The Hoops Whisperer
LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul are among the players getting an earful from Idan Ravin, who has no playing or coaching pedigree but knows just what they need to hear
This article appears in the October 26, 2009, issue of Sports Illustrated
Excerpted from The Art of the Beautiful Game: The Thinking Fan's Tour of the NBA by Chris Ballard. Copyright © 2009 by Chris Ballard. Published by Simon & Schuster/SI Books. Available on Nov. 3.
It takes one kind of trainer to take a raw recruit and hone his basic skills. It takes quite another kind to tell LeBron James he can't dribble.
In the summer of 2008, on the recommendation of Hornets point guard Chris Paul, James worked out for the first time with Idan Ravin, whose NBA clients have included Paul, Carmelo Anthony, Gilbert Arenas and Elton Brand. When James and Ravin met at a gym in New Orleans to work out with Paul and a few other players, the trainer (whose name is pronounced ee-DON rah-VEEN) knew he had to make an immediate impression on James. Ravin, a 38-year-old former lawyer, boasts none of the credentials that carry weight in the NBA world. He didn't play the game (at least not past high school), never coached (unless you count junior high kids), hasn't worked for an NBA team and isn't even certified as a trainer. Nor does he look the part. The son of an Israeli mother and a Russian father, Ravin is neither tall nor particularly athletic-looking, and in conversation he comes off more as a sociologist than as a basketball expert. Thus his first goal with any new player is to humble him, and do so quickly.
James's weakness, Ravin believed, was his dribbling, so he immediately ran the Cavaliers' star forward through a series of intricate ball-handling exercises. Whenever James looked down to locate the ball, Ravin gently tapped him under the chin, a reminder to keep his head up. Granted, this exercise could go horribly awry -- you want to tell LeBron James he can't dribble? But as long as Ravin's critique is correct (and in this case it was), his method establishes him as an authority figure.
"The only way to tame a 10,000-pound tiger is to immediately show a level of control," says Ravin, drawing an analogy from the novel Life of Pi. "When LeBron's head goes down and I tap his chin up -- nobody does that to him. He's not used to it."
Next, Ravin ran James through grueling conditioning drills, all related to game situations, because he'd noticed that James was a bit out of shape (at least by Ravin's high standards). By the end of the hourlong workout, the Cavaliers' star was lying on the floor, gassed. Only then did Ravin address him. "You are far and away the most talented player in the league, way more talented than Kobe," the trainer said. "But you don't even have a go-to move in isolation, you can't handle the ball that well, and you can't shoot, really. Think about that."
James sat silent, biting his fingernails and looking "sort of pissed," as Ravin remembers it. "Look, I'm not here to hurt your feelings," Ravin continued. "But I'm not on your payroll, either. I'm not trying to be mean, I'm trying to help you get better. You're a 30, eight and eight guy, and there's so much yet to do. That's exciting."
James came away impressed. "It was tough but it was good," he said later. "I see why a lot of NBA guys work out with him."
They work out with him because Ravin isn't afraid to tell them what they need to hear. "I try to convey [that] it's not about anyone else, it's about you," explains Ravin. "Guys like LeBron can cut all the corners and still get an A on the exam. Eighty percent of Chris Paul or LeBron is better than 99 percent of anyone else. But I ask them, 'What if you maximized it? What if you were 99 percent? Isn't that interesting?' I try to intrigue them. I say, 'What if?' "
In NBA circles Ravin inspires a wide range of reactions. Some coaches, such as the 76ers' Eddie Jordan, see him as a resource. A few years ago, when Jordan was coaching the Wizards, he had a hard time talking with Brendan Haywood, the center who was then sharing minutes with Etan Thomas and was none too happy about it. "Brendan loved working out with [Ravin]," Jordan remembers, "so I went to Idan and asked, 'How do you keep a positive relationship with Brendan?' "
Ravin explained that Haywood merely wanted to be involved, to be part of the process. "You think he's challenging you, but all you have to do is ask his opinion," Ravin said. "Brendan's a cerebral guy. Empower him."
Jordan took the advice to heart. "I carried it over to my daily regimen, the idea that this is what I have to do with Brendan," he says, "and by the end we had a great relationship."
Other coaches, however, dismiss Ravin because he is not part of the basketball fraternity. (Ravin says the Bobcats' Larry Brown in particular challenged him about his credentials.) True, Ravin has not played for or apprenticed under a legendary coach or paid his dues as an assistant. But the players don't care. They see him as a welcome alternative to the hierarchical player-coach relationship in the NBA. The Nuggets' Anthony flies Ravin in for workouts during the season (and calls him Crouton because "[Idan] rhymes with crouton, but he's a lot cooler than a regular cracker"). Suns guard Jason Richardson swears by Ravin, and the Wizards' Arenas used him for almost all of his knee rehab during the 2008-09 season.
If high school and college coaches teach fundamentals, Ravin is the final step in a player's development. His is a business of refinement. His training methods can be exotic, but what sets him apart is the way he relates to players, particularly those like Anthony who have a history of being difficult to reach -- at least to more traditional basketball types. "He knows the game so well and in turn knows his clients so well that he knows exactly how to get into their heads," says Anthony. "Especially mine. Not only does he push me physically but he also pushes me psychologically."
This ability to reach the unreachable is why Ravin got the half-joking nickname the Hoops Whisperer. "People say, 'What you do is not rocket science,' and it's not," says Ravin. "But you get Carmelo on the plane, get him to fly to L.A., get him to show up at 8?a.m., get him to run through a wall, get him to pay you? Now, that's rocket science."
Ravin often works out clients in Potomac, Md., at the house of Andy Gold, a friend of his who works in finance. But house doesn't do the place justice. Deep in the woods of D.C. suburbia, Gold's estate has, among other amenities, a spacious indoor gym. Built in 2000, the basketball floor is roughly three quarters of regulation length and features breakaway rims, glass backboards, a scoreboard and a booming sound system. Ravin uses the gym because it's private, it's motivational ("The players are trying to make the kind of money Andy has," Ravin says) and it's free.
Gold used to play in the games himself, living out every fortysomething guy's fantasy. (This is a dude who's been to five Michael Jordan fantasy camps, at $15,000 a pop.) But one morning last April, Gold stayed upstairs in his office -- "trying to pay for this house," he joked -- while Ravin skipped down a spiral staircase to the gym followed by the day's clients, collegians Sam Young of Pittsburgh and Jack McClinton of Miami. Both players had been sent to Ravin by their agent, Lance Young at Octagon Sports. They were early in their preparations for the 2009 NBA draft and were eager and optimistic. Young was hoping to be a lottery pick -- in mock drafts he was pegged as a late first-rounder -- and McClinton, who was projected as a second-rounder, was trying to move up to the first round.
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