‘Know any­thing about th­ese knuck­le­heads?’

How Trump helped free UCLA play­ers

Santa Fe New Mexican - - SPORTS - By Mark Landler and Michael D. Shear

MANILA, Philip­pines — Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump found out about the great UCLA-China bas­ket­ball episode of 2017 when mem­bers of his staff saw it on CNN just be­fore Trump’s din­ner with the pres­i­dent of China in Bei­jing last week.

They learned that three Amer­i­can col­lege bas­ket­ball play­ers — rep­re­sent­ing a sto­ried sports pro­gram vis­it­ing China for an early-sea­son game spon­sored by one of China’s largest com­pa­nies — had been ar­rested Nov. 8, ac­cused of steal­ing de­signer sun­glasses at a high-end shop­ping mall.

The al­leged of­fense was hardly life or death. But what be­gan as a sim­ple ac­cu­sa­tion of celebrity shoplift­ing threat­ened to es­ca­late into a full-blown in­ter­na­tional in­ci­dent just as Trump ar­rived in China on a 12-day mis­sion through Asia, his first for­eign trip to the re­gion. “Th­ese are law and or­der guys; they have pretty swift jus­tice,” John Kelly, the pres­i­dent’s chief of staff, said of the Chi­nese au­thor­i­ties in an tele­phone in­ter­view later. “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.”

In ad­di­tion to Trump, the week­long diplo­matic drama in­volved the play­ers them­selves, who re­mained de­tained at their ho­tel in the pro­vin­cial city of Hangzhou for most of the week; UCLA, an elite Amer­i­can univer­sity with an in­ter­na­tional reputation; and the Chi­nese re­tail gi­ant Alibaba, which spon­sored the team’s visit.

In other cases, de­tained Amer­i­cans have be­come geopo­lit­i­cal pawns, of­ten trapped in a kind of le­gal limbo for months or years.

And in a few in­stances, the out­come has been hor­rific, as in the case of Otto Warm­bier, an Amer­i­can stu­dent in North Korea who was tor­tured and later died af­ter be­ing de­tained on charges that he tried to steal a poster from his ho­tel.

But just as con­cern deep­ened about the fate of the three young ath­letes in China, their de­ten­tion abruptly ended, aided, it seems, by Trump’s di­rect in­ter­ven­tion with the coun­try’s pres­i­dent, Xi Jin­ping. On Tues­day, the three play­ers, in­clud­ing star fresh­man LiAn­gelo Ball, the brother of the NBA rookie Lonzo Ball, were al­lowed to leave their ho­tel and board a flight back to Cal­i­for­nia.

“The three UCLA men’s bas­ket­ball stu­dent-ath­letes in­volved in the in­ci­dent with au­thor­i­ties in Hangzhou, China, are on a flight back home to Los An­ge­les,” the Pac-12, the ath­let­ics con­fer­ence to which the univer­sity be­longs, said in a state­ment, adding that “the mat­ter has been re­solved to the sat­is­fac­tion of the Chi­nese au­thor­i­ties.”

“We want to thank the pres­i­dent, the White House and the U.S. State De­part­ment for their ef­forts to­wards res­o­lu­tion,” the state­ment said.

Kelly, who ar­rived back in the United States with Trump Tues­day night aboard Air Force One, pro­vided de­tails about the pres­i­dent’s diplo­matic out­reach on be­half of the UCLA play­ers.

“Our pres­i­dent said to Xi, ‘Do you know any­thing about th­ese knuck­le­heads that got caught al­legedly steal­ing?’ ” Kelly said. Un­aware of the episode, the Chi­nese pres­i­dent dis­patched an aide to get more in­for­ma­tion. “The presi-

dent was say­ing, ‘It’s not too se­ri­ous. We’d love to see this taken care of in an ex­pe­di­tious way,’ ” Kelly added.

The three play­ers had been ac­cused of shoplift­ing from a Louis Vuit­ton store next to their ho­tel in Hangzhou, in eastern China, where they were pre­par­ing to play in a tour­na­ment. (Play­ing with­out the three fresh­men, UCLA de­feated Ge­or­gia Tech, 63-60, in Shang­hai on Fri­day.)

Kelly said Trump’s in­ter­ven­tion, as well as diplo­matic 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. It was there that Kelly talked to Chris Carl­son, an as­so­ciate ath­letic di­rec­tor at UCLA, and to the play­ers on the phone the next day.

“To say the least, they were very apolo­getic,” said Kelly, who point­edly did not ask the stu­dent-ath­letes whether they had, in fact, at­tempted to steal the mer­chan­dise they were ac­cused of tak­ing. “They were just pro­fuse in their apolo­gies for em­bar­rass­ing the coun­try and em­bar­rass­ing the team.”

Kelly told the play­ers that Trump had in­ter­vened on their be­half and that he was “very op­ti­mistic that this would be taken care of in short or­der.”

In China, where the jus­tice sys­tem has a very high con­vic­tion rate, theft can bring pun­ish­ment rang­ing from a few days to years in prison. Kelly said that had the play­ers been charged with the equiv­a­lent of felonies — be­cause of the high cost of the mer­chan­dise — they could have re­ceived prison sen­tences of five to 10 years.

“I bet they learned a les­son in their lives,” he said.

Trump was un­char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally quiet about the play­ers and their sit­u­a­tion un­til his over­seas trip was wind­ing down. He did not tweet about the case as the play­ers sat trapped in their rooms. U.S. of­fi­cials did not put out any state­ments about the sit­u­a­tion.

But once he was headed home, Trump pro­vided the first in­di­ca­tions that the ac­tions of the three young men had prompted a con­ver­sa­tion at the high­est of lev­els.

“I will tell you, when I heard about it two days ago, I had a great con­ver­sa­tion with Pres­i­dent Xi,” Trump told re­porters dur­ing a brief con­ver­sa­tion Tues­day be­fore the stu­dents were for­mally al­lowed to leave their ho­tel. “He was ter­rific, and they’re work­ing on it right now. And hope­fully ev­ery­thing is go­ing to work out.”

Trump called the al­leged ac­tions of the bas­ket­ball play­ers “un­for­tu­nate,” and grimly noted the tough­ness of the Chi­nese ju­di­cial sys­tem. “You know, you’re talk­ing about very long prison sen­tences,” the pres­i­dent told re­porters. “They do not play games.”

Trump has made much of his per­sonal rap­port with Xi, who hosted a lav­ish state visit last week for the pres­i­dent in Bei­jing. The two lead­ers met again at an eco­nomic sum­mit meet­ing on Sun­day in Viet­nam, where Trump raised the case of the de­tained bas­ket­ball play­ers.

“He’s been ter­rific,” the pres­i­dent said. “Pres­i­dent Xi has been ter­rific on that sub­ject.”

The warm pres­i­den­tial re­la­tion­ship ap­peared to pay off with the re­lease of Ball, a fresh­man guard; and Cody Ri­ley and Jalen Hill, both fresh­men for­wards. Trump em­pha­sized that it was a “very, very rough sit­u­a­tion, with what hap­pened to them.”

The high­est-pro­file of the three who had been de­tained was Ball, the mid­dle of three sons in a bas­ket­ball-play­ing fam­ily so well known that it has its own real­ity show on Face­book, “Ball in the Fam­ily.” The el­dest brother, Lonzo, plays for the Los An­ge­les Lak­ers, and the youngest, LaMelo, is a high schooler who has com­mit­ted to play at UCLA. Their fa­ther, LaVar, has be­come a pub­lic fig­ure, and has started a sports-ap­parel com­pany, Big Baller Brand, to mar­ket both his sons and the fam­ily name.

The UCLA team’s trip to China had been seen as a way to raise the pro­file of the univer­sity in that coun­try, pos­si­bly at­tract­ing stu­dents who have well-to-do par­ents and who want to study abroad. Many U.S. uni­ver­si­ties in re­cent years have in­creas­ingly re­lied on tu­ition pay­ments from for­eign stu­dents.

The ar­rests of the three young men could have derailed ef­forts to bridge the cul­tural di­vide. Hours be­fore their re­lease, Trump told re­porters that the in­ci­dent “was not some­thing that should have hap­pened.”

But even then the pres­i­dent seemed to know some­thing pos­i­tive might be in the works. Asked if he ex­pected to see the bas­ket­ball play­ers com­ing home soon, he an­swered: “I hope so. I hope so.”

Just hours later, they were on a plane, too.

Don­ald Trump

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