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
October 25, 2009

IT TAKES one kindof trainer to take a raw recruit and hone his basic skills. It takes quiteanother kind to tell LeBron James he can't dribble. ¶ In the summer of 2008, onthe recommendation of Hornets point guard Chris Paul, James worked out for thefirst time with Idan Ravin, whose NBA clients have included Paul, CarmeloAnthony, Gilbert Arenas and Elton Brand. When James and Ravin met at a gym inNew Orleans to work out with Paul and a few other players, the trainer (whosename is pronounced ee-DON rah-VEEN) knew he had to make an immediate impressionon James. Ravin, a 38-year-old former lawyer, boasts none of the credentialsthat carry weight in the NBA world. He didn't play the game (at least not pasthigh school), never coached (unless you count junior high kids), hasn't workedfor an NBA team and isn't even certified as a trainer. Nor does he look thepart. The son of an Israeli mother and a Russian father, Ravin is neither tallnor particularly athletic-looking, and in conversation he comes off more as asociologist than as a basketball expert. Thus his first goal with any newplayer is to humble him, and do so quickly.

James's weakness,Ravin believed, was his dribbling, so he immediately ran the Cavaliers' starforward through a series of intricate ball-handling exercises. Whenever Jameslooked down to locate the ball, Ravin gently tapped him under the chin, areminder to keep his head up. Granted, this exercise could go horribly awry—youwant to tell LeBron James he can't dribble? But as long as Ravin's critique iscorrect (and in this case it was), his method establishes him as an authorityfigure.

"The only wayto 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'shead goes down and I tap his chin up—nobody does that to him. He's not used toit."

Next, Ravin ranJames 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'shigh standards). By the end of the hourlong workout, the Cavaliers' star waslying on the floor, gassed. Only then did Ravin address him. "You are farand away the most talented player in the league, way more talented thanKobe," the trainer said. "But you don't even have a go-to move inisolation, 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 remembersit. "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 tryingto help you get better. You're a 30, eight and eight guy, and there's so muchyet to do. That's exciting."

James came awayimpressed. "It was tough but it was good," he said later. "I seewhy a lot of NBA guys work out with him."

They work outwith him because Ravin isn't afraid to tell them what they need to hear. "Itry to convey [that] it's not about anyone else, it's about you," explainsRavin. "Guys like LeBron can cut all the corners and still get an A on theexam. Eighty percent of Chris Paul or LeBron is better than 99 percent ofanyone else. But I ask them, 'What if you maximized it? What if you were 99percent? Isn't that interesting?' I try to intrigue them. I say, 'Whatif?'"

In NBA circlesRavin 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 coachingthe Wizards, he had a hard time talking with Brendan Haywood, the center whowas then sharing minutes with Etan Thomas and was none too happy about it."Brendan loved working out with [Ravin]," Jordan remembers, "so Iwent to Idan and asked, 'How do you keep a positive relationship withBrendan?'"

Ravin explainedthat Haywood merely wanted to be involved, to be part of the process. "Youthink 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 theadvice to heart. "I carried it over to my daily regimen, the idea that thisis what I have to do with Brendan," he says, "and by the end we had agreat 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 hiscredentials.) True, Ravin has not played for or apprenticed under a legendarycoach or paid his dues as an assistant. But the players don't care. They seehim as a welcome alternative to the hierarchical player-coach relationship inthe 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 lotcooler than a regular cracker"). Suns guard Jason Richardson swears byRavin, and the Wizards' Arenas used him for almost all of his knee rehab duringthe 2008--09 season.

If high schooland college coaches teach fundamentals, Ravin is the final step in a player'sdevelopment. His is a business of refinement. His training methods can beexotic, but what sets him apart is the way he relates to players, particularlythose like Anthony who have a history of being difficult to reach—at least tomore traditional basketball types. "He knows the game so well and in turnknows his clients so well that he knows exactly how to get into theirheads," says Anthony. "Especially mine. Not only does he push mephysically but he also pushes me psychologically."

This ability toreach the unreachable is why Ravin got the half-joking nickname the HoopsWhisperer. "People say, 'What you do is not rocket science,' and it'snot," says Ravin. "But you get Carmelo on the plane, get him to fly toL.A., get him to show up at 8 a.m., get him to run through a wall, get him topay you? Now, that's rocket science."

RAVIN OFTEN worksout clients in Potomac, Md., at the house of Andy Gold, a friend of his whoworks in finance. But house doesn't do the place justice. Deep in the woods ofD.C. suburbia, Gold's estate has, among other amenities, a spacious indoor gym.Built in 2000, the basketball floor is roughly three quarters of regulationlength and features breakaway rims, glass backboards, a scoreboard and abooming sound system. Ravin uses the gym because it's private, it'smotivational ("The players are trying to make the kind of money Andyhas," Ravin says) and it's free.

Gold used to playin the games himself, living out every fortysomething guy's fantasy. (This is adude who's been to five Michael Jordan fantasy camps, at $15,000 a pop.) Butone morning last April, Gold stayed upstairs in his office—"trying to payfor this house," he joked—while Ravin skipped down a spiral staircase tothe gym followed by the day's clients, collegians Sam Young of Pittsburgh andJack 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 the2009 NBA draft and were eager and optimistic. Young was hoping to be a lotterypick—in mock drafts he was pegged as a late first-rounder—and McClinton, whowas projected as a second-rounder, was trying to move up to the firstround.

As the playersput on their gear in silence, Ravin walked the court arranging a couple dozensmall 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 WashingtonWizards sweat suit, none-too-subtle reminders of both his credentials and thegoal at hand.

Ravin was raisedin the D.C. area in a traditional Jewish household. After graduating fromMaryland and from California Western School of Law, he joined a New York Citylaw firm. But he soon soured on the field, and during his 20s, after moving toSan Diego, he began coaching kids two nights a week at a YMCA, usingunconventional drills of his own creation. Soon enough, as he recalls, all thekids wanted to be on Mr. Ravin's team.

A few yearslater, back in the D.C. area, Ravin used those same drills while casuallyrunning some workouts for college-level players. His big break came when SteveFrancis, then a star at Maryland, showed up at a workout and got hooked. He inturn brought a friend who was also NBA-bound, Elton Brand. One referral led toanother, and Ravin's client base grew. Before arriving at Gold's home gym lastApril, both Young and McClinton had heard about Ravin's techniques fromGrizzlies forward Rudy Gay, so they knew what to expect. Or so theythought.

The workout beganwithout a warmup. Going one at a time, Young and McClinton dribbled the lengthof the court through staggered sets of cones and finished with layups. Eachtime up and back they performed a different move: crossover, then behind theback, 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 ensurethat 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 jumpshots.

It's anelementary drill, but Ravin's process can seem counterintuitive. For starters,his workouts rarely last longer than an hour. Rather than subject players tohours of running or repetitive drills, Ravin focuses on applying lessons togame situations (remember, the players are already accomplished), usingexercises designed to provide both conditioning and skill development. WhenRichardson first hooked up with Ravin, he was a bit bewildered. "It wasonly 45 minutes, but it felt like two hours," the Suns guard said. "Itwas weird. It was basketball, but at the same time it was conditioning. It wasa whole bunch of things mixed up into one. I was like, I don't really know whatall this is, but it helps."

Many of Ravin'sdrills are intended to create a state of confusion. In one he throws tennisballs at a player, who must catch them while maintaining his dribble. (Ravincould be seen doing this in a Nike ad with Anthony a few years back.) The goalis 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 thegame skills become automatic," explains Ravin. "You try to make theunreasonable feel reasonable."

With Young andMcClinton, for example, Ravin set up 13 cones within the key, to the top of thecircle, and had the players dribble among the cones without hitting them. Withtwo balls. Moving forward and backward, left and right. Then bouncing one highand one low. This was Young and McClinton's fifth day of this drill, and uponseeing Ravin set it up, McClinton said, "This is some hard-ass s--- righthere."

Indeed, it lookedlike a nearly impossible drill, like riding a bike through the pieces of achessboard. Still, both players fared pretty well, only occasionally backinginto a cone. "You should have seen us when we started," McClintonsaid.

Ravin dispensedsubtle draft tips and motivation as he went. While Young ran sprints, Ravinshouted, "Lengthen your strides! Show them you're an athlete!" AsMcClinton ran: "Avoid your heels when you run. It makes you look heavy andslow."

He threw inreferences to draft position—"Let's say you're picked 10th," Ravin saidat one point to Young—trying to keep them aspirational but realistic. "Younever want to lower expectations," he explained later. "You're steppingon dreams here." When criticizing, Ravin didn't raise his voice. He said,"Terrible shot, Jack," in just the same calm tone as, "Finishstrong, Sam."

Jordan, the76ers' coach, believes this is an undervalued aspect of Ravin's approach."The voice is important these days, whether you're a head coach or anassistant coach," Jordan says. "It's crucial that players know that yourespect them. They've been yelled at so much during AAU and on up. You need aconfident, direct voice, and [Ravin] has that."

Ravin also keptthe workout moving at a brisk pace. He didn't use a chalkboard, didn't lectureand did most of his talking during the action. When he introduced a drill, hedidn't explain it but ran it himself to demonstrate. Once the playersunderstood what to do, he provided verbal reinforcement, saying, "Sit!Sit!" to remind them to stay low when dribbling, or "Feetparallel!" during crossover drills.

"You have togive them bits," says Ravin. "They all have ADD. They can't sit throughtwo hours of coaching theory. Not one kid wants coaching theory." InsteadRavin makes everything interactive. "I have ADD too," he says. "Asa player I'd rather do it and fail, do it and fail, than have a coach move myhand to [show me] what to do. These guys learn by movement."

The higher theskills of his clients, the more evolved the drills. When working with NBAplayers on finishing at the rim, for example, Ravin addresses a commonshortcoming: On a drive to the basket, most players bring the ball down as theyprepare to jump, exposing the ball to the defense. So Ravin has them keep theball high as they begin their ascent.

To drill themove, Ravin stands to the side of a player, let's say Carmelo Anthony; asAnthony runs, Ravin keeps his hand waist-high, where the ball is. "I tellhim to visualize Earl Boykins [defending]," Ravin says, referring to thesuperquick, 5'5" former Nuggets guard. "You have to give them someonein the league they recognize to visualize. They all know Boykins and BrevinKnight, guys who have quick hands. So if I say, 'Brevin Knight is here,' theythink, F------ Brevin Knight, if the ball gets too low, he strips it."

After an hourRavin 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 offhis post pivot fake. Then they and Ravin fell into an easy conversation. Therewas no formal evaluation, just five or 10 minutes of small talk, with Ravinmostly listening. The players talked about teammates, mutual friends, eatinghabits.

To Ravin,postworkout time is essential. This, he has found, is when he learns the mostabout 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. Yousee where they struggle and excel." From that he knows which buttons topush. "You try to emphasize the struggle, because that creates the humilityand the rawness, which allow people to see where they're not so good," hesays. "From there, you learn by how [a player] responds. Does he talk, doeshe complain, does he curse? Does he show up the next day earlier?"

Ravin rarely asksquestions of his NBA athletes. "It's about understanding where they'recoming from and how they learn, and those answers don't come from directquestions," he says. "Even something so small as a guy telling me thathe's going to make sure he takes his mom out for Mother's Day—now maybe I comeat him in a more sensitive way."

To be successful,Ravin realized, he had to see the world through each player's eyes. "Thebiggest mistake you can make is thinking these guys are stupid andinarticulate," he says. "Whatever language they speak, they speak itwell. And it's not incumbent on them to understand me; it's up to me tounderstand them."

His approach wasevident in the different ways he communicated with McClinton and Young duringtheir workouts. McClinton was eager and unafraid to fail; Young was moreguarded. "It's just how each guy learns," says Ravin. "WithMcClinton, I can give him the whole platter right away, and he'll dig in. WithYoung, I just need to cut up the steak bite by bite. And it's up to me tofigure that out." (Both players would end up being drafted in the secondround, Young by the Grizzlies and McClinton by the Spurs.)

Failure tounderstand a player's psyche is a flaw Ravin sees in the disciplinarian styleof some coaches. Rather than empowering a player, they strip him of hisauthority. "At the end of the workout, I'll give players the option torun," explains Ravin. "I'll say, 'I think you've got more in you, butit'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 havehalf a tank of gas left. I think it'd be great if you did another one.' Andthey'll say, 'Really?' And they'll do it. Players want to be part of theprocess."

Ravin's rapportwith his clients comes in part from spending time with their families andfriends. Sometimes they too have to be won over. When Ravin first met Anthony'sfiancée, deejay LaLa Vasquez, who'd played hoops in high school, she wasskeptical. She looked him up and down and demanded, "What do you know aboutbasketball?"

"Let me showyou," Ravin said, and the two headed down to the gym in the basement ofAnthony's house. (A home gym comes in handy in these situations.) For half anhour Ravin worked with Vasquez on her shot. When they emerged, she said toAnthony, "O.K., he's all right."

"In minuteshe improved my shot," Vasquez recalls, "and I knew he was theone."

ON APRIL 22 theNuggets faced the Hornets in Game 2 of the first round of the WesternConference playoffs. Ravin watched the game—and two of his prized pupils—at ahotel bar in Bethesda, Md.

Right off the batRavin noticed an edge to Chris Paul as he walked onto the court. His Hornetswere down 1--0 in the series. Ravin noted the way Paul was chewing his gum, asif he were trying to crush walnuts.

Paul is perhapsRavin's most intense client. The two began working together in 2005, after Paulleft Wake Forest to prepare for the NBA draft, and Paul is so familiar withRavin's drills that he does the workouts by himself when he travels. "Forsix 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 topush through," Paul says. "He'll say, 'Gilbert Arenas ain't restingright now. Steve Nash isn't resting.'"

Ravin compiles amental dossier of sorts on each client. He quickly learned, for example, thatArenas is very inquisitive and needs validation—"You're great doing this,but you could be greater or the greatest," Ravin says by way ofillustration. Anthony, on the other hand, is emotional and needs to bepersuaded to do certain things; with him, says Ravin, "there has to be moredialogue."

Paul, for hispart, needs neither validation nor persuasion. "He has a natural chip onhis shoulder, so all you have to do is remind Chris that just as he hasevolved, so will other people," Ravin says. "There's always another kidout there who's just as hungry. He may be in high school, but he'scoming."

On the TV at thehotel bar, Anthony hit a pull-up jumper on his first touch. After the firstgame of the Nuggets-Hornets series—which Denver won even though Anthony playedpoorly, shooting 4 for 12—this shot was a good omen. "Gonna be a long nightfor 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 bucketfor 'Melo. When you're the star player and you play poorly and the team stillwins, part of you says, 'I want to be a part of this.'"

It was a pivotaltime for Anthony, in Ravin's eyes. After five years as an NBA wild child, hewas trying to be taken seriously. He'd never taken the Nuggets past the firstround of the playoffs, but this looked like the year he would. He'd evenrecently cut off his cornrows. "That's the evolution of 'Melo," saidRavin. "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 acertain ambition," Ravin said. "They've made generations' worth ofmoney. Motivation is no longer money. You can only have so many bedrooms inyour house that you can sleep in. Instead, these guys are consumed with beingthe absolute best at what they can do."

In some respectsRavin sees money as a demarcation line. "The average player may talk aboutgirls or cars," he said. "You give me the great players, and money'snever part of the discussion. The great ones want to win a ring, want to makean All-Star team. They're motivated by each other. [Paul] is wondering whatKobe is doing right now. Gilbert is thinking about LeBron."

Now it was themiddle of the first quarter, and Anthony passed for the second consecutive timeout 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 knowhow well he's playing." A minute and a half later Anthony hit acatch-and-shoot from the right side after one pump fake. "He's the mostefficient wing scorer in the NBA," said Ravin. "Watch, and you'll seethat he takes limited dribbles on everything. No more than threedribbles."

As Anthonycontinued to score, Ravin watched the player's body language: "Here he goesagain. He's on fire. If I'm George Karl, I let him play until he misses becauseif 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 firstround. He's very excited. He's very motivated. Especially after a bad firstgame. You want him to feel like he's a big part of this."

Paul was having aharder time. The Hornets fell behind early. Still, watching his other clientplay, Ravin pointed out a couple of moves they had worked on together. At onepoint Paul shot a running two-hand floater. "We work on doing that offeither foot, so the defense can't time it," Ravin said. Later, Paul busteda "dribble-skip" move on the perimeter: He dribbled sideways, almostskipping before punching through the defense. "Watch how he never crosseshis feet on the perimeter, so he's always in shooting position," Ravinsaid. Then Paul got a mismatch and dribbled back before attacking, to givehimself a bigger speed advantage against the taller player. "Derrick Rosedoes that a lot too," Ravin said.

By the end of thethird quarter it was clear that Denver was the better team this night."This one's over," Ravin declared, and indeed it was. The Nuggets wouldgo on to win the game 108--93 and the series 4--1. As Paul walked off the floorhe scowled, scrunching up his face like a man whose wallet has just beenstolen.

"Tell youwhat," Ravin said, shaking his head. "I don't think you need me tointerpret that expression."

Some NBA coaches see Ravin as a resource. Othersdismiss him because he is not part of the basketball fraternity.

To be successful, Ravin realized, he had to see theworld through each player's eyes: "It's up to me to understandthem."

PHOTOPhotograph by PETER READ MILLER;BACKGROUND BY SI IMAGINGINSPIRED CHOICES Ravin never orders stars like Anthony (left) to run at the end of a session; he asks if they have it in them. They always say yes. PHOTOLAYNE MURDOCH/NBAE/GETTY IMAGESPRESSURE POINT Ravin will push Paul by saying, "Gilbert Arenas ain't resting right now." PHOTOPhotograph by PETER READ MILLEREXTRA PUSH Ravin won over Anthony in part by teaching 'Melo's fiancée how to improve her shot. PHOTO
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)