Divisive; setting the competitive bar for his sport; pursuing consecutive championships. LeBron James is SEC football, and SEC football is LeBron James.
James and the SEC are the forerunners of their games. Such status guarantees both boisterous supporters and detractors.
Both camps were well represented in the reaction to each of LeBron James’ first two performances of the NBA Finals. The detractors celebrated his Game 1 failure, while supporters gained vindication from his show-stopping Game 2.
The former, commonly referred to as schadenfreude, is a common cheer that emanates from the rest of the college football-watching nation whenever a championship-contending SEC juggernaut goes down–which isn’t often.
But one example that nicely parallels LeBron James in Games 1 and 2 of these NBA Finals: Alabama’s loss to Texas A&M in 2012. The defending national champion Tide–winners of a championship that came with plenty of contention from SEC detractors–were dropped behind Kansas State, Oregon and Notre Dame with just a few weeks left to play.
Now, Alabama could surpass one in that time. But two? That couldn’t happen.
Until it did. K-State and Oregon lost late-season conference games, and Alabama delivered a beat-down of Notre Dame in the BCS Championship Game akin to LeBron’s takeover against the Spurs in Sunday’s Game 2.
Indeed, detractors of both LeBron James and the SEC have their moments to revel, but they don’t last long. Both remain at the pinnacle of the game, even when others climb to the same level.
The Spurs and LeBron’s Heat are as evenly matched as two teams can be. Both are at the apex of the sport, win or lose–much like the SEC, even in Auburn losing the national championship to Florida State, was one possession from an eighth straight title.
Still, critics might point to both stacking the deck in their respective favor, facilitating their own greatness through imbalance.
After repeated failures in the NBA Playoffs with the Cleveland Cavaliers, James made “The Decision” to partner with Team USA teammates Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on the Miami Heat.
The 2004 season was the SEC’s version of Cleveland’s Game 6 loss to the Celtics. Behind a loaded backfield of Jason Campbell, Ronnie Brown and Cadillac Williams, Auburn ran the table. However, a conference title and perfect regular season record was not enough to land the Tigers in the Orange Bowl, location of that year’s BCS Championship Game.
A competitive win over Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl also wasn’t enough to force a split championship with USC, one year after the Trojans split titles with the SEC’s LSU Tigers.
Ever since those consecutive slights, the Us-Against-The-World attitude that defines SEC fans is evident in the media that covers the conference, and occasionally even the programs.
There exists a solidarity in all phases of SEC that manifests in important phases of college football, sometimes at the detriment of other conferences: voting Alabama into the 2012 BCSCG ahead of Oklahoma State despite the Cowboys winning twice as many games against opponents ranked at season’s end; Andrew Luck’s woeful showing among Southern ballots for the 2011 Heisman Trophy. Prominent SEC media voice Paul Finebaum leaving Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III off his Heisman ballot altogether on the basis of how RG3 may have hypothetically fared against SEC competition.
Much heat leaving RG3 off my Heisman ballot. Nice player- but SEC defenses would have eaten him alive. Haters get a clue.
— Paul Finebaum (@finebaum) December 7, 2011
In the same way The Decision lingers over LeBron’s championships, critics will cling to certain elements to diminish SEC football dominance.
Eight-game conference schedule. Late November matchups with Football Championship Subdivision opponents when the rest of the nation is embroiled in league play. A perceived overstatement of the SEC’s dominance in media. As the above Finebaum tweet demonstrates, there are those to whom real-life, tangible play on the field means less than a hypothetic world in which all that is SEC football is infallible.
Ultimately though, such criticisms do nothing to change the dominance of either LeBron James of SEC football. Both set the bar to which every other player and team aspires.