Inside the international incident that rocked UCLA's season

ByArash Markazi ESPN logo
Saturday, March 3, 2018

UCLA's long, strange season comes down to one game. On Saturday, March 3, the Bruins head across town to Southern California's Galen Center for a game that could determine the NCAA tournament hopes of both teams (10:15 p.m. ET, ESPN). As of March 1, ESPN's Bracketology projected USC as one of the last teams to make the field -- and UCLA as the first team left out.

This isn't exactly how UCLA expected events to play out when the season started four months ago against Georgia Tech in China. Then again, nothing went as expected after landing in Shanghai on Nov. 5. What would transpire over the Bruins' six days in the country -- and the three extra days spent by freshmen LiAngelo Ball, Jalen Hill and Cody Riley after they were arrested for shoplifting -- became international news that entangled the leaders of the world's two biggest superpowers, the co-founder of a $500 billion company and the most infamous sports dad in America.

While the story made for bold headlines, the details of what transpired in China largely remained under wraps until now. Over the past three months, ESPN conducted a series of interviews with multiple sources who were on the ground in China to recreate a moment-by-moment depiction of the events.

Among the new details that have emerged: what the players stole from the other two stores besides the sunglasses from Louis Vuitton; that the players were required to leave the police station multiple times to return the items they stole to all three stores; that one player hid a pair of stolen sunglasses in UCLA head coach Steve Alford's hotel room; how UCLA and Pac-12 officials bailed the players out of jail without committing an NCAA violation; how charges were dropped, the bail refunded and the players' passports returned two days before White House chief of staff John Kelly called the players to inform them that President Donald Trump was working on their release; how UCLA appeased Chinese authorities by keeping the players in China for 72 hours after the rest of the team had returned to Los Angeles; and why school officials thought it wise to thank Trump and Kelly while still unsure of the impact of their efforts.

What follows is a timeline of UCLA's season-opening trip to China that would change the fortunes of three players and a team that seemed like an NCAA tournament lock in November.

Sunday evening, Nov. 5

Hangzhou was supposed to be the low-key leg of UCLA's trip to China, a mandatory inconvenience 110 miles to the south, meant as a courtesy to the Pac-12 China game's presenting sponsor, e-commerce giant Alibaba, and as an educational field trip for the players.

UCLA arrived at Shanghai Pudong International Airport at 6:55 p.m. local time after a 13-hour, 30-minute flight and immediately boarded buses for a three-hour ride. The team arrived at 11 p.m. at the Hyatt Regency Hangzhou, a five-star hotel on the city's serene West Lake, and were instructed to meet in the lobby at 8 a.m. the following morning. "Everyone knew, logistically, this was going to be the hardest part of the trip," one UCLA source said. "The last thing we wanted to do when we got to Shanghai was get on a three-hour bus ride to Hangzhou."

Monday morning, Nov. 6

Alibaba had recently extended its sponsorship of the Pac-12 China Game through 2020, and the on-campus visit by both teams was meant to be educational for the students, as well as to allow school administrators a chance to discuss academic programs with each other and Joseph Tsai, the executive vice chairman and co-founder of Alibaba. UCLA chancellor Gene Block, UCLA vice provost Cindy Fan, UCLA engagement director Stephen Tan and UCLA professor Ren Sun all accompanied the team.

Monday afternoon, Nov. 6

After speaking to school administrators from UCLA and Georgia Tech, Tsai held a shootaround with both teams at Alibaba's on-campus gym and spent an hour going over new technology and e-commerce in China with them and taking questions. Tsai, who had recently reached an agreement in principle to purchase a 49 percent minority stake in the Brooklyn Nets, knew many of the UCLA players by name. Tsai has a family home in La Jolla, California -- about 120 miles south of UCLA -- and singled out UCLA freshman guard Jaylen Hands, saying he saw Hands play at Foothills Christian High. "I couldn't believe he knew who I was," Hands said. "It was unbelievable."

Monday evening, Nov. 6

UCLA returned to the Hyatt around 5 p.m., and players were given 90 minutes to explore the lakeside area's high-end shops, including Louis Vuitton, Giorgio Armani, Gucci and Prada.

Three UCLA freshmen, Ball (18 years old at the time), Riley (19) and Hill (17), walked to Pinghai Road, where they entered the Louis Vuitton store shortly after sunset, made their way to the second floor and looked at a display of sunglasses. Ball attempted to buy a pair that retailed for $730, but his credit card was declined, not an uncommon occurrence for people on a trip who had not alerted their credit card companies of their travels.

Ball, Riley and Hill left the store and talked outside before re-entering a few minutes later. The players returned to the second floor, and each took a pair of glasses and exited without paying. The trio then walked across Pinghai Road to a mall with more affordable retail stores such as Uniqlo, Zara and H&M and took more sunglasses, these of the $15 variety, from a local boutique store before walking into H&M and snagging a 5-pack of beaded bracelets retailing for $6. When Ball, Riley and Hill made the short walk around the street corner back to the Hyatt, the three freshmen had shoplifted from three stores in a span of 90 minutes.

Tuesday morning, Nov. 7

Around 7:45 a.m. eight police cars and approximately 15 officers arrived at the Hyatt. The Louis Vuitton store had reported the shoplifting, which had been captured on cameras mounted in each corner of the ceiling. Street surveillance footage had also shown the players leaving the store and eventually returning to their hotel across the street.

Going off passport photos of hotel guests, the officers initially questioned three Georgia Tech players -- sophomore Justin Moore and freshmen Jose Alvarado and Jon Brown -- and one UCLA player, Ball. UCLA was housed on the sixth floor of the hotel, with Georgia Tech staying on the fifth floor. So, while Ball was questioned in his room on the sixth floor, Moore, Alvarado and Brown were questioned separately a floor below.

Officers quickly determined that Moore, Alvarado and Brown had nothing to do with the crime and shifted focus to Ball's teammates. Riley and Hill, who had already boarded one of the team buses heading to Shanghai, were taken off the bus to separate rooms on the sixth floor to be questioned. The players, all wearing UCLA hoodies, brought their backpacks with them, but their larger traveling bags were already loaded for the bus.

According to sources present during the interrogation, the players were visibly shaken, and initially hesitant to admit to any wrongdoing before being told of the surveillance footage. Ball eventually admitted to taking the glasses, which were still in his room. Hill also admitted to the theft and had the glasses inside his backpack. Riley, while being questioned inside Alford's room, at some point managed to take the glasses from inside the pocket of his hoodie and shove them between couch cushions.

Tuesday afternoon, Nov. 7

At around 2:30 p.m., Ball, Riley and Hill were handcuffed with their arms in front of them, but hidden underneath their zipped-up hoodies. The rest of the UCLA team had already left on the buses heading to Shanghai. The players were taken to the lobby and out into waiting police cars, which took them to the police station about 15 minutes away.

The players were accompanied by UCLA associate head coach Duane Broussard and Pac-12 associate commissioner Gloria Nevarez and were later joined by Alford and UCLA associate athletic director Chris Carlson. UCLA athletics director Dan Guerrero was notified of the situation on his flight to Shanghai, which was set to land around 7 p.m. He was coincidentally on the same flight as LaVar Ball and relayed the news to him.

Ball was traveling with family, including his wife, Tina, and youngest son, LaMelo, as well as the crew filming their "Ball in the Family" reality show. They were not only traveling to Shanghai to watch LiAngelo play his first game at UCLA -- they had also scheduled Big Baller Brand pop-up shop openings in Shanghai and Hong Kong that the reality show crew would film. When the episode of LiAngelo's arrest aired, it appeared as if LaVar and the family found out about the incident after checking into the hotel.

Although the Georgia Tech players were cleared of any wrongdoing, Moore, Alvarado and Brown still had to fill out paperwork at the police station, effectively saying they were questioned but did nothing wrong. With the rest of the Georgia Tech team headed for Shanghai as scheduled, Georgia Tech assistant coach Tavaras Hardy and associate athletic director Marvin Lewis accompanied the players to the police station. The group left for Shanghai around 3 p.m. When Ball, Hill and Riley arrived at the police station they were put in a concrete holding cell divided by yellow lines that they were told not to cross.

Tuesday evening, Nov. 7

Around 5 p.m., nearly 24 hours after they had shoplifted the sunglasses from Louis Vuitton, each player was taken separately out of the holding cell and driven to the store. Riley first had to be driven back to the Hyatt where he was taken to Room 651, Alford's room, to retrieve the glasses he had hidden in the couch. Ball and then Hill were driven separately to Louis Vuitton to return the glasses they had taken and were identified by the employees.

During this time, everyone but Ball, Riley and Hill believed this was a one-store shoplifting incident, perhaps a momentary teenage lapse in judgment. UCLA and Pac-12 officials at the scene sensed that they would be allowed to leave and rejoin the team in Shanghai the next day.

But around 7 p.m., the boutique across the street from Louis Vuitton reported that sunglasses had been shoplifted from their store Monday. A couple of hours later, H&M called about bracelets shoplifted from their store the same night. Surveillance footage confirmed it was again Ball, Riley and Hill.

"The police were basically wrapping up everything in terms of the investigation and paper work," one school source said. "It was three teenagers making one big, dumb mistake. And just when we thought it was over, we find out about the second store, and then we find out about the third store."

Tuesday night, Nov. 7

Each shoplifting incident was treated as its own separate case and required the players to once again travel to the stores individually, return what they had stolen and be identified by the employees working at the time. With the two stores across the street from Louis Vuitton being so close in proximity, that only required one round-trip drive for each player. The problem was, some of the items they had taken were still in the players' larger travel bags, which were in Shanghai with the UCLA team. The Pac-12 arranged for a Toyota Coaster to bring the players' luggage -- as well as the luggage of Alford, Broussard, Nevarez and Carlson -- to Hangzhou. They did not yet know the fate of the players, but Alford, Broussard, Nevarez and Carlson, who were waiting outside the police station, knew they would be staying the night no matter what.

Around midnight, the party waiting for the players outside the police station was notified the trio could be released on a bail amount of 15,000 RMB, a little over $2,200. Their passports would be withheld so they could not leave Hangzhou, but they were allowed to return to the Hyatt and walk about the city as any other tourist would. The school would later instruct the players to stay inside the hotel until the matter was completely resolved. A local Chinese citizen working with the Pac-12 during their trip also had to sign for the players, effectively taking responsibility if anything happened while they were out on bail, and stay with them at the hotel. That individual, along with Nevarez and Carlson, were tasked with overseeing the players once they were released and returned to the Hyatt.

"They really bent over backwards for us," one school source said. "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. They knew they were here for a game and made a mistake. When we found out they were going to be allowed to return to the hotel, we knew this was going to be resolved pretty quickly."

Wednesday morning, Nov. 8

There was some question initially about adhering to NCAA rules in posting bail for the players. Would it be a violation, for example, if Alford had taken $2,200 from his personal account? Could anyone with ties to UCLA or the Pac-12 post bail?

Eventually, two third-party individuals in China assisting the Pac-12 took out the bail money, counted the 15,000 RMB on a table in the lobby of the Hyatt, put it in an envelope and gave it to Carlson. He bailed the players out around 2:45 a.m., after about 12 hours of confinement.

"I remember the question came up about the bail money and if there were any NCAA issues," said Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott, who found out about the incident while on a train from Hangzhou to Shanghai. "What I told our team was our first and foremost priority needs to be the welfare of the student-athletes. Let's get the money together and get them out of the police station, and we will clarify anything that needs to be clarified afterwards or ask for forgiveness. But I viewed it as an emergency situation and any reasonable person would support us getting the money together to get the student-athletes out of the police station."

Alibaba, with the backing of Tsai, was assisting UCLA and the Pac-12 during the entire ordeal, with the Federation University Sports China also offering their assistance if needed. Ball, Riley and Hill were put in the same room when they checked back into the Hyatt a little after 3 a.m. on Wednesday. Alford and Broussard were able to take a short nap before departing for Shanghai in order to take the team through their scheduled practice at Concordia International School in Shanghai around 9 a.m. Carlson and Nevarez stayed back with the players in rooms on the sixth floor adjacent to the trio.

LaVar, staying at the Shanghai Hyatt on the Bund along with UCLA and Georgia Tech, received an update on his son's situation from Guerrero. When asked for a comment during breakfast at the hotel, Ball told ESPN he would hold a news conference in his hotel room later that day, despite the absence of any other media outlets on the ground in Shanghai covering the story at that time.

Wednesday afternoon, Nov. 8

News of the incident and who was involved had broken back in Los Angeles around noon PT on Tuesday. At that point Ball, Riley and Hill were already checked back into the Hyatt, while Alford and Broussard were preparing to rejoin the team in Shanghai. The only lingering question was when the players would be allowed to leave Hangzhou to either rejoin the team or return to Los Angeles.

"There was a feeling on Wednesday that this wasn't going to last long; maybe a week," one school source said. "Everything had been returned, the players had apologized, they complied with every request that was made, and I think the authorities recognized that they were dealing with three teenagers who had made a mistake they'll never forget. There was no police presence at the hotel. They knew us at that point. They weren't looking to drag this thing out, but they also didn't want the players to rejoin the team the next day as if nothing had happened. At the end of the day, they still shoplifted from three stores."

In Shanghai, LaVar Ball canceled the in-room news conference and said, "I'm going to wait until I get some more intel on what's going on, and then I can tell you what's up."

When asked if he was worried about LiAngelo, he said, "He'll be fine. He'll be fine. Everybody making it a big deal. It ain't that big of a deal."

Wednesday evening, Nov. 8

The Ball family did not visit LiAngelo on Wednesday despite finding out about his situation on Tuesday and being told they could stay at the same hotel if they wanted. Instead, they went sightseeing in Shanghai, visiting the Oriental Pearl Tower and getting dinner at The Captain, a bar and grill on the waterfront area known as The Bund. Meanwhile, UCLA and Georgia Tech returned from a day at Shanghai Disneyland while avoiding questions about the players left behind in Hangzhou.

Thursday afternoon/evening, Nov. 9

While UCLA practiced at Concordia International School, the Ball family spent most of Thursday at the hotel, watching oldest son Lonzo and the Lakers take on the Celtics. LaVar and LaMelo then got in a black Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, along with family friend and business partner, Alan Foster, and drove to Hangzhou. Their two-hour visit with LiAngelo at the Hyatt was recorded for their reality show before LaVar, LaMelo and Foster returned to Shanghai. It would be the only time LaVar and LaMelo visited LiAngelo in Hangzhou as they prepared for a Big Baller Brand pop-up shop in Shanghai on Friday.

While questions remained publicly about the future of Ball, Hill and Riley, the situation was being resolved behind the scenes. That evening, the three players along with Nevarez and Carlson were told to come into the police station early Friday morning.

Friday morning, Nov. 10

Around 7 a.m., Ball, Hill and Riley were given their passports back and Carlson returned the bail money. The charges were dropped, but there was a secret handshake agreement between school officials and Chinese authorities that the players would not leave until Tuesday, one week after they had been detained.

"It was important for [Chinese authorities] that the players were left back for a couple of days after the rest of the team flew home," one team source said. "We agreed not to say anything and not comment until they returned home. They wanted there to be some kind of punishment and avoid the perception that they got off easy. Their flights were switched from Saturday night to Tuesday night, so they were going back home 72 hours after the rest of the team. So, it wasn't like we found out Tuesday morning they were coming home that day. We knew. That was already the plan Friday morning."

Friday afternoon/evening, Nov. 10

Guerrero met the three players on Friday at the Hyatt and talked to them about what had happened. UCLA's director of basketball operations, Doug Erickson, also arrived in Hanzhou to relieve Nevarez and allow her to return to her conference duties with the situation effectively wrapped up. Meanwhile in Shanghai, LaVar held a Big Baller Brand pop-up shop opening at WZK Sneaker Shop, which attracted more than 100 fans.

Saturday, Nov. 11

LiAngelo's mother, Tina, along with her parents and LaVar's mother, visited LiAngelo before UCLA played Georgia Tech. LaVar and LaMelo attended the game, signing autographs and taking pictures with fans in the crowd despite UCLA officials instructing them to keep a low profile. The Ball family would depart for Hong Kong on Sunday ahead of a pop-up shop they had planned there on Tuesday.

The Bruins, ranked No. 18 in the USA Today Coaches Poll, defeated Georgia Tech 63-60, but everyone wanted to know about the status of Ball, Hill and Riley after ESPN reported the players would be left behind in China. UCLA's flight from Shanghai to Los Angeles left around 9 p.m. without the three players and their two caretakers. The story picked up traction among news outlets, with some reports suggesting the players could be stranded in Hangzhou past the holidays.

Sunday, Nov. 12

Donald Trump first found out about the situation, according to The New York Times, when members of his staff saw it on CNN just before Trump's dinner with the president of China, Xi Jinping, in Beijing on Thursday. Trump would later tell reporters on Tuesday, Nov. 14, that he first heard about the situation "two days ago," at which point he personally asked the Chinese president to look into the matter. The White House did not respond to requests to clear up the timeline, but UCLA sources say they didn't become aware of Trump's involvement until Sunday 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. A Pac-12 source, who was not present for the actual call from Kelly, confirmed the UCLA sources' description of the timeline.

"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 when Gen. Kelly called the players."

In a New York Times story headlined "How Trump Helped Liberate UCLA 'Knuckleheads' from China," Kelly said Trump's intervention, as well as efforts by State Department diplomats, led to the reduction of the charges to the equivalent of misdemeanors as well as the release of the three players to their hotel where they were placed under temporary house arrest.

"The players were already checked into the hotel before the public discovered they were arrested," a team source said. "They also were not under house arrest. It was our decision to keep them at the hotel until the situation was resolved. The charges were dropped, they weren't reduced, and that happened two days before we heard from Gen. Kelly."

Monday, Nov. 13

The status of the players was headline news in the United States, but in Hangzhou the players were packing their bags and getting ready for their Tuesday flight home. Carlson and Erickson made sure the players were staying on top of their homework and put them through workouts at the hotel gym while trying to keep them away from the growing number of media that had descended upon the hotel.

Tuesday, Nov. 14

Ball, Riley and Hill, along with Carlson and Erickson took a nonstop Delta flight from Shanghai that landed in Los Angeles at 4:55 p.m. News of their return broke in the morning when they were spotted at Shanghai Pudong International Airport. The players were met at Los Angeles International Airport by camera crews, reporters and photographers before heading back to campus in a black Mercedes-Benz Sprinter.

Wednesday, Nov. 15

Ball, Hill and Riley, along with Alford and Guerrero addressed the media at Pauley Pavilion during a news conference but did not take any questions. Everyone thanked Trump for his involvement. Guerrero also singled out Kelly for calling the players. While the students wrote their own statements, they were encouraged by school officials to thank Trump. Prior to the news conference, Trump tweeted, "Do you think the three UCLA Basketball Players will say thank you President Trump? They were headed for 10 years in jail!"

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."

The school announced that the players were suspended indefinitely.


On Dec. 4, less than a month after returning home following the incident, LaVar pulled LiAngelo out of UCLA saying, "He wasn't punished this bad in China." On Dec. 22, UCLA suspended Hill and Riley for the remainder of the season but allowed them to return to practice starting Dec. 26.

Less than a week after leaving UCLA, LiAngelo, and his younger brother LaMelo, who had committed to playing at UCLA despite being pulled from Chino Hills High as a junior, signed on to play for Vytautas Prienai, a professional basketball club in Lithuania. The move ended the college careers of both players before they could even begin. UCLA dropped from the Top 25 after a Nov. 20 loss to Creighton and is 18-10 going into their final game of the regular season at USC.

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