Jae C. Hong, AP
UCLA basketball player Cody Riley, left, reads his statement as he is joined by teammates LiAngelo Ball, center, and Jalen Hill during a news conference at UCLA Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2017, in Los Angeles. Three UCLA basketball players accused of shoplifting in China admitted to the crime and apologized before coach Steve Alford announced they were being suspended indefinitely.

SALT LAKE CITY — Maybe President Trump didn’t succeed in changing China’s policies toward North Korea and trade during his recent visit to Asia, but at least he freed three UCLA basketball players. We might all wonder if that was time well spent, but there you go: North Korea’s nuclear threat, trillion-dollar trade deals and college basketball all on the same agenda.

"I'm sorry for shoplifting,” said Jalen Hill, who, along with LiAngelo Ball and Cody Riley were arrested before a game in Shanghai after helping themselves to merchandise in three different stores, including $750 Louis Vuitton sunglasses. “What I did was stupid. There's just no other way to put it …"

Nobody was debating the point.

“I learned my lesson,” says Ball.

Apparently, he had to go all the way to China to learn that it’s bad manners to take things that don’t belong to you, especially when you’re a guest. Actually, it’s considered a little worse than bad form in China, where they don’t know what a millennial is, or his sense of entitlement.


Do not shoplift: This is not America, where shoplifting gets you a small fine and/or a sentence of six months or less. In China, shoplifting will get you a minimum sentence of three years in prison to a maximum sentence of 10. In some countries, instead of getting a slap on the wrist, you get it cut off. That wouldn’t do much for the crossover dribble.

As White House chief of staff John Kelly put it, “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.”

UCLA’s light-fingered trio got off with a week of house arrest in a luxury hotel. The charges were dropped and they were even refunded the $2,200 that was paid for bail. Another lesson learned: If you are a big-time athlete, there are no real consequences.

Maybe the worst part of the entire experience was that the players had to thank Trump for their freedom. Trump is persona non grata among the jock set these days, but they owed him. Trump happened to be in the neighborhood — he was visiting China and other Southeast Asian countries. During talks with Chinese president Xi Jinping, Trump raised an awkward subject in an aside during an economic summit in Vietnam on Sunday.

"Our president said to Xi, 'Do you know anything about these knuckleheads that got caught allegedly stealing?'" Kelly told the New York Times. “The president was saying, 'It's not too serious. We'd love to see this taken care of in an expeditious way.'"

And so it was. Later, it was suggested that the trio thank Trump. By whom, you might wonder? Read on.

“Do you think the three UCLA basketball players will say thank you President Trump? They were headed for 10 years in jail! — Tweet from President Trump.

On Thursday morning, the three shoplifters appeared at a press conference at UCLA.

“I take responsibility for the mistake I have made — shoplifting,” said Riley, who didn’t explain whom else he could possibly have blamed. You might also take issue with his use of the word “mistake.” A mistake is a spelling error, unintended; shoplifting is intentional. He continued, "I know that this goes beyond me letting my school down, but I let the entire country down."

One by one they each dutifully thanked the president. "I would also like to thank President Trump and the United States government for all the help they provided as well," said Ball.

Reading from a prepared statement, Ball concluded, “I also want to let everyone know this does not define who I am. My family raised me better than that.”

Maybe not. LaVar Ball, his loud-mouthed father/self promoter, wondered what all the fuss was about. “Everybody is making it a big deal,” LaVar told ESPN. “It ain’t that big of a deal.’’

So much for that Father of the Year trophy, but in the end he’s probably right. UCLA coach Steve Alford suspended the players indefinitely pending a review by the university and noted that "at some point they may be permitted to join team workouts, practices and meetings, but that timeline has yet to be determined."

In other words, they’ll be back on the court this season.