There aren’t any diagrams. That’s the first thing to know about Idan Ravin’s new book The Hoops Whisperer: On the Court and Inside the Heads of Basketball’s Best Players (Gotham Books). Ravin has been helping to refine pros’ games since a rookie Steve Francis watched him lead some buddies through a workout and asked to join in. From that moment Ravin has gone from a disgruntled corporate lawyer sneaking out of the office to do pro bono basketball training sessions to a go-to skill refiner for Chris Paul, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and gobs of other NBA and WNBA players. Remember this Jordan Brand ad with Carmelo Anthony? That’s Ravin throwing tennis balls and flashing fingers.
Rather than relay the drills and techniques he leads elite players through—Zzzzzz—Whisperer focuses on the part of his story that readers might actually be able to replicate. See, Ravin first developed oddball drills to teach himself the game as a hoops-infatuated preteen enrolled at a tiny Jewish day school. With no mentors or real competition, he came up with ballhandling and conditioning challenges on the fly (dribbling outside in freezing weather so that he’d develop control even with numb hands, for example) that helped prep him to be better at the game he loved.
In each chapter, Ravin relates how his journey mapped itself out, shaped by the things he’s taught players and what they’ve taught him in return. In anecdotes about pre-draft Paul throttling All-Star era Gilbert Arenas in a workout, or Howard’s rehabbing his game and image after back surgery, Ravin shows us what a six-foot tall, frustrated office worker has in common with the millionaire best players in the world: the irrational drive to chase a game that offers no guarantees.
You’re plenty busy with this work and are known for keeping workout sessions extremely private. What made you write a book?
I’ve always flirted with the idea that maybe there’s something here that I want to share with people. As I started to write it I realized that I’m not the guy who cut off his arm and hung from a rock for 124 hours. That’s real inspiration. But maybe people can develop a sliver of courage to go out on their own and do what they want even though they don’t have the most conventional resumes. And that, to me, was part of the inspiration, just to encourage people to go do.
You got laid off from a lucrative desk job and didn’t hesitate to go all-in when players started to call. What did it take for you to leave that security behind?
For me it had a lot to do with faith. I always knew that I was meant for something but I didn’t know what it was. I would love to say that I was in a really happy place and I just jumped and I landed on a cloud and I went from cloud to cloud but I was in a real desperate place and a real frustrated place and I was a lawyer but a really, really, really unhappy lawyer. And for the longest time I was just trying to figure out, how do I escape? You ever watch those old Alcatraz movies where the guys are laying in their prison cell trying to figure out how to get out of jail? That’s how I felt. What is my escape route? I just didn’t know. So out of desperation, out of frustration, just pure unhappiness, I was like, it’s time for me to jump. So I just took little, little steps until I found bigger steps and then bigger roads and then green pastures.
You start the book by talking about teaching yourself to play with no real guidance and then going on to jump into this job, which isn’t a job. There’s no job description, there’s no roadmap. How do you decide that you’re going to direct all your time and energy into something that there’s no real plan for?
I don’t think you make that decision. People say, ‘oh you jumped into it.’ No this was years of figuring it out. It started with volunteering and then it went to older kids, and then it went to bigger kids, and then it went to taller kids and then it went to college kids and then it went to NBA players. It was the most circuitous route you can imagine. I didn’t know where I was going. I just knew that what I was doing felt good and I just trusted that feeling. I had no plan. To this day I still don’t have tomorrow scripted and I don’t write business plans. I don’t invest in businesses that are that formal. I just try to trust my intuition.
A lot of the book concerns itself with trusting the path and intuition. On the cover there are these quotes from elite NBA players and people will look at whom you’ve worked with and buy the book based on that. Do you think that this book is going to appeal to more than just the endemic basketball fan?
100 percent. In many ways I think the players and I live a similar life because when you’re six years old and you raise your arm in homeroom and your teacher says, ‘LeBron, what do you want to be when you grow up?’ and he says, ‘I want to play in the NBA’ and the whole room laughs. It’s much easier to say I’m going to be a doctor, a lawyer, a businessman, a fireman, because there’s a path to get there. To say you want to be an NBA player, there is no path to get there. The way I’ve lived my life and where I am today there was no path, either. I think that’s why we understand each other on a subconscious level because we both take these really kind of random paths and got to the same place. Do I think it resonates with people as well? I do. I think one percent of the world know what their doing and have a plan to do it. I think everyone else is living a very practical life because they’re doing what they’re supposed to do rather than what they’re intended to. So I think the book will speak to people on that level.
Outwardly, you do not look like the players you work with, you don’t have a traditional ‘NBA personnel’ background. Why do you think you’ve been able to develop this core of very elite athletes— the elite of the elite of the NBA—that want to work with you? What do you think translates about what you do and how you approach the game?
I think people underestimate how smart they are. They’re living the American dream and they get paid a king’s ransom doing it. So obviously they’ve made some wise decisions along the way. Because they’re very smart, they also have every resource imaginable available to them. Because they’re very smart, they can smell magic beans in about three seconds. So when you walk into a gym and they don’t trust your gospel, they don’t feel your energy and they think you’re selling magic beans, you’re out of there in three seconds. No they don’t judge me based on my appearance; they judge me based on my work product. And so far, so good.
In the book there’s some talk about drills but most of the descriptions about what goes on in the gym is about creating an environment where you can fail and feel OK failing and learning from it. Why’s that so important to this story?
It’s a sanctuary. These guys trust me with something that comes second in their life behind God, family and their health. You better treat it with reverence. So when you’re in that gym there’s nobody else in there. There’s complete transparency. Because there’s transparency guys can feel vulnerable. When you’re vulnerable, you can make mistakes, when you make mistakes, that creates better performance. The only laugh you’ll ever hear in there is from joy not from criticism. I think guys appreciate that because they can do what they love, how they want to do it. It’s not a culture where I’m throwing chairs across the room, or I’m telling you to run 75 different offenses, or I’m telling you you’re not a team player, or I’m cursing at you, or I’m raising my voice. None of that exists in the gym.
That sounds less mystical than how people usually describe your work. I wanted to ask you about the ‘Hoops Whisperer’ nickname you’ve been given. Where does that come from and how you feel about it?
I feel a little awkward about it because I didn’t create that, it was more like thrown upon me, I don’t remember how, maybe some guy in a front office who told the media. I’m just known as Idan, or Crouton [by Francis, because he’s “cooler than a regular cracker”] or Idan Wan, or all my little nicknames. I’m not a guru. I don’t know the 29 different ways to defend a pick-and-roll. There’s a lot I don’t know. Maybe what makes me different is that I work on intuition and I honor that gift, which maybe enough people don’t do themselves.
What’s striking to me is that none of the things you talk about in the book are particularly “Zen” or “New Ag”e—it’s pretty much about creating respect one-on-one with players. You talk about creating an environment where people can learn, or be singleminded about developing their talent. Is that somehow different from how NBA players are being talked to, generally?
I don’t know. I’m not in every locker room. I can only speculate. I know what works for me so that’s what I do. Someone else might get more out of yelling, someone else might get more out of making cookies for them. I don’t know. I just know that what feels right for me it to treat them with respect, respect their craft, respect their family, respect their friends, respect what they’ve trusted you with. It sounds corny but I have to give it my best.
And how do players respond to that?
I do feel that they all think it’s unusual and it’s a different experience than they normally get. They all walk out the gym happy, not with their performance, but it feels like they’re full or they ate a good meal and they want to come back tomorrow. It’s not easy, they struggle a lot and it shows them how far they have to go. These guys are so talented that sometimes they don’t have a lot of situations where they’re challenged. They’ll say to me, like Dwight is quoted on the book, “he’ll kickstart your love of the game again.” To me that’s the most important part of all of this.