How a former lawyer with little basketball training is helping the best NBA players become even better.
How a former lawyer with little basketball training is helping the best NBA players become even better.
By Ivan Solotaroff
It’s one of those how-the-hell-do-they-do-that moments that keep you watching sports. Denver trails Dallas by two in a grueling game three of their 2009 playoff series. With six and a half seconds left, Nuggets forward Carmelo Anthony, in his 43rd minute of playing time, gets the inbound pass 28 feet out, his back to the basket and the Mavericks’ Antoine Wright on his heels. Melo’s momentum takes him to the midcourt circle, where Wright’s pressure forces him to mishandle his dribble, costing him one of five remaining seconds and taking him another six feet from the basket.
With four seconds to go and a foul to give, Wright intentionally bumps Melo hard along the sideline, swiping his left wrist, and throwing him so off balance he has to dribble once to regain control. While the crowd and most of the players on court wait for the ref to make the foul call that never comes, Melo has the presence of mind to stop on a dime, shift his feet 45 degrees, square his shoulders to the basket, and put up a 24-footer. With Melo’s wrist bent in textbook follow-through, the three-pointer drops in with a tick to go, all but sending Denver to the Conference Finals for the first time since 1985.
Forget “Where Amazing Happens.” Physics, anatomy, physiology, and psychology all tell you this basket should not have happened. “It’s that damned drill,” Melo later laughs. “Over and over. Idan’s crazy.”
It’s a shout-out to Idan Ravin, an unlikely 38-year-old lawyer-turned-basketball-guru who has helped an All-Star Team’s worth of players elevate their game to how-the-hell-do-they-do-that. And that damned drill is the “dribble skip,” which sears into muscle memory the act of running or slide-stepping at full speed while dribbling, then squaring instantly to the basket for the shot. Ravin devised it after watching player after player miss shots just like it during games. It’s one of many drills he uses to prepare players, physically and mentally, so that “amazing” feels almost routine to them.
Tim Fuller, the former Wake Forest director of basketball operations who is now a Nike rep for NBA players, describes Ravin’s role this way: “He is a custom tailor who finds his way into your strengths and weaknesses and creates a unique game only you can play.”
Ravin’s ability to make even great players better has led at least half a dozen NBA teams to pursue him as a full-time employee, but he has turned down all offers. Instead, he works only with players he feels are willing to train as hard as he demands. Anthony, LeBron James, Chris Paul, Elton Brand, and Gilbert Arenas are a few of the 100 or so players who have come under Ravin’s wing over the past decade. Among that elite cadre, he’s known simply as the “Hoops Whisperer,” because of the way he can get inside their heads and motivate them.
A few players will work with Ravin midseason, flying him in for homestretches or while recovering from injury, but his training sessions happen largely off-season in secluded gyms: nonstop precision workouts that are the sport’s equivalent of circuit training. Rather than attacking muscle groups, the drills address the minutiae of basketball excellence: angles, spacing, explosiveness, and shot-making off the dribble, off picks, or in transition — all in the context of crunch time. Rarely lasting more than an hour, the workouts are run at NBA-game speed, with drills designed to inflict not only the exhaustion but also the chaos resulting from that pace.
He’s part skills coach, part Tony Robbins. During workouts, two of his favorite mantras are “Difficult in here, easy out there,” and “Amazing people do amazing things.” Sounds corny, right? Tell that to Chris Paul. “I see it happen on the court,” says the All-Star point guard. “Melo’ll do something, and I’ll say to myself, That’s Idan. It happens with my own game — not that I’m surprised or amazed, but, y’know, suddenly the execution’s just right there, and it’s second nature.”
Fuller, who coached Paul in high school as an assistant and later at Wake Forest, watched Ravin help transform the sophomore star in six grueling off-season weeks, to where he was NBA Rookie of the Year in 2006. “I’m still not quite sure how Idan does it,” Fuller says. “Not just once, but over and over, with so many different types of players.”
What makes Ravin’s success even more surprising is that he has no formal background in sports science or training. Nor does he have much on-court experience: His own basketball career ended after his high school point-guard days. Rather, the path to his profession happened almost by accident.
The son of DC-area immigrant Jewish educators — a lineage he credits for his innate gift for teaching — Ravin attended the University of Maryland and got his law degree in San Diego, where he began practicing immediately after graduation. Seven years into his job as a litigator, Ravin started coaching teenagers at YMCAs — first in California, then back in DC — out of sheer boredom with lawyering. In 1999, baller friends from Ravin’s college days, who’d gone on to play overseas and were well aware of their pal’s intuitive feel for the game, hooked up Ravin with Maryland junior guard Steve Francis, who in turn introduced him to Duke sophomore power forward Elton Brand. It’s what Ravin would later call his “baptism by fire,” though at the time it was just three guys in a gym.
“Elton was superhumanly strong,” Ravin recalls. “And Steve was superathletic. But everyone in the NBA is strong and athletic. I just asked myself how I could match their skill sets with that strength and athleticism.” He realized that he had to pay more attention — and get creative. “I see the game in slow motion. And I watch movement, flux, the seven steps before Steve took a jump shot, or Elton got the ball in the post. And I learned right away to listen to them — and not just to their words but their bodies: How were they performing in such-and-such a drill? Where were their strengths? Where were the weaknesses?”
The impact was immediate. With some assistance from Ravin, Brand and Francis were drafted first and second, respectively, in 1999 and went on to share NBA Rookie of the Year honors.
I first catch up with Ravin the day after Melo’s buzzer-beater. It’s what he calls “my busy time of year: May to October,” which begins with preparing top college players for the draft (he had six this year), followed by pros working on their game. The setting couldn’t be further from the NBA pressure cooker, and Ravin couldn’t look less the part: A fit but unassuming six-footer in gray sweats, he pulls his mother’s 1996 Acura into the circular drive of an 16,000-foot French chateau. The owner, a millionaire investor friend of a friend, has turned his basement into a regulation full court and weight room.
“The players give me grief, but I don’t own a car,” he shrugs, unloading the sum of his professional effects from the trunk: a gym bag with four basketballs, two dozen orange cones, a jump rope, and tennis balls, which he’ll occasionally throw at players to have them keep their heads up on the dribble.
“Why no car?” I ask.
“Not worth the hassle,” Ravin says. “Paperwork? Insurance? I hate the stuff. And I love public transportation.”
It’s certainly not that he can’t afford a car: Though he’s unwilling to discuss his fees, his weekly retainers are said to be in the $2,000 to $5,000 range. And in his spare time, he helps run dating websites that cater to people of various ethnicities.
The monastic lifestyle (Ravin also shaves his head so he doesn’t “have to bother with hair products”), the early start to workouts, and this exclusive locale (Ravin’s other DC gym is in a multiacre prep school for the children of the Washington elite) are no accident. “I want my guys to think of the gym as a sanctuary,” he explains. “Not that it’s easy in here, but that it’s away from the distractions of the outside world.”
On cue, two heavily tattooed men in their early 20s pull up in a much nicer car and sleepily ease out. Jack McClinton, a six-foot-one University of Miami guard whose 35-point outburst in February brought the Hurricanes within four points of upsetting eventual NCAA champion North Carolina, and Tennessee-Martin’s Lester Hudson, the nation’s leading scorer last season, are headed across the country later in the week to private predraft workouts with NBA clubs. While standout players in college, McClinton and Hudson are both inches below standard NBA shooting-guard height and are very much on the bubble for the draft. This is their morning ritual for two weeks, and their dread of what awaits them downstairs is manifest.
Ten minutes into the 70-minute workout, which begins with 86 reps of precision dribbling and shooting drills, it’s clear why. All are at full speed, full court, through tightly spaced cones, no breaks, Ravin yelling, “First round!” “Hard in here, easy out there!” or “Stop breathing hard — you could play all day!” at the slightest slackening or when players double over between reps.
As the sweat starts flying and the two start gasping, Ravin steps up both the pace and the degree of difficulty, insisting shots be made (“Anyone can hit on fresh legs!”), and his patter becomes more goal-oriented: “C’mon, Les, 23 years of your life for one reason; now it’s here!” Increasingly, the words connect the drills to the pro game, with Ravin tying their shot at it to their fatigue: “NBA speed! No more college! C’mon, Jack — Chris Paul does 10 of these; you’re doing six!”
Those 86 reps are followed by five sets of full-court sprints ending with three-point shots. Throughout, Ravin is subtly pitting the two players against one another. “It’s a game,” he later explains, “and you play a game against. It’s really about empowering. One of my draft guys just texted me this morning” — he pulls out his cell phone — “ ‘I did great [at his private workout] in Oklahoma City.’ I go, ‘I’m not surprised.’ He goes, ‘What?’ And I text, ‘I believe in your greatness.’ ”
Idan pauses. “Obviously, it’s so much more complicated, more varied, and more specific to each player. What I really want is for my guys to feel powerful. My trick, I guess, is trying their resilience, their belief, their love of the game, ’cause at the end of the day, that’s all I really do share with these guys.”
Often, the trick works: In June both McClinton and Hudson were drafted — both late in the second round. But sometimes it doesn’t: While the Celtics signed Hudson to a one-year contract, McClinton was waived by the Spurs before training camp.
As NBA players mature, Ravin’s knowledge of their game and mind-set kicks in, with workouts tailored to increasing efficiency. “For six years the workouts have gotten more and more focused on things like getting the initiative, getting more out of the dribble,” says Anthony, who has worked with Ravin since 2003. “Idan just knows how to get in players’ heads.”
“And he knows what to do when he gets in our heads,” adds Chris Paul, whom Ravin paired one-on-one against the Wizards’ Gilbert Arenas while Paul was preparing for the 2005 draft. “Coming out of college, a lot of it was about motivation, and squaring up against Gilbert was big for me. Same again last summer, going one-on-one against Melo, which was great for both of us: me learning to shoot over a big guy, and Melo having to handle the ball against a smaller guy. It evolves; this summer in North Carolina [when Paul brought along teammate Morris Peterson — a typical Ravin referral] has been mostly about the left-hand floaters and reverses.”
If you have a weakness, Ravin will find it. When Jason Richardson was traded to Charlotte in 2007, Ravin drilled the two-time Slamdunk Contest winner — who seemed fated to a career as a one-dimensional highlight reel — with a barrage of three-point situations: off the dribble, back to the basket, around chairs spaced on the court. “The hardest 45 minutes I’ve spent in my life,” Richardson told the Wall Street Journal. An hour earlier, he told the paper he had regarded Ravin as a “short dude with no idea about basketball.” Richardson is now a 40 percent three-point shooter.
LeBron James became a believer when Olympic teammate Chris Paul brought him along to a Ravin workout in the summer of 2008. “I told him, ‘LeBron, you averaged almost a triple-double last year,’ ” recalls Ravin. “ ‘Can you imagine actually doing that?’ ” They worked on isolation plays, three-point efficiency, and creating space. That season, James won his first MVP award. “No way I’m taking credit for that,” laughs Ravin. “We only had a few sessions together, and they were more dedicated to socializing him into Idan’s Basketball Culture, if I may.”
When Ravin sees that culture manifest on-court, as with Anthony’s buzzer-beater, he says he feels the same awe any fan does. “That eureka thing happens, and to me and you, it’s amazing, impossible,” he says. “To them it was automatic, almost easy. It’s a cliché, but that’s really what greatness is: making the impossible look easy. And the strange thing is, everyone has that greatness. My job is to make my guys see it, feel it, touch it, and — knock on wood — maintain it.”
Idan Ravin’s Keys to Improving Your Game
He breaks down the four rules he insists his clients live by. No matter your game, they can make you better, too.
Forget the gimmicks
“Making it look easy begins with it being easy for you, so keep it simple. You don’t need sexy tools to be better. Some of the gimmicks out there to make you a better athlete — the golf clubs to help you swing better, the goggles to keep your eyes up when you’re shooting a basketball — are ridiculous. If you want to be a better writer, write. If you want to be a better tennis player, play.”
Sweat the small things
“Break down whatever you’re trying to do into steps, and don’t advance to the next step until you’ve perfected the previous one. I’m working with Chris Paul on scoring with the left hand. First he needs to get comfortable holding the ball, just feeling its grooves with the left hand. It’s simple, but you can’t move to the next step until you’ve gotten that.
Don’t waste your gym time
“If someone tells me they were in a gym for 12 hours, I think, They just wasted 11 hours. There’s a finite human ability to maintain a certain level of intensity. When you’re training at your highest level, you’ll play that way. When you lose your focus, put the ball down. It’s like if you’re studying with a friend and you’re chatting the whole time, you’re not really learning anything.
Have an out-of-body experience
“As much as possible, see yourself in space and time. Put yourself in your opponent’s body. How would they react to what you’re doing? If you’re driving your car, you always need to be aware and think about what the other driver might do. To win, you need to visualize what your opponent might do. You need to think 12 steps ahead of him.”