How Nike Basketball And The Hoops Whisperer Made Me Learn To Love The Pain: A LeBron 13 Wear-Test Experience
Every Wednesday I have the best 15 minutes of my week. There’s a silence slightly interrupted by the buzzing of lights switching on overhead. I stand in an empty gym and just shoot at the dimly lit basket that eventually grows bigger once the court becomes illuminated. It’s what Idan Ravin, self-proclaimed Hoops Whisperer to the NBA’s biggest stars, would call a sanctuary. And it is – I think of how lucky I am that I’ve found a completely unoccupied court in the middle of New York City solely for me. For just a few moments I’m able to clear my head in the middle of my week. And while I wish all I heard was the echo of the ball bouncing after falling through the net in a swish, there’s definitely some audible clanks going on. Nine other people eventually show up and we get our weekly pick-up game going in full swing by 8:00 PM.
When you get to a certain age you stop thinking about the technicalities and specifics of how you play the game of basketball. You don’t do drills. You just settle for being content that you are in fact playing – that people have found time out of their busy schedules to get a game together and try to mimic the muscle memory from their respective primes. Me? I played a year of high school basketball before bailing on a coach and teammates I didn’t necessarily want to share the next three winters of my life with. It was the over-competitive jock atmosphere that created in-fighting and a sense of insecurity that took the fun out of basketball in an instant for me. But quitting is also something I’ll always regret. So whenever I get the opportunity to attend a wear-test where I’m placed in that atmosphere again it helps me relive the what-if scenarios that are usually reserved for those 15 minutes I’m alone in a gym shooting. I’m like a diet version of Napoleon Dynamite’s Uncle Rico basically.
Wear-tests come with their perks – a bag full of free gear, perhaps the opportunity to talk to designers about the specifications, and maybe even a brief moment with the player who will be wearing the model all season long. Then you get together with a bunch of other out of shape bloggers for a game of carefree blogger-ball. But when Nike Basketball contacted me to see if I’d be interested in an hour-long one-on-one training session with one of the most highly regarded basketball trainers in the world for a test ride in the Nike LeBron 13, the idea alone was stress inducing. It’s the type of opportunity the 16-year-old me would jump at, but this version of me – the one that plays basketball once a week and spends most of his free time watching a game with a beer or two – would worry about due to risking embarrassment. But I did it regardless. For better or worse this is that story.
We did some basic stretches to gauge my flexibility (or lack there of).
Idan Ravin is a stoic figure in his own right. Soft-spoken in brief intervals, everything he does comes with a sense of mindfulness. I had heard the stories – from making players tear up as they were pushing past their personal comfort level to the multiple occasions he made a certain favorite Cavalier of mine, J.R. Smith, throw up during their sessions together. There’s a mythic quality to a self-made guy who grew up as a basketball outsider and now stands comfortably in the eye of the storm.
His idea that a basketball court is a sanctuary was taken seriously. In an interview with The New Yorker last year he explained: “No cameras, no fans. It makes them vulnerable.” Except it wasn’t just Idan and me – there were about four Nike employees watching and a camera guy taking photos of my every unathletic move, so that hallmark vulnerability he was talking about – multiply that tenfold. He had an agenda: to preach the explosive quality of the LeBron 13 to a human being who can only be described as explosive when… I won’t go there. At the beginning of our session, I turned to Idan smiling and said, “I heard you made J.R. throw up during one of these.” I didn’t know at the time that I was setting myself up for some serious foreshadowing.
At the end of the session I recieved a recommendation for some yoga classes.
The transition from ‘this’ll be fun!‘ to ‘oh my god I can’t breathe‘ to ‘okay, just 5 more seconds for me to catch my breath, Idan‘ all in about 5 minutes.
Idan’s training regiment was meant to disorient – to take me out of my comfort zone. It didn’t take much. I ran around the court four times doing a plethora of different footwork routines from defensive slides, shuffles, skips, and hops. He wanted me to get the overall feel of LeBron’s thirteenth signature so I could come to an understanding of why certain technologies were implemented to best suit his game. I jump-rope’d my way into instant fatigue and collapsed during push-ups all before ever touching a basketball. He could see my eyes darting toward the ball rack and calmly explained that ‘we won’t be using those for awhile.’
To those that think Nike’s additions to yearly LeBron models are strictly synthetic – an aesthetic choice to shock outsiders into grabbing the pair thanks to the pearlescent Posite overlays and vibrant colorways – that simply isn’t the case. It’s part of it, sure, but the main focus here is to deliver the best performance basketball model for the best player in the world. The bolstered and larger Hexagonal Air on the outsole provided a boost in comfort and a signature explosion that’s supposed to have left LeBron’s game by now (he turns 31 in December). But that’s only felt if you’re actually running like LeBron would by lightly striking the court on the tips of your toes. When I fell back into the habit of running flat-footed it got rid of the context.
Not a single detail got past Idan, from running on the tips of my toes to loosening up my clenched fists to relax while running.
Me, running to the bathroom so I could throw up.
I have a mental block so to speak. If I’m not touching a basketball to distract myself from the fact that I’m actually doing exercise, there’s this inner-monologue that crescendos from, “hey this isn’t so bad” to “you’re going to die because you don’t have your backup asthma inhaler on you”. By the time Idan finally picked up a ball and ushered me over to the key, I was drenched in sweat, doubled over and sucking in as much air as I could between generous gulps of water. We were about half-way through our training session and I couldn’t see the end in sight. As I stood up Idan calmly came over to me and just stared. The look was piercing. It was almost as if he was peering into my soul and searching for the exact moment I’d accepted defeat in my life. All he said was, “I want you to get back into a normal workout routine. One day at a time. You can do it.” And I believed him.
Then I threw up.
I felt honored to be in the same company as J.R. Smith, but more so than that I was just grateful I had enough time to reach for my sweat towel to prevent any puke from getting on the hardwood or my new LeBron 13s. I interrupted Idan mid-sentence and headed for the bathroom where I spent the next few minutes getting rid of all the water I guzzled during our training session and the granola bar I had on my way to the gym. I had hit rock bottom. When I walked back to the court I was introduced to my new nickname: The Purge. “Like the movie,” Idan said. I couldn’t leave without a bang and just a barf, so I pulled myself together and got ready for the shooting drills. Now focused and collected, I went to work.
Maybe it’s a part of the whole The Hoops Whisperer experience, or in a 100% more likely explanation, I’m just incredibly out of shape and need to put in more cardio, but after emptying my stomach the concept of sanctuary became that much clearer. My mind had quieted, my stomach had stopped churning, and my jump shot started falling. The suicides I ran in between pull-up shots from the elbows didn’t instill thoughts of my own mortality and all I could hear were the kind claps and cheers of encouragement from the four Nike employees, each pushing me forward (probably to let me know that they weren’t totally still thinking of my purge session).
And you know what? The nickname sticks. My jumper is a cathartic release, a sense of calm in an otherwise shaky experience.
Here’s Nike Basketball and Idan Ravin’s critique of my workout session. They were rather generous in describing my skill level.