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The Hoops Whisperer

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.

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."

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."

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