He apologized that day for disappointing his teammates, his coaches, an entire country. Among the three UCLA basketball players who made the solemn march into an interview room to stare into a phalanx of television cameras and speak about shoplifting from stores in China, Cody Riley went first, vowing to show he was worthy of the school that had embraced him through his darkest moment.
Over the next 4 ½ years, Riley lived up to those words, creating a new set of enduring images. He pushed through injuries and stayed after practice for extra work, never letting the strain of it all show as he restored both his image and the Bruins’ brand.
A year after helping UCLA reach its first Final Four in more than a decade, Riley has decided to move on, forgoing one remaining season of college eligibility to begin the rest of his life.
Saying he was “proud to say I never quit and can hold my head up high knowing I gave everything I could to the four letters every chance I got,” Riley announced his farewell Friday on Instagram.
“To both the fans and the critics,” Riley wrote, “I heard you every step of the way. Both the love and the criticism propelled me forward in their own ways. I appreciate it all.”
Riley’s decision came with the blessing of coach Mick Cronin, who thanked the veteran big man for everything he contributed during his five years in the program while acknowledging it’s time to move on considering Riley turns 25 in December.
“He’s at a point in his career where he’s been great for us, he’s come a long way at UCLA, he grew up a lot, he did a great job helping me rebuild the program,” Cronin said, “but at this point with his age, he’s got to try to play for money while he can.”
That would likely entail playing overseas for a 6-foot-9 forward who is not equipped with a NBA skill set or listed on any mock draft boards. Cronin said Riley had a cleanup procedure in his knee three days after the season ended but is now fully recovered and training for his next basketball endeavor.
Riley missed nearly two months after spraining the medial collateral ligament in his left knee in the season opener. He returned in January and averaged 7.3 points and 3.9 rebounds in 21.6 minutes per game for the season while splitting time with Myles Johnson.
Riley was less productive around the basket than he had been the previous season, when he averaged 10 points and 5.4 rebounds while helping the Bruins reach the Final Four, lingering on the court as confetti floated around him after a victory over Michigan in the regional final. In his final season, Riley tended to rely on midrange jumpers for his scoring and was a slightly less effective defender and rebounder in the wake of his injury.
The departures of Riley and Johnson, the latter of whom is also giving up one year of remaining eligibility to begin his engineering career, will lead to significant turnover in the post for the Bruins. True freshman Adem Bona and redshirt sophomore Mac Etienne, who missed last season with a knee injury, will battle for a starting spot, with plenty of minutes left for the other player.
Riley’s announcement also solidifies the roster for next season, barring the addition of any transfers. The Bruins are expected to return three starters in point guard Tyger Campbell, guard-forward Jaime Jaquez Jr. and guard Jules Bernard, assuming Bernard does not make a surprising leap to the NBA after announcing he would assess his professional potential.
Riley was the last player remaining from the international shoplifting incident in November 2017 that rocked UCLA and led to season-long suspensions for the three offenders. LiAngelo Ball left before playing in a regular-season game for the Bruins, and Jalen Hill retired from basketball after 3½ seasons with the team.
“I didn’t want to feel like I was trying to run away from the situation or anything like that,” Riley told The Times in March 2020 about his resolve to remain a Bruin. “I felt like if I was at a good position where I was at, then I just had to stand tall, keep my head held high and overcome it.”
Riley posted on social media he would host a skills clinic for ages 12-18 on June 11 at Vasquez High in Acton. Those who attend can learn about rebounding, positioning and, if Riley is in the mood to share his journey, redemption.
“To any young kid who happens to be reading this,” Riley wrote in his farewell Instagram post, “you can achieve anything you want in life as long as you work hard and believe in yourself. Face every challenge head on, hold yourself accountable and never quit, even if you got the whole world looking down on you.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.