 percent shooting and 5.0 rebounds per game. His highlights were a 14-point, 12-rebound performance in a quarterfinal win over Brazil and four blocks and the go-ahead dunk in a victory over Canada in the championship.

"He really earned his spot on the team, just through hard work and really busting his butt in practice and tryouts every day," U.S. team assistant Miles Simon told Riverside's The Press-Enterprise. "He was a huge impact for us."

Hill returned home triumphant, taking pictures with family and friends in front of his home with his gold medal. The next day, Centennial head coach Josh Giles said, Hill showed up for Giles' 5-year-old son's basketball game.

"That's the kind of kid he is," Giles said. "That should have been a day off for him."

And Hill remained committed to Centennial and UCLA over the next two years. He also remained ranked somewhere in the middle of rankings of the nation's top 100 recruits, coveted but never quite as famous as his more touted classmates.

"He checked into high school a year young," Udo-Ema said. "Everyone knew there was a lot of room of growth. If he was in the class he's supposed to be in, he'd have been top 10 in the country."

Hill's social media accounts over that time offered a glimpse into the life of a laid-back, Southern California teen: video clips of him dunking on hopelessly overwhelmed opponents, playful banter with teammates and friends and pictures from the beach with his girlfriend.

And in November 2016, Hill finally made his two-year pledge to UCLA official.

He posed for a series of pictures, beaming alongside his new coaches and teammates -- and even LaVar Ball. It was the culmination of a process that started as a spur-of-the-moment decision and eventually turned into an unwavering commitment.

"I think he was prepared to go there. I think he understood it," Giles said. "When you sign up to be a great player at UCLA, you don't get the luxury of being anonymous."

AT A HOME GAME AGAINST WASHINGTON on New Year's Eve, they watched at a careful distance while their teammates went through pregame warm-ups. Riley and Hill wore what has become to them a familiar uniform: UCLA polo shirts -- the top half blue, bottom half gray -- and black pants.

Hill went straight for a seat under the basket where the Bruins were shooting, sitting quietly with his arms folded and staring off into the distance. Riley, meanwhile, engaged in small talk with a few fans along the baseline and team staff members. When the game started a few minutes later, they took their seats at the end of the bench -- almost completely out of view.

They were virtually anonymous.

This game was little more than a week after UCLA announced their suspensions would last through the end of the year, a penalty that would keep them from joining the team on road trips or wearing uniforms to the home games.

Only five days before, Riley and Hill had finally been allowed to return to practices and team meetings.

"Since returning from China, they have done everything asked of them and continued to work hard in the classroom and in their own personal workouts," Alford said in a written statement in late December. "I am confident that they will make significant contributions to the university moving forward."

In their absence, UCLA has already lost more games than it did last year. Turns out the touted freshmen class hasn't been equal to the Lonzo Ball-led one that preceded it, but they still are in position to snag one of the final at-large berths to the NCAA tournament.

Some fans have even pointed to the loss of Riley and Hill as the source of the team's troubles: UCLA ranks 110thin the country (out of 351 Division I teams) in adjusted defensive efficiency and only 91st in rebounding margin, both areas the freshmen big men were expected to shore up.

"Based on his ability to rebound the basketball alone, I would have thought he would be out there," Giles said of Hill.

Said Udo-Ema: "He is exactly what they're missing."

Others are dubious that their presence would matter much. "Can't wait for people to come out and again say things would be different if we had Cody Riley and Jalen Hill, as if that would cause Alford to magically become a better coach," the Twitter account for the fan site Bruins Nation tweeted after UCLA's home loss to Colorado on Jan. 13.

But somehow in a letdown of a season, in which the Bruins have played before half-empty and listless crowds at Pauley Pavilion, Riley and Hill have improbably traveled the distance from the faces of a global embarrassment to a source of hope.

And, friends say, they realize a few good games for the Bruins could eventually free their names and reputations from the tyranny of search engine optimization.

"His head is in a much better place," Wang, the founder of Sierra Canyon, said of Riley. "I think he's going to come back with a vengeance."

"What would you do if the thing that defines you was taken away?" Hill tweeted on Jan. 16.

They are, for better or worse, part of the post-Ball future at UCLA. Again freshmen, again question marks.