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The Art of a Beautiful Game

A sports journalist highlights all that is best in the NBA.

(Page 2 of 2)

Even devout NBA followers are unlikely to be familiar with trainer Idan Ravin, who, despite never having played beyond high school or coached beyond junior high, ranks among the league’s most influential figures. His client list reads like an all-star roster, including Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, LeBron James, and Gilbert Arenas. Despite no formal role as a trainer, Ravin has become the go-to guy for players looking for an edge, conjuring up idiosyncratic drills and regimens that his players swear (and sweat) by.

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As Ballard and Ravin discuss techniques and clients, it becomes clear how adept Ravin is at reading players’ body language and motivations. Unlike coaches, who tend to issue orders, Ravin establishes a rapport with his players by speaking in their language and building from there.

He hectors Paul, the New Orleans Hornets star, telling him others are working harder and not-so-subtly implying Paul must do the same to keep pace. With the Washington Wizards’ Arenas, it’s positive reinforcement, followed by a gentle push to brush up on this or that skill. And when he works with Denver Nuggets scorer Anthony, the “why” matters as much as the “what.” Those examples illustrate why Ravin has become known as “The Hoops Whisperer.”

Ballard, who played small-time college basketball, throws himself into the fray with great success. To unravel the mystery of sharpshooting, he turns to a 3-point shootout with Steve Kerr, a current team executive five years removed from his NBA career. Later, he participates in a summer basketball academy run by a top sports agency to get an idea of what pro prospects and stars do during the off-season to hone their game. Grueling workouts and specialized coaching demonstrate that “summer has become the season when careers are shaped,” Ballard notes in an observation that many will find surprising in light of the league’s run-and-gun image.

He turns to Nick Anderson, infamous for missing four free throws during the final 10.5 seconds of an NBA finals game in 1995 to cost the Orlando Magic a victory, for perspective (or lack thereof) on the loneliness of life at the charity stripe. For point guard play, the unlikely future MVP Steve Nash offers lessons in selfish selflessness.

Better still, Ballard skirts the typical sportswriter banalities (“How does it feel to win a scoring title?” “Is this your favorite championship?”) and, in doing so, coaxes players into discussing things they actually care about. Thus, Kobe Bryant’s killer instinct comes to life as he discusses his high school ritual of playing one-on-one with a teammate after practice. Bryant would often score 80 straight baskets before surrendering one to his opponent. Flash forward to the present and Bryant still believes he did the right thing, that to allow even a stray basket or two out of mercy would have weakened his game.

In a look at rebounding, the author digs out this nugget on Dennis Rodman: He used to study how his teammates and others missed, bettering his chances to grab the rebound, a bit of unconventional behavior far more intriguing than the color of his hair or his infatuation with Madonna.

Such surprises and insights fill the pages of this concise, insightful look at the NBA. If nothing else, this must be said about Chris Ballard: He’s got game.

Erik Spanberg is a freelance writer in Charlotte, N.C.


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