MANILA/LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Three UCLA basketball players detained in China on suspicion of shoplifting arrived back in the United States on Tuesday after U.S. President Donald Trump said he had sought the help of Chinese President Xi Jinping in the case.
The players landed at Los Angeles International Airport on a flight from Shanghai on Tuesday evening, their heads down. The three - LiAngelo Ball, Cody Riley and Jalen Hill - declined to speak to throngs of reporters before boarding a bus.
“What they did was unfortunate,” Trump told reporters earlier in Manila. He said the trio, who had been held since last week, could have faced long prison sentences. Trump described Xi’s response as “terrific.”
Trump had raised the issue with Xi at a dinner held during the U.S. leader’s Nov. 8-10 state visit to Beijing. Trump was in the Philippine capital for a summit of Asian leaders.
“The relevant case involving three students has already been resolved according to law,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said without elaborating when asked at a regular briefing in Beijing about Trump’s discussion of the issue with Xi.
The three basketball players from the University of California, Los Angeles, were detained by police on Nov. 7 in the Chinese city of Hangzhou over allegations of shoplifting. They were not on the team’s return flight to the United States on Saturday.
A senior White House official said the players had been given relatively light treatment due to Trump’s intervention.
“It’s in large part because the president brought it up,” the official told Reuters.
The UCLA team had been in China for a game against Georgia Tech in Shanghai on Saturday, which UCLA won 63-60. The teams had traveled to Hangzhou earlier in the week to visit the headquarters of the game’s sponsor, Chinese tech giant Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.
The three students, all freshmen, were taken in for questioning by police about alleged shoplifting from a Louis Vuitton store.
They were released from police custody early on Wednesday and had been confined to a luxury hotel pending legal proceedings.
Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott, who had not spoken with the three players, said what had occurred was a “very regrettable situation.” Pac-12 is the college athletic conference in which UCLA participates.
“I’m just glad it’s resolved and that they’re on the way home safely,” he told Reuters by telephone from an Anti-Defamation League Sports Leadership Council event in San Francisco.
Since the matter did not occur on the court, it would be up to UCLA whether the players will be punished, Scott said.
UCLA Chancellor Gene Block said in a statement that the university’s Athletics and Office of Student Conduct would review the incident and determine any potential discipline. He said such proceedings would be confidential.
“I want to be clear that we take seriously any violations of the law,” he said.
Reporting by Steve Holland in Manila and Dana Feldman in Los Angeles; Additional reporting by John Ruwitch in Shanghai, Philip Wen and Michael Martina in Beijing, Chris Kenning in Chicago; Writing by James Pomfret and Susan Heavey; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Leslie Adler