As a high school sophomore, Michael Jordan was relegated to his junior varsity basketball team. In an entirely unrelated event, Idan Ravin did not make his 7th grade squad.
Of course, the team Jordan didn’t make was one of the top high school teams in the country, while Ravin’s failure took place at a Jewish day school in the Washington, D.C. area.
Jordan took the setback and became, well, Michael Jordan. For his part, Ravin became a self-taught basketball guru, who wind up working one-on-one with some of the biggest names in the game: Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, J.R. Smith, Kobe Bryant, and even LeBron James.
He not only trains, but also forges relationships with his students. When Amar’e Stoudemire went to Israel, it was Ravin who accompanied him. He has recounted many of these experiences in a new memoir, “The Hoops Whisperer,” and now in an interview with the Forward.
Ravin’s mother is Israeli; his father a Russian who emigrated to Israel as a teenager. Both taught Jewish subjects, and young Ravin was a good son. He was raised Orthodox, did well in his studies and laid tefillin every morning, but he says it was basketball that ignited his passion.
“I was just obsessed with it,” he says. “I was going to find a way to make the team.”
So he spent a year “jumping rope, running hills, studying images. Everything I could get my hands on to make me a better player.”
But as someone who has developed an uncanny knack for missing 90% of the shots he takes, I suggest that practice wouldn’t make me perfect. I ask how he became a stronger player without outside counsel.
“It was an evolution, a learning process,” he replies. Ravin says he watched films of pros and emulated what they did. “I taught myself how to shoot. Fix [what I was doing wrong], train, fix it, train, fix it and train until eventually you become more sophisticated at it.”
He made the team the following year. “I went to a Jewish school,” he says. “It wasn’t like I went to Duke University. We were good, but we weren’t outstanding.”
Still, by his senior year he was the best player on his team and in his conference. Though playing at what he calls the bottom of the basketball food chain, he received a few inquires from small colleges — none of which his mother permitted him to respond to. Going to school to play basketball “just didn’t make sense to her. She didn’t understand. She wanted me to go to a school close to home, get good grades, get a good job and then move on in my life.”
Ravin listened to mom. Mostly. He went to the University of Maryland (where the 6-footer almost made the team as a walk-on) and then to law school, after which he headed out to California where he joined a San Diego law firm. And hated his life.
Salvation came at the local YMCA, which was searching for a volunteer coach for a team made up of 13-year-olds. Ravin jumped at the opportunity and introduced the kids to the same kinds of drills he used himself. These children, who parents had described as “spazzy,” “hyper” and “difficult,” won every game.
“Maybe it was because of my energy, maybe it was because I cared, maybe it was because I was so desperate to leave the office to reconnect with basketball, maybe that’s how I connected with the kids,” he says
Ultimately, Ravin quit the law firm, moved back to the east coast, and attempted to get involved with basketball as an agent. That line of work turned out to not be for him, so while he scouted about for a basketball-related dream job, he started working out with a couple of local D.C.-area college stars.
They were hoping to land a contract with a European team, but more importantly, from Ravin’s perspective, they were friends with Steve Francis, who joined their workout sessions and was subsequently selected second overall in the 1999 NBA draft.
Francis introduced Ravin to Juan Dixon and Elton Brand and began helping to train them. At first, Ravin didn’t charge for his work, but then his mom questioned him about it, saying: “In their eyes, you’re only worth what they are willing to pay you.”
Ravin brought a number of stratagems to the gym. There were, of course, his exercises, designed to improve conditioning and skills. He’ll make a player dribble up and down the court with two balls at one time. He’ll throw balls — one at a time — to both sides of a player and make him catch them on one bounce and shoot. The idea is to create a stressful enough workout such that the game itself comes more easily.
But for Ravin, training involves more than just physical exercises. To motivate his players, he provides Zen-like aphorisms that recall the mantras of Phil Jackson.
“Your greatest glory is not in never falling, but in getting up whenever you do.”
“Toughness is character, not punching power.”
But Ravin feels the greatest asset he brings to the table is emotional support. “I don’t know Phil Jackson. I can just be me,” he says. “I found that things worked better by adding spirituality and emotion and care along with the physical. These players aren’t robots; they’re people.”
He adjusts each workout to the player’s mood: “I don’t have a manual to give you. It’s day-to-day. It’s a conversation. It’s a message. It’s a text message. It’s a voice of encouragement, a pat on the back. It’s not like I’m giving them a pill.”
Consider Ravin’s willingness to overlook J.R. Smith’s persistent lateness. “I believe in him so much, what I felt for him was more frustration [than anger],” he comments. “I wanted [success] so much for him. He’s an amazing human. I will never abandon him. I’ll be there for him. He’s a work in progress, like we all are.”
Some coaches look askance at Ravin because of his relationship with players over whom they feel a sense of ownership.
“There’s always a level of distrust. [Coaches want to know] ‘who is that’ and ‘what’s he doing.’ That’s the nature of professional sports,” Ravin says. “I never concern myself with that. My only focus is to make these players better. I’m not trying to substitute for something; I’m just trying to complement whatever exists.”
Curt Schleier is a frequent contributor to the Forward.