LOS ANGELES — The saga of the basketballing Ball family — a tale literally made for TV — has gone seriously off script as one of the star sons languishes in China, detained on suspicion of shoplifting.
The detention of LiAngelo Ball, one of the featured family members in the Facebook reality series "Ball in the Family," is so high-profile that President Donald Trump personally brought it up during his meeting in Beijing last week with Chinese President Xi Jinping, a White House spokesman told NBC News on Monday.
Ball, a freshman guard for the UCLA Bruins, and two teammates, Cody Riley and Jalen Hill, were held at their hotel last week as the team was on a tour of China, local police confirmed — one day before Trump arrived in the country.
Before taking off from Manila on Tuesday, Trump confirmed that he'd spoken with Xi about the basketball players. Trump added that he hopes to see the men released soon.
Little else has emerged about the case as U.S. officials cite its "sensitivity" and the players' privacy. The U.S. consulate in Shanghai would say only that it was "aware" of the case.
Ball plays for one of the premier college basketball programs in America, based in one of the media capitals of the world, Los Angeles. But he isn't even the second most famous member of his family.
"Ball in the Family," now in its second season, chronicles the comings and goings of patriarch LaVar Ball, chief executive of the sports apparel company Big Baller Brand.
LaVar Ball, 50, was already a larger-than-life figure as a former college football and basketball player who briefly appeared on a couple of National Football League rosters before diving into the cutthroat multimillion-dollar sports gear business.
But his profile really took off a couple of years ago, when the world began learning that his sons — Lonzo, now with the Los Angeles Lakers of the National Basketball Association; LiAngelo; and LaMelo, who is on the team at Chino Hills High School east of Los Angeles — are quite good at playing basketball.
Since then, LaVar Ball has become a polarizing quote machine. Among his choicer pronouncements:
- "Back in my heyday, I would kill Michael Jordan one on one." (Jordan's response: "I think he played college, maybe? He averaged 2.2 points a game. Really? ... I don't think he could beat me if I was one-legged.")
- Lonzo Ball is better than two-time NBA Most Valuable Player Stephen Curry. (Curry: "I wish his kids the best. I know they're going to be great NBA players, because that's their job. That's it.")
- Projecting how much money his sons could make from shoe endorsements: "It just went up to $3 billion. Triple Bs — billion, billion, billion."
LiAngelo Ball's detention would appear to present a problem for the company behind "Ball in the Family," Bunim/Murray Productions of Glendale, near Los Angeles.
The company — which also makes "Keeping Up With the Kardashians" — told NBC News on Monday that it had no comment.
LaVar Ball — whom Forbes labeled "one of the most polarizing figures in sports today" — has also been uncharacteristically circumspect on the China detention, telling ESPN on Saturday: "He'll be fine. He'll be fine. Everybody making it a big deal. It ain't that big of a deal."
Ball went ahead with the opening of a Big Baller Brand shop in Shanghai as the controversy swirled around him and his family.
The Bruins, meanwhile — minus the three detained players — have returned to Los Angeles, where they will play the University of Central Arkansas on Wednesday.
UCLA's 16 pages of notes for the game take almost no notice of LiAngelo Ball.
On the other hand, Lonzo Ball — who no longer even plays for the Bruins — is mentioned 14 times.