The Insider's Outsider

Idan Ravin ’92 never played a minute of college or professional basketball—but that doesn’t matter to the NBA players he makes even better
by Liam Farrell | photos courtesy of Peter Read Miller, Sports Illustrated and Getty Images

Carmelo Anthony was not having a good night.

The New York Knicks forward spent the first minutes of a February game against the Boston Celtics missing jump shots and struggling to defend Jae Crowder, a powerful player six years younger and sans Anthony’s recurring knee problems.

Then Anthony’s elbow brushed Crowder’s face, causing enough contact—or acting, according to the ensuing boos of Knicks fans crowding Madison Square Garden—to draw a flagrant foul and send Anthony and his coach, Derek Fisher, into paroxysms of rage against the referee.

Fisher’s tantrum earned a technical foul, but Anthony—whose reputation for maturity has waxed and waned in his 13-year career—quickly cooled from exasperation to mild annoyance. The All-Star came back in the next quarter and whipped a pass across court to a teammate for a three-pointer, closing off an early Celtics run; about a minute later, he grabbed a rebound and sank a jumper to put the Knicks ahead.

It was exactly what Idan Ravin ’92 predicted would happen.

He has never played a minute of college or professional basketball, but Ravin has been Anthony’s personal trainer and consigliore since 2003, putting the superstar through a regimen of physical and mental exercises designed to make him a top competitor. Known as the “Hoops Whisperer,” Ravin has harnessed intense focus and love of sport to transcend a traditional religious childhood, leave behind an erstwhile law career and break into the sanctum of professional athletics.

With a blend of unorthodox drills and inspirational aphorisms, he has tutored dozens of the world’s best, including LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Chris Paul. Ravin’s image as Horatio Alger in Air Jordans has captured the attention of everyone from basketball-centric SLAM magazine to The New Yorker.

“I never dreamed that basketball would take me to what I call this unimaginable life I live today,” he says. “I just knew I loved something.”

Ravin grew up in pre-tony Potomac, Md., the son of devout immigrants from Israel and Russia who taught the Old Testament and Holocaust studies in Jewish schools. Surrounded by religion and ritual, he chafed at the thought of a traditional path like law or medicine and frequently prayed that God would not let him turn out ordinary.

Ravin fell in love with basketball in middle school, from a pragmatic perspective as much as an artistic one. Without much money or access to coaching, and with few close friends nearby, he found joy in the communion of a ball and hoop. He stared at the photos of jump shots in Sports Illustrated to figure out how to play. He made up his own drills, dribbling between parked cars to learn how to keep the ball close and practicing in the coldest weather so his numb hands would make everything more difficult.

Persistence was always part of Ravin’s character, says his younger sister, Aynat ’96, and it was reinforced by a hardworking household where “‘almost’ doesn’t count.”

“He has always been a very determined individual,” she says. “He always knew what his passion was. But I don’t think at a young age he knew how to get there.”

Ravin played varsity ball at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, but had a thorny relationship with his coach and wasn’t in a program that got the attention of college recruiters. He tried out for Maryland’s team as a freshman walk-on and made the final round of cuts, but ultimately missed out.

At the time, the failure seemed like a rebuke to Ravin’s faith, that the promise of Proverbs 10:4—“A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich”—was an empty one. Now, he sees it as a defining moment.

“Had I made the team, maybe that would have been the closure I needed to put the ball away,” he says. “It also forced me to continue to forge my own path.”

Ravin has gone from athletic obscurity to shepherding the careers of basketball’s best. Portrait by Justine Steele.

Ravin kept chasing the game while at Maryland. He went to playgrounds all over the Washington area, searching for the best competition in one of the nation’s basketball hotbeds. But “real” life eventually intruded—he graduated with degrees in finance and marketing, enrolled in California Western School of Law and later began working as a lawyer.

His 2015 memoir, “The Hoops Whisperer,” chronicles the winding path his life took from there, as Ravin could never settle into law or let basketball go. Under the stress of billable hours and the guise of community service, he coached a youth YMCA team, putting them through the same drills he had made up as when he was their age.

After three unhappy years, he resigned from the law firm and moved back to his parents’ home. While job searching and reading self-help books, he volunteered to help friends from his playground days prepare for playing basketball overseas. Although he eventually gave law another chance and worked at a D.C. firm, he couldn’t give up those evening and weekend sessions at the gym, no matter the cost of leaving the office early.

He had fallen in love with practice, and his enthusiasm was contagious. Word spread through the close-knit local basketball community, and Terps like Steve Francis and Juan Dixon showed up at the gym.

Ravin was eventually laid off from his D.C. law job, causing as much relief as anxiety. And after years believing “work” only meant a laborious slog for cash, a check from former Duke star and NBA Rookie of the Year Elton Brand after a few training sessions became the final push through that misconception.

“For a very long time, I was a zero-star chef, and then I became a one-star chef, a two-star chef, and hopefully these days I am a five-star chef,” he says. “Every day I get a check for my work, I’m as surprised as the first time.”

Although his client list has grown and his lifestyle now includes traveling with players on private jets and appearing in commercials for Nike and Degree, Ravin, who lives in New York but spends much of his time on the road, has worked to keep his one-on-one training consultancy grounded and discreet. He avoids networking and marketing, preferring word-of-mouth to business card exchanges (in fact, he has no business cards), and he searches for the simplest, most isolated gyms possible to whittle the game to its purest form. Some players he sees for a single session, others become long-term clients; he chooses not to chase, and leaves it up to them.

The workouts are generally short and intense, built around the mood of the athletes. He conducts drills at a fast pace to simulate games and improve conditioning, and keeps his voice conversational, steady and devoid of colorful language. David Halberstam wrote in “The Breaks of the Game” that pro basketball is a “curious amalgam of great skill, great ego and great anxiety,” and Ravin addresses all three of those spheres. Most important is creating a space where spectacular athletes are allowed to fail.

“The key is to make them great basketball players,” he says, “not just people who can touch the backboard with the tip of their nose.”

So when he worked out LeBron James, Ravin—whose 6-foot, 175-pound frame is dwarfed by his clientele’s—didn’t just stand there in awe of the perfectly constructed athlete; he ripped apart the superstar’s dribbling, tapping James’ chin every time his eyes drifted down to the ball and planting his forearm in the two-time champion’s grill to keep him steady. In one of his sessions with the towering Dwight Howard, Ravin spent an entire 45-minute session trying to get him to jump rope without clipping it on his feet or the ground.

“You have to be firm but loving. Tough but fair. Difficult but not annoying. A teacher but not self-righteous. There’s a lot of dancing,” he says. “I’m a maverick, I feel. I’ve bucked the system. But I know they still have to play in the system.”

Ravin has a stable full of all-star talent like Chris Paul, right. Photo courtesy of Getty Images and Layne Murdoch.

Ravin says no NBA player has quizzed him on his 40-yard-dash time or dunking ability. The only people who care about conventional qualifications, he says, are the “institution” of professional coaches, trainers and assorted hangers-on.

It’s a complex position, rife with the land mines common to big-time money and big-time athletics. Players need to protect and maximize their livelihoods, while coaches need commitment to a collective plan and team to protect theirs. As an outsider in an insider’s world, Ravin is where those motives collide. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a half-dozen teams contacted by Terp declined to make their players available for this article.

Ravin readily admits he can be “abrasive,” but contends he is anything but unappreciative to be associated with professional basketball.

“I know people have called me difficult,” he says. “That’s OK. That’s just being opinionated and being passionate, but never not gracious or grateful for this life.”

His book recounts an illustrative episode of the tightrope Ravin walks. When Ravin introduced himself to Hall of Fame Coach Larry Brown, then coaching the Charlotte Bobcats, Brown bristled at how Ravin was working with players on his roster without express permission. (“If you want to learn how to develop players,” Brown said, according to Ravin, “you need to attend my practices.”)

“Traditionally, the NBA’s been an insular world,” says Chris Ballard, a senior writer at Sports Illustrated who wrote about Ravin in his 2009 book, “The Art

of the Beautiful Game.” “Setting him apart even more, he lacked the pedigree that teams like to see from outside trainers.”

Ballard says this dynamic is starting to change, and some players even have an outside group of specialists to help them, but Ravin’s “approach—holistic, almost mind-body—is relatively rare.”

“Like many, I was skeptical at first, but Idan has a way with players—calm but authoritative, always on their side while also challenging them,” he says. “And when it comes down to it, in the NBA the only thing that matters is whether something works, and sometimes, even whether a player believes something works.”

Ravin’s initiative doesn’t stop at the borders of a basketball court. He is in constant communication with players on a perpetually buzzing phone, going to lunch with them, attending their games and award ceremonies and weddings, and even, in the case of Miami Heat forward Amar’e Stoudemire, accompanying them on excursions to the Holy Land.

Not surprisingly, his relationship to a game is different from a fan’s, as he roots less for teams than for his players. So when Anthony and the Knicks lost to the Celtics on that February night in Manhattan’s beating basketball heart, the result itself wouldn’t have mattered much to Ravin. (It mattered plenty to the “institution”—after a streak of losing nine in 10 games, Fisher was fired.)

For as poorly as Anthony shot, Ravin would have been heartened by how his friend spent halftime methodically practicing his free throw so that in the third quarter, he sank a pair to keep the Knicks close. It wasn’t until the game’s waning minutes, when the Celtics pulled away and team desperation took over, that Anthony started attempting ill-advised shots and committing bad fouls.

“You can make shots the wrong way and you can miss shots the right way,” Ravin says. “We redefine what winning is.”

Now in his mid-40s, Ravin doesn’t play much basketball anymore, but when he went back home for Hanukkah last year, he joined his mother on a visit to the local Jewish community center to swim. Afterward, he stopped in the gymnasium where he had spent so many hours as a kid, and hoisted some shots. The rims were the same; the floors were the same; the gym even smelled the same as it did when he was falling in love with a bouncing ball and the sound of it swishing through a net.

“Never would that 11-year-old boy have ever envisioned that he would transcend five universes to be somewhere else,” Ravin says. “I’m not supposed to be here.” TERP


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