Three UCLA basketball players detained in China on suspicion of shoplifting apologized Wednesday about the international scandal and thanked the school, the U.S. government and President Donald Trump for helping them return home.
Freshmen LiAngelo Ball, the brother of Lakers rookie and former Bruin Lonzo Ball, along with Jalen Hill and Cody Riley have been suspended indefinitely from the team, coach Steve Alford said at a Wednesday news conference with the players.
"My family raised me better than that," Ball said Wednesday, marking the players' first public comments on the allegations.
The three Bruins arrived at LAX late Tuesday afternoon after a 12-hour flight from Shanghai. They ignored shouted questions while making their way through a horde of reporters outside and got into a van that took off from the departure level.
"We are grateful they were able to safely return home," Alford said. "To say that our young men are incredibly fortunate to have this kind of support system, is an understatement.
"These are good young men who exercised an inexcusable lapse of judgment," he added.
Ball, Riley and Hill will not travel with the team or suit up for home games. They will remain suspended as the players go through the university's disciplinary review process.
"They will have to earn their way back," Alford said.
Alford also thanked the President for his "nonstop efforts."
"Thank you to the U.S. government and President Trump for your efforts," Hill said during the news conference at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion.
President Trump, who said he had a long conversation on the matter with Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, questioned in a tweet earlier Wednesday whether the players would express gratitude. All three individually thanked Trump and apologized for their actions, admitting that they stole items from stores near the team's luxury hotel.
"Do you think the three UCLA Basketball Players will say thank you President Trump? They were headed for 10 years in jail!"
By Thursday morning, Trump acknowledged their gratitude and cautioned them to be careful moving forward.
"To the three UCLA basketball players I say: You're welcome, go out and give a big Thank You to President Xi Jinping of China who made ... your release possible and, HAVE A GREAT LIFE! Be careful, there are many pitfalls on the long and winding road of life!" he said in two tweets.
UCLA Athletic Director Dan Guerrero noted that White House Chief of Staff John Kelly spoke to the three players on the phone over the weekend.
On Tuesday, Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott said that the matter involving the Bruins players, detained during a team trip to China Nov. 7, "has been resolved to the satisfaction of the Chinese authorities." The players were not allowed to play in the 23rd-ranked Bruins' season opener Saturday against Georgia Tech in Shanghai, but the school has not announced any further punishment.
UCLA Chancellor Gene Block said the school is weighing its options.
"I want to be clear that we take seriously any violations of the law," he said in a statement. "In this particular case, both Athletics and the Office of Student Conduct will review this incident and guide any action with respect to the involved students. Such proceedings are confidential, which limits the specific information that can be shared."
There was no immediate word whether Ball, Riley and Hill will play in the team's home opener Wednesday night against Central Arkansas. The players are part of a highly-touted UCLA recruiting class, but their actions off the court have drawn more attention at the start of the college basketball season.
Ball averaged 33.8 points as a high school senior. His brother, Lonzo, played one season in Westwood and left early for the NBA draft. LiAngelo Ball apologized for "stealing from the stores in China."
"I didn't exercise my best judgment and I was wrong for that," he said. "I apologize to my family my coaches and my teammates and UCLA for letting so many people down. I also apologize to the people of China for causing them so much trouble."
The Balls' outspoken father, LaVar, was in China at the time of the incident. He spent some time promoting the family's Big Baller Brand of athletic shoes with his youngest son, LaMelo, while his middle son was detained.
Forwards Hill and Riley, both four-star recruits, figure to bolster 7-foot senior Thomas Welsh in the frontcourt.
"I want to start of by saying how embarrassed and ashamed I am for disappointing my family, my teammates, my coaches an the entire UCLA community," Riley said. "I feel terrible and I am sorry to everybody that I've let down. With that being said, I take full responsibility for the mistake I have made -- shoplifting."
Scott thanked President Trump, the White House and the State Department.
"We are grateful for the role that our Chinese hosts played, and for the courtesy and professionalism of the local authorities," Scott said in his statement. "We also want to acknowledge UCLA's significant efforts on behalf of their student-athletes. Finally, we want to thank the President, the White House and the U.S. State Department for their efforts towards resolution."
Trump spoke to reporters in the Philippines as he prepared to return to Washington after a nearly two-week visit to Asia that included an earlier stop in Beijing.
"He's been terrific," Trump said, referring to Xi.
Asked about the case Tuesday, China's foreign ministry said it had no additional comment. On Monday, ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said that three American men were being investigated in the eastern city of Hangzhou for alleged theft and that China and the U.S. were in contact over the matter.
"China will handle this case in accordance with law and protect the lawful rights and interests of the people involved," Geng said.
UCLA's chancellor released a statement late Tuesday morning.
"I would like to express my gratitude to all who helped us get to this point," said Chancellor Gene Block. "I also want to acknowledge everyone who wrote or called to express their thoughts and concerns. We have heard and appreciate everyone’s views. I want to be clear that we take seriously any violations of the law. We remain one of the world's top academic institutions in large part because of our values and standards, which we work hard to infuse throughout our campus community.
"When members of the UCLA family fail to uphold these values, we review these incidents with fair and thorough processes. In this particular case, both Athletics and the Office of Student Conduct will review this incident and guide any action with respect to the involved students. Such proceedings are confidential, which limits the specific information that can be shared."
The Bruins traveled to China as part of the Pac-12's global initiative that seeks to popularize the league's athletic programs and universities overseas. The China Game is in its third year, and while the scandal was developing the league announced that California and Yale will play in next year's edition.
The game was sponsored by Alibaba Group, the Chinese commerce giant that both UCLA and Georgia Tech visited before the shoplifting incident occurred.