“I am guilty of sometimes imposing my wants and wishes on others,” writes Idan Ravin.
He’s also guilty of soft-peddling: That’s like saying Carmelo Anthony will toss up a shot every now and again. Ravin has built a lucrative, one-of-a-kind career as a one-on-one basketball trainer imposing his apparently considerable will on some of the greatest athletes on the planet.
A basketball-worshiping kid who was cut from his seventh-grade team and nearly (but didn’t) make his Division 1 University of Maryland team as a walk-on, Ravin turned his personal disappointment into a continually evolving series of private training sessions that have made believers of LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and many more of the game’s elite, much to the chagrin of some of the league’s old-guard coaches.
But if Ravin practices understatement and a bit of false modesty in his new book, “The Hoops Whisperer” (titled after the nickname bestowed on him by Sports Illustrated), he’s earned it. Part self-help, part NBA all-access pass, Ravin’s memoir will appeal to basketball fans, self-improvement enthusiasts, and anyone who enjoys a good underdog yarn.
In a few brisk chapters, Ravin sketches the early part of his life and education and the birth of his love of basketball, much to the puzzlement of his Israeli immigrant parents. The main action of the book begins in earnest when Ravin, missing basketball and deeply unhappy as a lawyer, abruptly tells off one of his firm’s partners and walks out.
Having created some unusual drills for himself to improve his game in high school, he began contacting NBA franchises to offer his services. He was roundly ignored, but a chance connection with graduating college star Steve Francis helped crack open a few doors.
Ravin’s prose (apparently done without the help of a ghostwriter) is at its best when he’s describing his pure love for the sport. “The simplest things excited me,” he recalls of his childhood: “hearing the bounce of a ball; seeing a new long white net hanging from a rim . . . running my fingers over the seams of a wet basketball after I shot in the rain.”
Part of his training methods with his players involves getting them to reconnect with their own childhood love of the game. He recounts taking “Melo” (Anthony) and “CP” (Chris Paul) on a long, exuberant bike ride around New York City: “I hoped our ride could, in some small way, reconnect them with the freedom, recklessness, innocence, and single-mindedness only children seem to have in pursuit of fun.”
Ravin has a firm grasp on the NBA’s superstar culture, and the pressures it can bring. He writes with sensitivity of helping players such as J.R. Smith and Dwight Howard work past the perception that they’re troublesome teammates.
Training hard, emphasizing full-speed, heavy-contact drills that mirror actual game situations, and using innovative techniques (such as requiring the player to catch a tennis ball while dribbling the basketball with his other hand), Ravin has pushed such players past the ceilings they’d come to accept for themselves.
“Forget drugs — the high from self-improvement is legendary and has its own community of addicts,” he writes.
As driven as he clearly is, it took the author years to invoice a player for his services — he had been training players for free, even through part of the period when he was still working as a lawyer. When Elton Brand handed him a white envelope, the trainer was overcome with emotion that his life’s calling might earn him a living, too: “He could have paid me with a bag of jelly beans.”
It’s not all head-in-the-clouds stuff: Ravin writes of an uncomfortable interlude with Kobe Bryant and a comically adversarial confrontation with longtime coach Larry Brown. And he has an unfortunate habit of beginning each chapter with a hashtag epigram: “kings r born, rulers r made #reigningjumpshots.”
Overall though, “The Hoops Whisperer” has something worth saying. “Life boils down to a series of jump shots,” Ravin writes: “Some you make, some you miss, some you wish you’d taken, and some you wish you hadn’t.” Even the superstars know the drill.James Sullivan is author of “Island Cup: Two Teams, Twelve Miles of Ocean, and Fifty Years of Football Rivalry.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.