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October 26, 2009
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
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October 26, 2009

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

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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."

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