“Chris Paul’s coming down. Fly!”
The words echo across the court where New York Knicks shooting guard J.R. Smith—six-foot-six and, at 225 pounds, superlean—is dribbling a basketball along the sideline, huffing for air. Paul, one of the NBA’s best point guards and last year’s steals-per-game leader, is now closing in on him and Smith needs to move fast to have any chance to escape. He explodes toward the basket in a dead sprint, crosses the half-court line, and screeches to a stop just behind the three-point arc. He fires off a shot, watches it soar through the air, and barely notices as the net lets out a sharp whoosh when the ball plunges through the hoop.
But afterward there are no cheers, no high-fives. Paul, who plays for the Los Angeles Clippers, is actually 2,500 miles away. The private gym in Manhattan where Smith is working out with a ferocious, gamelike intensity is practically empty. The only other person on the court is Idan Ravin, a middle-aged man with a bald crown and deep-set eyes who routinely sidles up to Smith with a loud voice and a unwavering message: Keep running.
A 43-year-old former lawyer whose own playing career peaked at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, MD, Ravin has managed—despite an almost complete lack of formal basketball credentials—to go from being a pro-bono youth-league coach moonlighting at his local YMCA to the most sought-after private trainer in the NBA. Called “the hoops whisperer” by pretty much everyone including himself, he has earned a reputation as a generous but unsparing instructor and lifestyle guru, helping many of the world’s greatest athletes—LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Stephen Curry, and Dwight Howard among them—not only shoot better, run faster, and jump higher, but also eat better and hone their “mental edge.”
Ravin is also credited with helping transform their physiques. His grueling workouts—a high-intensity blend of sprints, plyometrics, and basketball drills—have supercharged the conditioning of his already well-conditioned NBA stars, and his philosophy on diet and nutrition have helped many of his athletes gain muscle and shed fat—sometimes to a startling degree. In August, when 11-year NBA veteran Carmelo Anthony posted photos on Instagram revealing his newly chiseled frame—“around 10 pounds lighter, but stronger and noticeably leaner,” according to Ravin—the “Skinny Melo” images went viral.
Anthony isn’t alone. In the same off-season, the sport’s top player, LeBron James—a former Ravin client—dropped what appeared to be a similar amount of weight himself, and later admitted that he had chosen to obsessively limit his carb intake and portion sizes over the summer. At one point he posted a photo on Instagram of an elaborate dessert he was offered on the Greek isle of Mykonos, with the caption: “To [sic] dang on bad I can’t eat it! Grrrrrrrrrr!!” What the hell was going on?
“Guys like LeBron and Melo are Ferraris,” says Ravin. “They’re always thinking, ‘How do I get to run the fastest and maximize the speed of my engine? How do I make myself more aerodynamic?’ There’s a purpose to all of this.”
There’s also the age factor. James and Anthony both turned 30 in 2014, and both have been playing in the NBA since they were teenagers. “It’s almost common sense: When you get older, it’s less wear on your body if you’re lighter,” Ravin says. Working with Anthony through the summer, Ravin helped the seven-time NBA All-Star design and implement his “smart carb” diet. “During the day, Melo eats a big oatmeal base so he has more energy for workouts,” Ravin says. Later on in the day, when he’s cooling, he’s tapering down his portion size. He also cut out the sweets. “There’s definitely no crap,” Ravin says. “And he doesn’t eat a lot of red meat. He eats mostly fish. He gets his protein shakes. Melo is a big guy—he can put weight on—but he’s been really meticulous about this.”
Ravin often says he’s not in the business of making his players great—they’re already great—he’s trying to help them become “great-er,” and, in a few special cases, helping them jockey for position in the conversation about “great-est.” And in that nearly empty Manhattan gym, one week before the start of the NBA pre-season, at an hour when many NBA players are still sleeping or, perhaps, sunning themselves on yachts off the coast of Ibiza, Ravin is pushing Smith, a mercurial sometimes hero, sometimes goat (early this season he was suspended for brazenly elbowing another player in the groin during a game) toward realizing his own first-round Ferrari potential.
Toward the end of the workout, Ravin takes Smith through a succession of ball-handling drills. Smith darts around the court dribbling a ball in either hand. Then he runs back and forth down the sideline, maintaining his dribble by pushing the ball far out in front of him. He never pauses for more than a few seconds. The entire time, Ravin encourages Smith to vary the height and pace of his dribble, the better to throw off the timing of Chris Paul, who’s waiting to snatch the ball from his hands. Over the course of the workout, he never allows Smith to get comfortable.
“Slow your breathing down,” says Ravin when they’ve finished up. Sweat drips to the floor from the tip of Smith’s goateed chin. “Nine out of 10 and you’re done.”
Smith gracefully walks over to the free-throw line and sinks the required nine of 10 shots with ease. But he’s bushed. The workout has lasted a mere 45 minutes, but Smith looks like he just suffered through a late-round play-off game. When I ask the trainer to rate the difficulty of that morning’s workout on a scale of 1 to 10, he shrugs. “Seven and a half.”
For more than seven months a year, Ravin lives out of a suitcase, going wherever his players need him—and the NBA off-season is an especially busy time.
Last June, while the NBA finals were still in full swing, Ravin traveled from his home in New York to Los Angeles, where he spent three weeks working out Anthony and several other players. In July he was in China, leading instructional sessions for Nike’s Jordan Brand and helping Chris Paul with the release of his new Nike Jordan CP3.VII sneakers. Then it was back to the West Coast—L.A., Vegas, L.A.—followed by Winston-Salem, NC (with Paul), Puerto Rico (with Anthony), and back to his usual New York-L.A. circuit. Players have nicknamed Ravin “Crouton” (because he’s “cooler than the average cracker”) and “Idan Wan” (a mangled play on “Don Juan,” from a client who saw him out on a date).
His training is nothing if not full service. When the Knicks’ Amar’é Stoudemire, another Ravin client, wanted to visit Israel during the summer of 2010, not only did he hire Ravin as his 24/7 tour guide, but he also prepped for the visit by taking Hebrew lessons with Ravin’s mother. “I’m a trainer, a friend, a mentor, a therapist, an advisor, all of the above,” Ravin says. “They’re trusting you with something in their lives that runs second only to God, family, and their health. They’re trusting you with their dream since they were four years old. So it doesn’t just end when you leave the gym.”
In the gym, however, Ravin’s workouts adhere to several basic rules. First, he wants to “overload the senses”—shouting to Smith about Chris Paul’s impending steal, for instance—to acclimate his players to the chaos and intensity of a game. Second, he keeps practices closed, private, and discreet to allow his players to experiment without fear of embarrassment. (“You have to feel comfortable to feel creative,” he writes in his 2014 memoir, The Hoops Whisperer.) He also discourages repetition for repetition’s sake, preferring one well-executed performance-based move to 10 less-dynamic repetitions. (A sprint culminating in a stop, jab-step, jump, and perfect release is exponentially more useful than 20 stationary shots in a row.) Last, he keeps his workouts short—never more than 90 minutes and often considerably less: “I want you in and I want you out, real efficient, serious, and no bullshit.”
The conditioning sessions seem to be designed to emphasize discomfort. In basketball, like nearly every sport, players almost never run in a straight line. They’re zig-zagging to avoid defenders, curling around the court to find a good passing lane, or stopping and starting to get an opening for a shot. So when Ravin’s clients sprint, they never get into a straight-ahead groove. They sprint while dribbling, they sprint with a pivot or a jab step. They never “touch lines,” Ravin’s term for the dreaded “suicides” of youth practices everywhere.
“Sprints are very good, but at the end of the day, the game is played in an integrated way,” says Ravin, who tries to target stabilizer muscles in their legs as much as their lungs. Ultimately, if his clients are indeed Ferraris, Ravin strives to never let them hit 200 mph for very long. Instead, they reach 60 mph really quickly, in all directions, and over and over again.
Ravin also swears by plyometric body-weight exercises, whether it’s frog jumps, skips-and-bounds, or bear crawls. “Basketball is a sports played with so much imbalance,” he says. “Every time a guy goes up for a rebound or to block a shot or to make a layup, he’s twisting and contorting his body. The only time a guy shoots a normal shot is when he’s absolutely wide open.” Ravin puts his players through a routine of body-weight drills (see Idan Ravin’s Fast-Paced Cardio Workout, previous page), both as a form of strength training and as a way to fine-tune their equilibrium for even the most off-kilter positions. “Imbalance is built into everything—every time you run you’re imbalanced. Think about the last time you saw a tennis player just hit the ball with both feet evenly on the ground,” Ravin adds. “So we try to find a way to kind of hedge that risk, and body-weight exercises are a wonderful way to do that.”
His teachings aren’t confined to the hardwood. When Detroit Pistons center Andre Drummond was preparing for the 2012 NBA draft, he came to New York to train with Ravin, and one of their first stops was a Manhattan Whole Foods. “I told him, ‘I’m going to show you a really common-sense way to be good about your diet,’” Ravin tells me. “So we picked up salads and lean proteins and a little fruit.” Drummond, who stands a towering 6’11”, lost 22 pounds in a month and saw an immediate uptick in his game. “He realized, ‘I move better when I’m lighter,’” Ravin says. “Now, when you watch his lateral movement, it’s almost like you’re watching an ice skater. The reality is, you can be 290 and move or you can be 265 and really move—which do you think is more beneficial to you?”
When I ask J.R. Smith what makes Ravin special, he cites the toughness of his workouts. “My conditioning will always be Grade A,” says Smith. Which is especially important because NBA players spend most of their time in-season working on plays and game scenarios. “When I hand them back to their teams at the beginning of training camp, they can quickly begin to focus on the team component of their performance: mastering offensive and defensive schemes, preparing for their opponents, and integrating their ability with those of their teammates,” he adds.
Smith also lauds Ravin’s ability to diagnose and cure basketball flaws. “I prefer to have someone be really brutally honest with me,” he says. “Idan works with KD [Kevin Durant], Melo, CP [Chris Paul], Steph [Curry] – I mean, all those guys – and then he tells me, “You have the talent, you have the ability.’ He pretty much trains you to be a killer, which you really hav to be to play in this game. He makes you feel like a superhero, like nobody can beat you.”
Ravin advocates a brand of mental toughness that’s as much Thich Nhat Hanh as it is drill sergeant. In The Hoops Whisperer, he begins every chapter with an aphoristic tweet—he calls them his “Idanics”—and each ends in a hashtag of escalating Zen master–ness. In the introduction it’s “#blessed.” By Chapter 12 it’s “#get2knowhimb4ujudgehim.” In the 19th it’s“#rethinkdefinitions.” By the 20th chapter the hashtag reads simply, “#confuciusknew.”
A few hours after the end of Ravin and Smith’s workout, the trainer and I sit on a bench in front of Chloe’s Soft Serve Fruit Co., a vegan “soft serve” business he’s an investor in, just off Manhattan’s Union Square. (Ravin is a serial entrepreneur; some of his other investments include IranianPersonals, EligibleGreeks, ArabLounge, HyeSingles, and, perhaps most fitting, Sokanu, a career-counseling algorithm that, Ravin says, “sorts out what you really want to do in life from what you kind of pretend you want to do.”) I ask him what makes his approach to training unconventional. He pauses, then delivers a decidedly non-basketball answer that has the cryptic, thought-provoking, and potentially nonsensical quality of a Japanese koan.
“Let’s say there’s a woman who works at the MAC counter at Saks Fifth Avenue and she approaches me and says, ‘You know, Idan, I’m
really struggling to become a makeup artist, what should I do?’ The conventional answer would be: ‘Stay after work and get a mentor who also works at Saks and study and work on more people.’ The Idan answer would be: “‘I want you to leave the office early and go register for classes at NYU, and I want to work on your sketching because the face is a canvas. So the better you’re able to manipulate charcoal, I guarantee you the better you’ll be at the makeup counter.’ That’s how I see life.”
Ravin grew up in suburban Washington, D.C., the son of an Israeli mother and Russian-Israeli father. They were both Judaic studies teachers and the family kept kosher. But Ravin was a rebel, more interested in watching Isiah Thomas than studying the Talmud.
As a teenager he committed himself to the game with zeal, devouring books on training, sending away for $1.25 plyometrics manuals, honing his jump shot, and drawing inspiration from the haters. “In ninth grade, I had this cruddy coach who called me slow and embarrassed me all the time,” Ravin tells me, “so it just became my obsession to never let him embarrass me again. Literally every single night—it could be 15 degrees below zero, it didn’t matter to me—I would walk to the park by my house and I would run and run and run and run. It became my mission to never let myself sweat or even breathe hard during practice—and I did it.”
Soon Ravin was a dominant player in his small private school league, yet he still bristled at his coaches. After being benched for a game, he responded by hogging the ball with Kobe Bryant–like shamelessness. “I took every shot I could and scored 42 points—the most ever at school and enough to win me ‘County Player of the Week’ honors,” he writes in The Hoops Whisperer. “After that, I played with complete disregard for [my coach’s] words and his system.”
That 42-point performance would prove the highlight of Ravin’s playing career. At the University of Maryland, he failed to make the team as a walk-on. After getting cut, he took avidly to street ball. “If they retired jerseys at the playground, then RAVIN would have hung from a light pole draped over the mid-court lines,” he writes in The Hoops Whisperer. Still, it looked like basketball wouldn’t be an option in his professional future. He went West for law school, and got a job at a firm in San Diego. He hated it. As an escape he volunteered to coach a team of middle-school-age kids at the YMCA. Soon the boys were mopping the floor with their opponents, parents were calling Ravin to ask how he’d transformed their mediocre tween hoopsters into deadly focused athletes, and Ravin was trying to figure out a way to make a life in the game.
Ravin ended up back in D.C.—he’d told off a partner at his San Diego firm and resigned—and one day he happened to run into a few acquaintances from his days playing in D.C. pickup games. They told Ravin they were trying to catch on with European professional squads. Ravin, who had never coached anyone older than 13, suggested he give them a workout at the gym. Within weeks, news of his unconventional and intense practices began to spread. Players from the University of Maryland squad dropped by, including the program’s star player, Steve Francis, who was preparing for the 1999 NBA draft.
Francis liked the workouts, and brought Duke center Elton Brand. When Brand became the first selection and Francis was No. 2, Ravin suddenly found himself a trainer to the NBA elite. From there, word of mouth drew young stars to Ravin in rapid succession.
Ravin eventually did short coaching stints with the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Knicks, both of which ended in frustration. In 2006, he found himself in an elevator in Charlotte, NC, face to face with Michael Jordan, whom he’d never met. “I learned long ago that the guys call him ‘M,’ so I go, ‘Hey, what’s up, M?’” Jordan, who isn’t known for indulging small talk with strangers, looked down at him and without pause answered back, “What’s up, Idan?”
After finishing up their Friday morning practice, Ravin and Smith move on to the recovery phase of their morning at a Juice Generation shop a few blocks away. The Knicks swingman still appears lean in his civvies—he probably carries more weight from his prodigious neck tattoos than he does from body fat. He reveals that he too has been inspired by Ravin to adopt a healthier lifestyle. He’s going to sleep earlier and going out less—the sun-up practice times, he says, force him to “make different decisions at 11:30 at night”—and he’s picked up Ravin’s habit for “green juicing.”
At Juice Generation, Smith guzzled 32 ounces of high-fiber liquid, pounding a potent wheatgrass and vegetable mix before chasing it with a far sweeter Mucho Mango cocktail. Ravin settles for a kale-and-spinach-heavy concoction called Supa Dupa Greens. Sated for the time being, trainer and client proceed to walk together through Midtown, and if Smith wants to feel like a superhero, sauntering through Times Square on a Friday morning proves to be an awfully good way to do it.
“Love you, J.R. Pound, baby,” says one middle-age guy to in a sport coat, extending a friendly fist.
“J.R. wih the A.R.!” shouts one fan, leaning against a light pole.
Smith has an afternoon tee time in New Jersey with Brooklyn Nets point guard Deron Williams, and Ravin needs to get back to his various business ventures. But before they part, the conversation touches onc more on the workout. I ask Smith what he ate that morning before his session with Ravin.
“Nothing,” he says. Smith has already thrown up four times in front of the trainer and, in all likelihood, is hoping to avoid a fifth.
Ravin smiles, “A lot of players say that my workouts are harder than the games.” Smith nods his head in agreement.
“When people use the term ‘game speed’ I think it’s a little overrated,” says Ravin. “’Idan speed’ is more like it.”