As the great Vince Lombardi once said, “What the hell’s going on out there?” The House inquiry into the possible impeachment of President Donald Trump is just the latest in a series of protracted and complex legal struggles that the American public has tried to make sense of during the 45th president’s tenure.
As with Robert Mueller’s investigation and testimony as to whether Trump colluded with Russia to interfere in the 2016 election, there is an abundance of text and chronological data to sift through, a large revolving door of characters involved and a passionate groundswell of public opinion on both sides of the accusation that Trump’s contact with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky constitutes an impeachable offense.
Trying to make sense of all the information at hand can be confusing and discouraging, so I decided to recast the impeachment issue in terms more accessible to some readers. Hence: The Impeachment Inquiry, NBA Edition. This is a character-based study; we (maybe just me) are interested in drawing comparisons between NBA players and personalities and the key actors in the Trump-Ukraine scandal.
We have no choice but to start at the eye of the storm: Trump himself. Choosing an NBA player to compare to a repugnant and dangerous man with the power and predilection to harm millions of innocent people felt cruel and inaccurate. So I chose Skip Bayless. A controversial sports pundit who is paid millions of dollars to be vicious and stupid, Bayless’ rants on national television and Twitter about LeBron James are inexplicable and petty. His assaults on the #WashedKing, as he calls LeBron, are reminiscent of the ad hominem missiles Trump launches at myriad journalists and Democrats. (Given that he’s a pundit, Bayless’ assholery should be qualified and the man himself cut some slack.)
The LeBron to Donald Trump’s Skip Bayless is none other than Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Aside from being frequent Twitter targets of the aforementioned antagonists, LeBron and Pelosi both frequently have their age and position of power brought up in conjunction. At the age of 34, LeBron is said to be slowing down. He’s no longer a top three player in the NBA, decry foolish droves of fans. Nancy Pelosi, at 79, is also said to be too old to hold the most powerful seat in the House of Representatives. Republicans run congressional campaigns lambasting their Democratic opponents simply for voting with her.
This is white noise, though. Pelosi is still the speaker of the House, and as such it was she who officially commenced the impeachment inquiry. As of writing, LeBron’s Lakers sit atop the Western Conference. He leads the NBA in assists, and is averaging nearly 25 points and eight rebounds per game to boot. At the end of the day, he’s LeBron Fucking James. The conversation starts and ends with him. When it comes to impeachment proceedings, Pelosi is LeBron. (When it comes to basketball, Pelosi is not LeBron.)
How did the impeachment process even begin? A whistleblower from the ominously named “intelligence community” (New York Times, “Inside Adam Schiff’s Impeachment Game Plan,” 11.05.2019) filed a complaint. The contents of this complaint were unknown, because Joseph Maguire, the Director of National Intelligence, refused to turn it over as the law demands. When Adam Schiff, the Chair of the House Intelligence Committee, subpoenaed Maguire, the contents of the complaint were made public—and here we are. Schiff ushered in a whole new scenario for impeachment; calling him a trailblazer is facetious but not necessarily wrong. Unsurprisingly, he has drawn the wrath of Trump and his Republican supporters in Congress. Trump refers to Schiff as “Little Adam Schitt.”
If you know who Schiff is, you either think he’s a brave public servant demanding that Trump be brought to justice, or you think he’s destroying democracy by leading a witch hunt to impeach the president. What if there were an NBA player as divisive as Schiff—a hooper whose style of play polarized the basketball universe and raised the foundational question of what basketball should look like?
There is, and his name is James Harden. Feasting exclusively on isolation possessions, nearly every time Harden has the ball, he either takes a step-back three or drives to the rim, at which point he a) takes a layup, b) draws a foul or c) finds an open teammate for a shot. He dances with his defender, using his elite change of speed and bulky frame to create a window of separation before launching a 27-foot flamethrower or muscling into the lane. While Harden works, his teammates stand and watch.
Old-school basketball fans are the Republicans of this scenario; they bemoan Harden’s iso-heavy style of play as selfish, unwatchable and hopeless. They point to the fact that his Rockets squad never beat the pass-happy Warriors, and cry out that he’s ruining the sport we all love. The impeachment-seeking Democrats are the Harden fans. They point out that he scores in isolation more efficiently than any other player ever, and more effectively than most teams do. His way is the right way. Any critics, they believe, are simply afraid of the future of basketball. So, James Harden is Adam Schiff.
The final comparison brings us to a recent bit of impeachment-related news. Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, made headlines on Nov. 5 when he reversed his earlier statement that there had been no quid pro quo between Trump and Zelensky (New York Times, “Sondland Updates Impeachment Testimony, Describing Ukraine Quid Pro Quo,” 11.05.2019). Claiming that the testimony of two other witnesses in the House hearings refreshed his memory, in his new deposition Sondland recalled telling one of Zelensky’s aides that there had been a quid pro quo. This admission represents a major piece of evidence in the case for impeachment, if it comes from the most unlikely of sources.
Sondland was not supposed to be such a major player in this process. He made millions by building an Airbnb empire in the Pacific Northwest, and was appointed an ambassador to the EU basically because he donated a million dollars to Trump’s inauguration fund. There is an NBA player who recently rose to unlikely prominence on basketball’s biggest stage. The Gordon Sondland of the NBA is Fred VanVleet.
Fred VanVleet stands six feet tall. He went undrafted in 2016 after a remarkable career at Wichita State, a perennial mid-major powerhouse that has graduated a Shocking (their mascot is the Shocker (this refers to the process of shocking, by which grain is arranged in sheaves)) number of NBA players. After a solid 2018-19 regular season backing up Kyle Lowry for the Toronto Raptors, VanVleet erupted in the Finals against the Warriors.
He stifled Stephen Curry, spearheading head coach Nick Nurse’s genius defensive scheme to guard the two-time MVP fullcourt and play him as physically as possible off the ball. VanVleet made clutch three-pointer after clutch three-pointer, including a moonshot in the fourth quarter of the clinching Game Six that felt like it was in the air for several years. I was dismayed when he didn’t win Finals MVP (He didn’t deserve it, but I go to war for little guys and Shocker alums. Fred VanVleet is my god). So, an unlikely character plays a major role when it matters most, albeit for very different reasons. Fred VanVleet is Gordon Sondland.
A team with LeBron and Harden is hard to beat under any circumstances, try as the Skip Baylesses of the world might. The only time the two MVPs played together was for Team USA in the Summer Olympics, and they didn’t lose a game. That Nancy Pelosi and Adam Schiff can commandeer the House inquiry to the metaphorical gold medal of impeachment is no guarantee, though experts and I agree that Trump will be impeached by the House but not removed from office by the Senate.
Trump disagrees. He argues that it’s clear and obvious that there was no quid pro quo. To use the title of Skip Bayless’ podcast and talk show, Trump’s innocence is, according to Trump, “Undisputed.” We’ll see.
[Correction: A previous version of this article named the whistleblower as a member of the intelligence “committee.” They are in fact a member of the intelligence community.]