The Jewish Jordan Subs Out
Former phenom Tamir Goodman now coaches kids who idolize his NBA pal, Omri Casspi. What happened?
Goodman was a quick learner. At 10, Katz says, he was “probably already a better free-throw shooter than anyone else we had on the high-school team.” In seventh grade—at age 12—Goodman played on the varsity team at Yeshiva High. In eighth grade, he led the team in scoring.
People often talk about sports in religious terms, but for Goodman, Judaism was his one and only religion. His father, Karl, was an attorney who wore his yarmulke to court. His mother, Chava, had served in the Israeli army. And his grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, lived with the family for six months each year. The family kept a kosher home, and Goodman grew up praying three times a day. In their observant community, it was expected that after completing the eighth grade, Goodman would go to a yeshiva for four years of intense Jewish learning. But the Chabad movement, with which the Goodman family identified, did not have a yeshiva in Baltimore.
Goodman was conflicted. Going away to school meant that he would have to give up his rigorous athletic training. But there were bigger questions plaguing the young athlete as well. “Everyone kept telling me, bottom line, I’d never be able to play college ball because of Judaism [since games were on Shabbat]. They said, ‘Maybe Hashem is testing you with these basketball gifts. Maybe he gave you this talent to test if you had the faith to ignore it,’ ” he told me.
He cherished his Jewish identity, and the idea that he might be failing a test of his religious character plagued him. So, at 14, Goodman put away his Jordans and headed to the Chabad School of Pittsburgh with 50 other religious boys from around the country. The Chabad School was different than other religious academies. Whereas most religious boys’ high schools insist on shunning extracurricular hobbies for the sake of Jewish learning, students in Pittsburgh were taught to integrate both their body and soul in the practice of Judaism. One of Goodman’s first classes at the school was taught by Rabbi Eli Shusterman, a young, ebullient teacher who’d recently graduated from rabbinical school.
Shusterman talked to his classes about destiny. He told his students that God gave every person certain talents; your job, he explained, was to utilize these blessings and make the world a better world through them. As Goodman sat in class, forcing his body to forget the feel of a basketball in his palm, he thought, ‘If this is true, why am I not playing ball? Why am I ignoring my talents? Is that then not the real insult to God?’ That night, he called Katz from a pay phone. “Coach,” he asked, “If I come back, can I play on the team?”
“Tamir,” Katz replied, “If you come back, I’m going to paint your name on the baseline.”
Goodman returned home to Baltimore, and he flourished under Katz’s tutelage, growing into a cerebral player. When passing the ball, Katz remembers, Goodman had a knack for knowing where his teammates would be seconds before they themselves had any idea. His wins racked up, and he started garnering national attention. The summer after 10th grade, Goodman was invited to the Eastern Invitational camp, one of the best basketball camps in the country. With his red hair, kippah, and cooler full of kosher food, he was a curiosity. But his performance at the camp was what really attracted the attention of Division I coaches.
By 11th grade, his game-day cotton tzitzit and three-point shots garnered him the nickname “Jewish Jordan” by a local sportswriter. When teammates teased him about the name, Goodman would uncomfortably reply, “I’m still paying $140 for my shoes.” But the name stuck. Bob Gibbons, a scout specializing in high-school basketball, said that he was “captivated by Tamir’s feel for the game,” citing his “ability to make shots from virtually anywhere within 30 feet of the hoops.” And John Eisenberg, a sports writer for the Baltimore Sun, called Goodman’s touch “magic.”
Scholarship offers began flooding in. In his junior year, Goodman signed with the University of Maryland, his dream school. Coaches there assured him they’d accommodate his religious schedule. A few weeks later, Sports Illustrated ran a 4-page spread about him. After that, Goodman says, “things got out of hand.” He would show up at school and there would be cameras in the hallways and reporters blocking classroom doors. Game days were the worst. The gym at the Talmudical Academy of Baltimore could hold 200 people, yet 3,000 people would try to squeeze through the door, turning the auditorium into a sweaty, loud, rock hall. A few months into Goodman’s senior year, he was called into the principal’s office. The principal looked at Goodman, told him how proud he was of him, and then politely asked him to leave the school. “I couldn’t blame them,” Goodman says. “It was a small Orthodox school. They didn’t know how to deal with the struggles of housing a celebrity.”
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