The Hoops Whisperer (cont.)
To be successful, Ravin realized, he had to see the world through each player's eyes. "The biggest mistake you can make is thinking these guys are stupid and inarticulate," he says. "Whatever language they speak, they speak it well. And it's not incumbent on them to understand me; it's up to me to understand them."
His approach was evident in the different ways he communicated with McClinton and Young during their workouts. McClinton was eager and unafraid to fail; Young was more guarded. "It's just how each guy learns," says Ravin. "With McClinton, I can give him the whole platter right away, and he'll dig in. With Young, I just need to cut up the steak bite by bite. And it's up to me to figure that out." (Both players would end up being drafted in the second round, Young by the Grizzlies and McClinton by the Spurs.)
Failure to understand a player's psyche is a flaw Ravin sees in the disciplinarian style of some coaches. Rather than empowering a player, they strip him of his authority. "At the end of the workout, I'll give players the option to run," explains Ravin. "I'll say, 'I think you've got more in you, but it's your choice.' They'll always run if you present the option in a fair way. And then when they're done, I'll say, 'I'm impressed with you. I think you have half a tank of gas left. I think it'd be great if you did another one.' And they'll say, 'Really?' And they'll do it. Players want to be part of the process."
Ravin's rapport with his clients comes in part from spending time with their families and friends. Sometimes they too have to be won over. When Ravin first met Anthony's fiancée, deejay LaLa Vasquez, who'd played hoops in high school, she was skeptical. She looked him up and down and demanded, "What do you know about basketball?"
"Let me show you," Ravin said, and the two headed down to the gym in the basement of Anthony's house. (A home gym comes in handy in these situations.) For half an hour Ravin worked with Vasquez on her shot. When they emerged, she said to Anthony, "O.K., he's all right."
"In minutes he improved my shot," Vasquez recalls, "and I knew he was the one."
On April 22 the Nuggets faced the Hornets in Game 2 of the first round of the Western Conference playoffs. Ravin watched the game -- and two of his prized pupils -- at a hotel bar in Bethesda, Md.
Right off the bat Ravin noticed an edge to Chris Paul as he walked onto the court. His Hornets were down 1-0 in the series. Ravin noted the way Paul was chewing his gum, as if he were trying to crush walnuts.
Paul is perhaps Ravin's most intense client. The two began working together in 2005, after Paul left Wake Forest to prepare for the NBA draft, and Paul is so familiar with Ravin's drills that he does the workouts by himself when he travels. "For six weeks," says Ravin, astonished. "It's a Navy SEAL type of attitude. He has an inexhaustible spirit."
Paul, in turn, appreciates that Ravin pushes him. "When I get tired, he'll motivate me to push through," Paul says. "He'll say, 'Gilbert Arenas ain't resting right now. Steve Nash isn't resting.' "
Ravin compiles a mental dossier of sorts on each client. He quickly learned, for example, that Arenas is very inquisitive and needs validation -- "You're great doing this, but you could be greater or the greatest," Ravin says by way of illustration. Anthony, on the other hand, is emotional and needs to be persuaded to do certain things; with him, says Ravin, "there has to be more dialogue."
Paul, for his part, needs neither validation nor persuasion. "He has a natural chip on his shoulder, so all you have to do is remind Chris that just as he has evolved, so will other people," Ravin says. "There's always another kid out there who's just as hungry. He may be in high school, but he's coming."
On the TV at the hotel bar, Anthony hit a pull-up jumper on his first touch. After the first game of the Nuggets-Hornets series -- which Denver won even though Anthony played poorly, shooting 4 for 12 -- this shot was a good omen. "Gonna be a long night for the Hornets," Ravin said. "He didn't rely on the catch-and-shoot. He put the ball on the floor. And believe me, that's an important first bucket for 'Melo. When you're the star player and you play poorly and the team still wins, part of you says, 'I want to be a part of this.' "
It was a pivotal time for Anthony, in Ravin's eyes. After five years as an NBA wild child, he was trying to be taken seriously. He'd never taken the Nuggets past the first round of the playoffs, but this looked like the year he would. He'd even recently cut off his cornrows. "That's the evolution of 'Melo," said Ravin. "We're seeing him mature in front of the world."
That, Ravin said, is a side of NBA players that fans rarely understand. Despite the stereotype, money is not the driving force for the great ones. "All these guys have a certain ambition," Ravin said. "They've made generations' worth of money. Motivation is no longer money. You can only have so many bedrooms in your house that you can sleep in. Instead, these guys are consumed with being the absolute best at what they can do."
In some respects Ravin sees money as a demarcation line. "The average player may talk about girls or cars," he said. "You give me the great players, and money's never part of the discussion. The great ones want to win a ring, want to make an All-Star team. They're motivated by each other. [Paul] is wondering what Kobe is doing right now. Gilbert is thinking about LeBron."
Now it was the middle of the first quarter, and Anthony passed for the second consecutive time out of isolation. "That's the evolution on the court," said Ravin. "He's making the pass there. Count his touches per shot -- that's how you know how well he's playing." A minute and a half later Anthony hit a catch-and-shoot from the right side after one pump fake. "He's the most efficient wing scorer in the NBA," said Ravin. "Watch, and you'll see that he takes limited dribbles on everything. No more than three dribbles."
As Anthony continued to score, Ravin watched the player's body language: "Here he goes again. He's on fire. If I'm George Karl, I let him play until he misses because if not, 'Melo will get pissed. I wouldn't pull him until early in the second. You have to remember, 'Melo's had five years of not getting past the first round. He's very excited. He's very motivated. Especially after a bad first game. You want him to feel like he's a big part of this."
Paul was having a harder time. The Hornets fell behind early. Still, watching his other client play, Ravin pointed out a couple of moves they had worked on together. At one point Paul shot a running two-hand floater. "We work on doing that off either foot, so the defense can't time it," Ravin said. Later, Paul busted a "dribble-skip" move on the perimeter: He dribbled sideways, almost skipping before punching through the defense. "Watch how he never crosses his feet on the perimeter, so he's always in shooting position," Ravin said. Then Paul got a mismatch and dribbled back before attacking, to give himself a bigger speed advantage against the taller player. "Derrick Rose does that a lot too," Ravin said.
By the end of the third quarter it was clear that Denver was the better team this night. "This one's over," Ravin declared, and indeed it was. The Nuggets would go on to win the game 108-93 and the series 4-1. As Paul walked off the floor he scowled, scrunching up his face like a man whose wallet has just been stolen.
"Tell you what," Ravin said, shaking his head. "I don't think you need me to interpret that expression."
NBA Truth & Rumors