News and culture through the lens of Southern California.
Hosted by
Arts & Entertainment

Idan Ravin brings new methods to basketball as 'The Hoops Whisperer'

Basketball trainer Idan Ravin has worked with some of the best basketball players in the world, including Chris Paul (left) and Blake Griffin (right).
Basketball trainer Idan Ravin has worked with some of the best basketball players in the world, including Chris Paul (left) and Blake Griffin (right).
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Listen to story

Download this story 4MB

You know the names LeBron James, Chris Paul, and Stephen Curry, but you may not know a name they have in common: Idan Ravin.

For years, Ravin has worked with some of the biggest names in basketball, with intense training sessions that bring out the best in the players that can survive his unique drills and challenging workouts. He's also the author of a new book, "The Hoops Whisperer: On the Court and Inside the Heads of Basketball's Best Players."

Ravin joins the show to talk about his journey to becoming a highly sought-after basketball trainer and some of the experiences he's had with some of the best in the NBA.

Excerpt: "The Hoops Whisperer: On the Court and Inside the Heads of Basketball's Best Players"

In the late 1980s, a television commercial aired for a new line of Reebok high- tops. The black- and- white ad began with several teenagers huddled together on the stoop of a brownstone, nodding their heads as an older man shared the story of a playground legend named Lamar Mundane. He described watching Lamar Mundane effortlessly release his jump shot from as far as fifty feet away, over the outstretched arms of defenders, with the onlookers shouting, “Money,” as the ball kissed the clouds before falling through the net.

I wanted to wear those high- tops. I wanted to do the things Lamar Mundane had done. I wanted to live on a city block within walking distance of a playground with a basketball court surrounded by a chain- link fence so an audience could witness my game. I wanted to take on the city’s best players. I wanted folks to talk about my game with the same reverence. I also wanted to trade places with those boys on the stoop, even for just a moment, so I could hear the tales of the playground legends.

A few years ago, I received a call from Carmelo Anthony’s agent at the time asking if I could assist on a commercial that Nike’s Jordan Brand was scheduled to shoot with Melo as part of the launch of his new signature shoe. Melo and I had worked together since he’d left Syracuse after his freshman year in 2003. The call from his agent surprised me, because generally I dealt directly with the players with regards to scheduling, training, billing, etc. Most agents were proprietary about their clients and felt uncomfortable knowing that someone had burrowed his way into their client’s circle without the agent’s blessing. In any event, Melo was “my guy,” as players I’ve worked with would say, and I would have flown to Timbuktu if he’d asked, even with only thirty minutes’ notice and just the clothes on my back. I was available and I suggested the production company contact me to coordinate logistics.

“You won’t be getting paid for this,” his agent reminded me.

Too bad we weren’t on Skype so he could see me smile.

Money was never my motivator. I loved what I did. Whatever came with it was just gravy.

I flew to Los Angeles several days later. I arrived on set a day early to meet with Jesse, the ad agency’s creative director on the account, and Brian, the director. They didn’t seem overly excited; they’d researched and prepared their treatment weeks earlier, and they probably thought I’d suggest things they had already seen, posted on YouTube by other trainers.

I’d recently come up with a few new drills for Melo involving tennis balls, hand gestures, cones, and multiple basketballs, and I thought these would resonate on camera. Their energy changed once I demonstrated the scope and complexity of Melo’s training. Brian positioned his hands in the shape of a camera lens to visualize how to frame and shoot each drill, while Jesse asked me to explain the drill and its purpose.

“Yes. Very cool! This is going to be great! I love it! You’re intense!” they said, maybe not in that order.

I didn’t tell them that I might have to audible from the intended outline, depending on what I felt from Melo once he stepped out of his trailer. You can’t be wedded to a script when working with superstars. Sensitivity to their rhythms is important.

If I sensed reluctance, I would pull back. If I sensed excitement,

I would push forward. If I sensed indifference, I’d play it by ear.

The following day Melo arrived in the early afternoon on a flight from Asia. He had spent the last several weeks representing the United States in the world championships in Japan. I assumed he would be exhausted from all the travel, practices, games, and off- court commitments required when you represent your country.

“Keep the takes to a minimum. He doesn’t have much gas left in the tank,” I told Brian.

Efficiency was paramount, not only for Melo, but also for the ad agency and production company under orders to deliver top content to their shoe company client.

Our first scene involved Melo shooting jump shots from beyond the NBA arc. The second scene showed Melo catching a tennis ball with one hand while dribbling with the other and moving in different directions based on my commands. The drill refined his ball control because it overloaded his senses to simulate the intense distractions he faces under game conditions: long and active defenders, screaming fans, teammates in motion, coaches calling out plays, clocks ticking down, referees circling, and television crews hoping to capture great footage.

The third scene showcased his ability to anticipate defensive pressure, identify passing opportunities, and handle the ball all at once. I stood almost directly behind him, just slightly offcenter. Keeping his back to me, he dribbled while I flashed different numbers with my fingers; relying only on his peripheral vision, he had to call out the number of fingers I signaled without losing the dribble. This went on for a minute, and I switched between his right and left side every few seconds.

The fourth scene highlighted Melo’s agility and explosiveness. Melo caught the ball near the foul line with his back to the basket. I stood behind him, pushing a big rectangular pad against his back to mimic the defensive pressure he can expect when he plays. He paused once he caught the ball to feel the contact from the pad, then rotated his left pivot foot inward and exploded to the basket, jumping off both feet for a monstrous two- handed dunk.

The fifth scene emphasized his efficiency and speed as Melo sprinted from baseline to baseline for a layup while taking just three dribbles, pushing the ball forward, and running after it. Brian wanted some additional takes, and the day of shooting was getting long. Melo never complained, but I noticed his stern look substituting for his usual warm smile.

The last scene demonstrated Melo’s lateral mobility as he took his defensive stance and quickly slid his feet from side to side to get to the passes I threw to his left and his right. As soon as Brian issued a thumbs- up, Melo pushed open the gym doors, tossed his headband to the floor, walked down the hill toward his trailer past the many fans stationed outside the gym, and collapsed on the couch in his trailer.

The ad agency called a few weeks later. My voice was muffled during one of the scenes, so they needed to rerecord. When I arrived at the editors’ offices, they handed me a script and headphones as they escorted me to a soundproof booth, then played the scene on a monitor in front of me. The script did not jibe with anything I would say to Melo, so I improvised. Afterward, we sat in another office, where they played the rough edits of the commercial.

Over the course of the next sixty seconds I felt disbelief, awe, gratitude, humility, relief, joy, and hope. I had never seen myself on television or even on video. When I played ball in high school, neither our coaches nor my parents ever recorded our games or practices. I had been working with some of the NBA’s best players for a number of years, but always deep in the shadows, in closed gyms and private circumstance, where the things I taught could be learned most effectively. But now a future audience of millions would see me, hear my voice, and view the unique relationship of trust I had built with Melo.

I privately wondered what the ad agency, the production company, the shoe company, and the athletes I trained would think if they knew my secrets. What if they discovered I didn’t have a traditional basketball background, that I struggled for so long, that I loved the game more than I could ever eloquently express, that I’d chased an orange leather ball for decades not knowing where it would take me, that I’d converted my lifelong romance into something my landlord could rely on each month, that I operated under a cloak of anonymity for as long as I could remember, that I didn’t know whether to cry or scream with joy at the moment?

Several weeks later I was running on a treadmill and saw the commercial on the television above me. I hit the stop button while in full stride, straddled the treadmill, and watched. I was not alone, but I didn’t bother to wipe away the tears that pooled around my eyes and trickled down my cheeks. I never could have imagined this life.

Once upon a time I was a teenager inspired by a commercial, and now, years later, I had become the teenager on the stoop, the man narrating the story of a playground legend, and had even traded places with the legendary Lamar Mundane.