June 9, 2011 was Game 5 of the NBA Finals between the Miami Heat and the Dallas Mavericks.
It was also Natalie Portman’s birthday.
On the surface, there seems to be no correlation between those two events. Delving deeper, you will see that if the Heat are to ever win an NBA Championship, their supremely talented but much maligned superstar, LeBron James needs to learn something from Natalie Portman’s Nina Sayers.
Pat Riley is famous for his motivational techniques, including dunking his head in a bucket of ice water and holding out as long as possible to show you have to want a championship like it’s your last breath. During the 2006 Championship run, he extolled the mantra of “15 Strong”. But if Riley and his protégé Erik Spoelstra want a repeat of 2006, they need to look no further than Portman’s Oscar winning turn in Black Swan.
If LeBron James wants to validate “The Decision” and silence the critics, he doesn’t need to only watch Black Swan, he needs to become the Black Swan.
Much like Natalie Portman’s character Nina Sayers is the perfect ballerina, LeBron is the prototypical basketball player. If you were building a player from scratch you would start with LeBron’s body and go from there. His combination of speed, strength and athleticism is unmatched. The question that everybody has always had is his mental make-up.
In the movie, people shower Sayers with accolades and make her out to be the ballet equivalent of “the next Michael Jordan”. Even though the talent is evident, there is still doubt whether she has the make up to be the Black Swan in Swan Lake, a role that requires one to tap into their darker side.
After his performance in the finals, the doubts about James were only amplified. Does he shrink in big moments? Is his basketball DNA missing the clutch chromosome? The prevailing thought was that the most prodigious basketball player on the planet simply lacks killer instinct.
It doesn’t help that the man he joined to win multiple championships (who is by most accounts an inferior basketball player) has killer instinct. Like Mila Kunis’ Lily, he isn’t better but he is willing to let himself go. Dwyane Wade can be the Black Swan.
But for the Miami Heat to win the NBA championship, it is LeBron James who needs to transform. Pat Riley has made good players great just by getting them to buy into a philosophy. Much like the movie, you can see him leaning in and whispering into James Jones ear “Do you want this man taking the last shot?” (OK, so the movie line is a little more suggestive, but no need to make the comparison that precise.)
Sometimes, like against the Boston Celtics in the second round last year, he shows flashes of domination. But something just isn’t allowing him fully sprout his black wings. Like Nina Sayers, it might be an overbearing mother. Or it could be somebody from his past getting in his ear. After the Eastern Conference Finals series victory against the Chicago Bulls, would you be surprised if you found out that that Shaq was waiting outside the arena like Winona Ryder screaming “What did you do to get this role? He always said you were such a frigid little girl. What did you do to change his mind?” (Again, I will leave off the last part of that line.)
Natalie Portman tapped into something to become Nina Sayers, and was rewarded with the ultimate prize in her industry. Every movie she ever stars in from now on will bill her as “Academy Award Winner”. If LeBron James can let himself go, if he can play with intensity that matches his natural ability, he will also be rewarded with the lifetime title of “NBA Champion”.
To paraphrase Thomas Leroy, Nina Sayers’ director.
The only person standing in Lebron James’ way is LeBron James