Winning Time: How Superstar Trainer Idan Ravin Made Magic, Bird, Kareem Out of Actors for HBO

The unorthodox training methods of Idan Ravin have revealed the best in some of the NBA’s greatest players. LeBron James and Kobe Bryant are among his long list of clients. He just had to throw enough tennis balls at them to cultivate what was already there.

Imprinting the playing style of a Hall of Famer on an actor well enough to make it believable was another matter. Ravin took on the challenge when “Winning Time” executive producer Adam McKay called for help turning, among many, Quincy Isaiah into Magic Johnson, Solomon Hughes into Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Sean Patrick Small into Larry Bird.

With the HBO series’ second season set to debut on Sunday, Aug. 6, Gaming Today spoke with Ravin, the show’s basketball producer, about making “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty” real.

Check out the full-length interview podcast:

GT: What was the process of turning ex-college lineman Isaiah into a point guard?

IDAN RAVIN: It’s sort of a three-prong process. So the first phase is that when you play college football, especially a lineman position, it’s a different level of athleticism that you need versus playing a point guard position in the NBA. You think about it, NFL linemen are confined to a five-yard space, and it’s very volatile, and it’s very aggressive, and it’s very physical.

You’re looking at Magic Johnson, now you’re at 94 x 50. You have to use the whole court. The ball’s in your hand. You have to be very elegant and very nimble and very light. So the first phase was turning Quincy into more of a basketball athlete in terms of speed and agility and vertical and linear and all that stuff.

Then the second phase is turning Quincy into much more of an elevated basketball player. So all the technical skills that you have to have, the reason it’s so important is that in my experience on these shoots is the real rocket science is the idea when a director wants you to improvise. So imagine watching a Bruce Lee movie, and your actor can only do one kata. It would suck, right? Because the director might be like, ‘I want six roundhouse kicks in a flying dragon kick, blah, blah, blah.’ The actor couldn’t do it. He’d only mastered one of the katas.

So the same thing I realized in this situation is that Quincy had to be a very evolved basketball player in case there was a moment where he had to improvise [so] that he could do it.

So then once we evolved him as a basketball player, then the next phase was turning him into a silhouette, which is really, really tough because it’s one thing to play John Smith, it’s another thing to play one of the greatest basketball players in history.

Everybody knows Magic Johnson. So you can imagine the pressure.

So it was the smallest things, from learning how to master how dramatic the pass is from his fingers, how he extends his fingers, where the release point is on his jump shot, how he runs, how he smiles, how he like looks away.

It’s just literally creating a Picasso from this basketball player so that it always sells on camera at the same time.

It has to be functional, right? So you can make the beautiful pass, but it has to go somewhere. So Quincy had a tremendous amount of responsibility sort of juggling the basketball player, juggling the actor, and then juggling the acting. And that’s what made this. I give these actors a lot of credit. It was really tough.

GT: Was it easier or harder creating Kareem because Hughes played college basketball?

IDAN RAVIN: The thing with Solomon which made it tricky is Solomon was a successful college basketball player. He’s a skilled guy, but Solomon relied on proper intuition to play Solomon at Cal. All of a sudden now you have to kind of really recalibrate what it means to be Kareem.

In today’s game, you play fast because fast gets you the competitive advantage and fast gets the ball to the rim. When you’re Kareem, now all of a sudden you have to learn how to play slow and you have to play slow at the same time learning how to generate upward force and power, which is completely counterintuitive, because if I said to you, ‘Play powerful,’ you’d imagine playing fast. Now you have to generate power upward on that sky hook by playing slow.

So it was very hard to learn how to sort of recalibrate what your instincts are because he has very good instincts for basketball.

But it’s a little bit different when you have to play this character. The idea of extending your shoulder very high and driving your hip in the air and slowing down your pace and all the things that Kareem would do, these sort of idiosyncratic like scanning of the court, you don’t have that kind of pacing when you play high-level division college basketball. Everything is pop, pop, pop, pop, pop. So it was kind of showing him that take a step back, kind of turn off your intuition a little bit, learn this new character, and then he got it. But he’s so smart, he’s so thoughtful. He picked it up pretty quick.

Ranking the ‘Winning Time’ Actors as Athletes

We asked Ravin to rank the athletic ability of the actors on the HBO show:

IDAN RAVIN: Delante Desouza, who plays Michael Cooper, is a really good athlete but didn’t realize it until later on. You’re not used to it, but then all of a sudden you’d give him physical drills, and as he learned the mechanics and learned how to move, it was almost surprising him. It’s like he finally learned how to drive his Ferrari. He didn’t know he even had one.

DeVaughn Nixon [who plays his father, Norm Nixon] is outrageously athletic. The guy’s 40 years old, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he runs a 4.4, 4.5 40. The kid could have played many, many different sports. I bet he would’ve been a great soccer player, tennis player, baseball player. He just comes from really good genes, and he’s really gifted. I think he’s even a black belt in karate, Taekwondo.

Jimel [Atkins], who plays our Jamaal Wilkes, is an incredibly devoted guy. He was a wide receiver in college, so he moves really, really well for a football player. But then all of a sudden when you put a basketball in his hands, it’s foreign to him, right?

So it was the idea of teaching him that running with the football is no different than dribbling with the basketball. And then eventually it started kicking in, and he was like, ‘Oh my God, this is so fun.’ We played touch football sometimes at the end of practice because so many of the guys were football players. It just was a fun exercise for them.

Quincy, to a lot of people’s surprise, has unbelievable feet. I think Quincy should not have been a lineman. He should have been a running back. We would do lots of agility drills and chair drills, and he would literally weave through it like it was second nature. People just see his size and the thinking is, ‘He was a lineman. Oh, you’re slow.’ If you wanted to tell me he wanted to be a boxer one day, I’d say, I think you can do it.

Sean, an unbelievable Larry Bird. It took us a year and a half to get that shot. The mechanics, the pivot, the pelvis rotations, the way the feet are, the way you take a step back, jump shot. The way you look-away pass. Essentially he has a menu of twenty Larry Bird items that he’s mastered in order to be able to turn to this whenever he needs it. Sean’s awesome.

But all of them, I think in different moments, each one sort of was like, ‘Oh, I can do this. I can become this character.’

About the Author
Brant James

Brant James

Senior Writer
Brant James is a senior writer who covers the sports betting industry and legislation at Gaming Today. An alum of the Tampa Bay Times,, espnW,, and USA Today, he's covered motorsports and the NHL as beats. He also once made a tail-hook landing on an aircraft carrier with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and rode to the top of Mt. Washington with Travis Pastrana. John Tortorella has yelled at him numerous times.

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