The Hoops Whisperer (cont.)
As the players put on their gear in silence, Ravin walked the court arranging a couple dozen small orange cones. The trainer has a shaved head, a prominent nose and large, hangdog blue eyes. He wore a Dallas Mavericks workout shirt over a Washington Wizards sweat suit, none-too-subtle reminders of both his credentials and the goal at hand.
Ravin was raised in the D.C. area in a traditional Jewish household. After graduating from Maryland and from California Western School of Law, he joined a New York City law firm. But he soon soured on the field, and during his 20s, after moving to San Diego, he began coaching kids two nights a week at a YMCA, using unconventional drills of his own creation. Soon enough, as he recalls, all the kids wanted to be on Mr. Ravin's team.
A few years later, back in the D.C. area, Ravin used those same drills while casually running some workouts for college-level players. His big break came when Steve Francis, then a star at Maryland, showed up at a workout and got hooked. He in turn brought a friend who was also NBA-bound, Elton Brand. One referral led to another, and Ravin's client base grew. Before arriving at Gold's home gym last April, both Young and McClinton had heard about Ravin's techniques from Grizzlies forward Rudy Gay, so they knew what to expect. Or so they thought.
The workout began without a warmup. Going one at a time, Young and McClinton dribbled the length of the court through staggered sets of cones and finished with layups. Each time up and back they performed a different move: crossover, then behind the back, then hesitation. As they worked out, Ravin ran in front of them, commanding them to call out the number of fingers he was holding up (to ensure that the players kept their heads up), then behind them doing the same thing (to make sure they were aware of defenders). He had them finish with jump shots.
It's an elementary drill, but Ravin's process can seem counterintuitive. For starters, his workouts rarely last longer than an hour. Rather than subject players to hours of running or repetitive drills, Ravin focuses on applying lessons to game situations (remember, the players are already accomplished), using exercises designed to provide both conditioning and skill development. When Richardson first hooked up with Ravin, he was a bit bewildered. "It was only 45 minutes, but it felt like two hours," the Suns guard said. "It was weird. It was basketball, but at the same time it was conditioning. It was a whole bunch of things mixed up into one. I was like, I don't really know what all this is, but it helps."
Many of Ravin's drills are intended to create a state of confusion. In one he throws tennis balls at a player, who must catch them while maintaining his dribble. (Ravin could be seen doing this in a Nike ad with Anthony a few years back.) The goal is not to improve hand-eye coordination but rather to create sensory overload. "You make the player focus on everything else except the game, so that the game skills become automatic," explains Ravin. "You try to make the unreasonable feel reasonable."
With Young and McClinton, for example, Ravin set up 13 cones within the key, to the top of the circle, and had the players dribble among the cones without hitting them. With two balls. Moving forward and backward, left and right. Then bouncing one high and one low. This was Young and McClinton's fifth day of this drill, and upon seeing Ravin set it up, McClinton said, "This is some hard-ass s--- right here."
Indeed, it looked like a nearly impossible drill, like riding a bike through the pieces of a chessboard. Still, both players fared pretty well, only occasionally backing into a cone. "You should have seen us when we started," McClinton said.
Ravin dispensed subtle draft tips and motivation as he went. While Young ran sprints, Ravin shouted, "Lengthen your strides! Show them you're an athlete!" As McClinton ran: "Avoid your heels when you run. It makes you look heavy and slow."
He threw in references to draft position -- "Let's say you're picked 10th," Ravin said at one point to Young -- trying to keep them aspirational but realistic. "You never want to lower expectations," he explained later. "You're stepping on dreams here." When criticizing, Ravin didn't raise his voice. He said, "Terrible shot, Jack," in just the same calm tone as, "Finish strong, Sam."
Jordan, the 76ers' coach, believes this is an undervalued aspect of Ravin's approach. "The voice is important these days, whether you're a head coach or an assistant coach," Jordan says. "It's crucial that players know that you respect them. They've been yelled at so much during AAU and on up. You need a confident, direct voice, and [Ravin] has that."
Ravin also kept the workout moving at a brisk pace. He didn't use a chalkboard, didn't lecture and did most of his talking during the action. When he introduced a drill, he didn't explain it but ran it himself to demonstrate. Once the players understood what to do, he provided verbal reinforcement, saying, "Sit! Sit!" to remind them to stay low when dribbling, or "Feet parallel!" during crossover drills.
"You have to give them bits," says Ravin. "They all have ADD. They can't sit through two hours of coaching theory. Not one kid wants coaching theory." Instead Ravin makes everything interactive. "I have ADD too," he says. "As a player I'd rather do it and fail, do it and fail, than have a coach move my hand to [show me] what to do. These guys learn by movement."
The higher the skills of his clients, the more evolved the drills. When working with NBA players on finishing at the rim, for example, Ravin addresses a common shortcoming: On a drive to the basket, most players bring the ball down as they prepare to jump, exposing the ball to the defense. So Ravin has them keep the ball high as they begin their ascent.
To drill the move, Ravin stands to the side of a player, let's say Carmelo Anthony; as Anthony runs, Ravin keeps his hand waist-high, where the ball is. "I tell him to visualize Earl Boykins [defending]," Ravin says, referring to the superquick, 5' 5" former Nuggets guard. "You have to give them someone in the league they recognize to visualize. They all know Boykins and Brevin Knight, guys who have quick hands. So if I say, 'Brevin Knight is here,' they think, F------ Brevin Knight, if the ball gets too low, he strips it."
After an hour Ravin told Young and McClinton they were done. Both were drenched in sweat. McClinton stayed on the court to work on a dribble move, while Young showed off his post pivot fake. Then they and Ravin fell into an easy conversation. There was no formal evaluation, just five or 10 minutes of small talk, with Ravin mostly listening. The players talked about teammates, mutual friends, eating habits.
To Ravin, postworkout time is essential. This, he has found, is when he learns the most about his players. "That's when you can understand the guys," he says. "What do they want? How did they get here? And they're pretty candid. You see where they struggle and excel." From that he knows which buttons to push. "You try to emphasize the struggle, because that creates the humility and the rawness, which allow people to see where they're not so good," he says. "From there, you learn by how [a player] responds. Does he talk, does he complain, does he curse? Does he show up the next day earlier?"
Ravin rarely asks questions of his NBA athletes. "It's about understanding where they're coming from and how they learn, and those answers don't come from direct questions," he says. "Even something so small as a guy telling me that he's going to make sure he takes his mom out for Mother's Day -- now maybe I come at him in a more sensitive way."
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