A Final Four-sized media contingent crammed into the Dick Enberg Press Room at Pauley Pavilion on Wednesday for an anticipated press conference that would reveal contrition, remorse,and, interestingly, more details about the international shoplifting incident that linked an infamous college basketball offseason with the captivating start of an unprecedented regular season.
The arrest -- and eventual domestic Chinese release -- of UCLA players LiAngelo Ball, Jalen Hill and Cody Riley has also connected the President of the United States with the family of the most famously outspoken father in the current American sports culture.
"I didn't exercise my best judgment and I was wrong for that," Ball said. "Apologies to my family, coaches, teammates and UCLA for letting so many people down. … I made a stupid decision. I'm grateful to be back home and I'lll never make a mistake like this again. I take full responsibility for my actions."
LaVar Ball now owes Donald Trump a debt. What a world.
President Trump did his usual thing on Twitter Wednesday morningif UCLA's trio of freshmen would thank him for his role in allowing them to leave China a few days after their teammates did. Riley opened the press conference, and like his teammates, read from a prepared statement. All thanked Trump. (UCLA coach Steve Alford did, too.) All three freshmen owned up to their mistakes, full stop, and thoroughly apologized. None took questions, not even Alford or UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero.
Do you think the three UCLA Basketball Players will say thank you President Trump? They were headed for 10 years in jail!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 15, 2017
For the players, this was a necessary first public step toward owning up to breaking the law -- and giving thanks for not being detained for weeks or even months in a communist country.
"I feel terrible and I'm sorry to everybody that I've let down," Riley said. "I take full responsibility of the mistakes I've made shoplifting. I know this goes beyond me letting my school down. I let the entire country down. … I can assure you I will never do anything again to jeopardize UCLA's reputation."
For UCLA, this was also about next-stage damage control. What Ball, Riley and Hill did is a deep stain of embarrassment to the school, the type of thing that's easy to joke about from afar but remains a serious issue for the power brokers who work at that university. It's clear UCLA is still trying to get its house in order. Ball, Riley and Hill haven't even been back in the States for 24 hours, and one set of statements isn't going to slow the geyser of coverage and widespread curiosity that will surround the men's basketball program in the immediate future. This story stretches beyond sports coverage. Gossip TV shows and national nightly news programs are baking this into their coverage, in good part because of the Trump factor.
There will probably be another tweet, maybe two, to come from Trump, and because the season's only begun and the players remain indefinitely suspended, the debacle from Hangzhou is sure to go down as the defining event of UCLA's 2017-18 season. This is a probable NCAA Tournament team, but the next few months have been hijacked by three first-year players who will come off the bench -- if they even wind up playing for the Bruins this season.
"What I did was stupid, there's no other way to put it," Hill said. "I hope you can forgive my stupid and childish actions."
The scene at UCLA on Wednesday afternoon was a few shades removed from what Ball, Hill and Riley returned to U.S. soil on Tuesday night, when they got the full-blown Kim Kardashian paparazzi treatment upon leaving LAX.
LiAngelo Ball had actually, kind of amazingly, managed to be a fairly anonymous public figure despite almost a year's worth of headline-creating braggadocio brought on by his father; the success of his older brother, Lonzo; and the blossoming fame of his younger brother, LaMelo. That's gone forever for LiAngelo now. He's no longer famous; he's infamous for this. Riley and Hill have a long way to go to removing this from being the only thing they're known for, too.
It's why the indefinite suspensions all three are facing appear to be the pragmatic, if not mandatory, move. Alford announced the three players would not be practicing, would not be traveling with the team and would not be wearing UCLA apparel during home games. They've got to earn that back, and if Alford's actions match his tone, it's going to be a few weeks at least before any of them don a Bruins uniform.
About that indefinite suspension ruling, though. It's already drawn some eye rolls, and I get it. Indefinite suspensions are often a default cover move made by a coach or, in some situations, an athletic director. At times, behind the scenes, the suspensions are in fact definite. College coaches have also been known to use the "indefinite" terminology as a way to temperature-check public reaction, then lift the suspension when interest or outrage has faded. This can backfire, too. Mike Krzyzewski was rightfully jeered after turning Grayson Allen's "indefinite" suspension into a one-game sit-down last season, after all the tripping debacles.
UCLA's situation is different. This is not just a coach or an athletic director handing down discipline. Riley, Ball and Hill will have to answer to the university's judicial affairs board. These are people outside the athletic department. Players at other schools have faced elongated suspensions, even expulsions, after violating university policies for other matters. If there are adults at UCLA angry enough at what these freshmen have done, they could rule over Alford's head and take away their playing privileges for the entire season.
And that's to say nothing of what the Pac-12 could decide to do. If UCLA ends up going light with punishment for the freshman threesome, they could still wind up sitting longer. Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott has in his jurisdiction the authority to suspend the players further, particularly in league play. These decisions would be made behind closed doors, though, and we're not at that point yet. Also keep in mind that the players, Alford and Guerrero were lavish in their thankfulness for Pac-12 officials' help over the past week.
"As a coach, you recruit these men for a long time and you get to know they very well through the process," Alford said. "These are good young men who have exercised an inexcusable lapse of judgment. And now they have to live with that. They let a lot of people down in the process. ... I would like to again apologize on their behalf. These young men are going to have to prove their words and actions that this who they are. … They're going to have to regain the trust of this athletic department, of this university, and because this was such a high-profile international matter, the trust of the general public."
Alford's right. Each player reading an impressively written statement of contrition doesn't mean suspensions should be lifted. Giving a definite number of games is also not on the table yet, not when UCLA's student code of conduct demands further review of what happened in China.
They're three teenagers who did something really dumb, but Guerrero confirmed this was a three-store crime, not just one spur-of-the-second shoplifting thrill. How about some room for reason and measured rebuke? We can find common ground to discuss this without drifting to either extreme.
But now that we've heard from everyone of note at UCLA, and the President of the United States, we sit and wait for what's to come next. Because while UCLA held its press conference, there was a 50-year-old man flying across the Pacific Ocean, on his way back from Asia. He was almost certainly donning a shirt with "BBB" emblazoned the front, heading straight for LA.