"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.”