The Jewish Jordan Subs Out
Former phenom Tamir Goodman now coaches kids who idolize his NBA pal, Omri Casspi. What happened?
Neither did most of the other Jewish high schools with whom Goodman began corresponding. And because he wouldn’t play games on Shabbat, most of the non-Jewish private schools wouldn’t take him. Then he got a call from the Seventh Day Adventists, who also observe Saturday as their Sabbath. They offered Goodman an invitation to play at their school, and he finished his high-school career at Takoma Academy as one of the only white students and the only Jew. When he graduated in 2000, Goodman believed his star was just beginning to rise. That’s what the University of Maryland coach told him, in a letter Goodman still keeps in his scrapbook. “Great meeting you. Keep working hard. You have a very bright future.”
Twelve years later, 6,000 miles and seven hours away, the Casspi family gathers on a beach in Tel Aviv while Omri, taking advantage of the NBA off-season, represents Israel in the 2012 European basketball championship. Casspi’s mother, Ilana, has packed a cooler of watermelon, cucumbers, and jachnoon—a Yemeni donut-like dessert that Casspi used to eat, six at a time, until his mother threatened to stop making them at all. Casspi’s father, Shimon, wearing a white NBA hat, is ankle-deep in the ocean, staring angrily at his famous son’s jet ski and muttering to himself. He put thousands of dollars of repairs into the machine last week, but it still keeps leaking water. Giving up, Shimon settles into a low beach chair and takes a sip of water before agreeing to talk about his son. Asked whether he believed Casspi would one day play in the NBA, Shimon just laughs. “When he was young, Omri couldn’t even play paddle ball on the beach,” Shimon says. “He was bigger than all the kids—and awkward.” At this, Ilana, who has been extolling the virtues of her son for the past half hour, turns and glares at her husband. “Maspik!” she says to him in Hebrew. Enough. His comment, though, highlights the dramatically different expectations faced by the young Casspi and Goodman.
In Yavneh, an upper-middle-class suburb in Tel Aviv, Casspi read about Goodman—“Everyone in Israel knew about the Jewish Jordan,” he explains—but didn’t think much about the Maryland athlete, since he had celebrities living in his own house. His mother had played on Israel’s national basketball team. And with both his older brother and younger sister playing basketball competitively, Casspi wasn’t even the best Jewish athlete in his family—let alone the country. The Casspi kids were raised as secular Jews. Though they had Shabbat dinner every Friday night, their world really revolved around basketball. When the kids weren’t at school or at practice, they were watching NBA games on television or shooting hoops against each other in the driveway.
Casspi’s big break came at age 13, when he finally beat his mother in a pick-up game. “After that, I said ‘no more,’ ” Ilana says, laughing. “I knew that he would be good, but we didn’t think he would be the best. In truth, my daughter was the best of the three.” (Aviv, Casspi’s sister, retired from the sport after suffering ACL injuries in both knees.)
Casspi’s ascent, though, was steady. At 13, he was chosen for the Maccabi Tel Aviv youth team. At 15, he played in the European Under 16 championships, though he wasn’t a standout. “Omri’s beginnings were somewhat humble,” says David Blatt, coach of Maccabi Tel Aviv. “He was not a superstar at 13, 14, or 15 years of age.” In 2005, when Casspi was 17, he was selected as one of the youngest players for Maccabi Tel Aviv. Though Casspi was known for his focus and dedication to the game, he was still unpolished. “He was a little out of shape and overweight and his outside shot needed improvement,” remembers teammate Derrick Sharp. “But his competitiveness, aggressiveness, his passion, and work ethic were unmatched.” That same year, Casspi and Goodman would meet for the first time—on a basketball court.
Even before Casspi’s star was rising in Israel, Goodman was facing setbacks. Before the school year started, the basketball coach at the University of Maryland told him that if he wanted adequate playing time, he’d have to participate in practices and games on Shabbat after all. Unwilling to compromise his religious practice, Goodman instead enrolled at Towson University, where the coaching staff would accommodate his schedule. Saturday games were held after sundown, once Shabbat was over, and Friday night and Saturday practices were canceled. That year, Towson went 12-and-17, with Goodman starting most games. Maryland won the national title.
But in the spring of 2001, Towson changed conferences from the Atlantic Ten to the Colonial Athletic Association and replaced their coaching staff. Goodman and the new coach, Michael Hunt, clashed from the start. According to Goodman, Hunt not only refused to accommodate his religious practices, he seemed to punish him for it, refusing to play him in games and blaming Goodman for the team’s lackluster performances in practices. (Hunt could not be reached for comment.)
Hunt’s treatment was hard for Goodman to handle. “Tamir was very fragile and sensitive,” remembers Sam Sutton, Goodman’s teammate at Towson. “It was a big shock to [Tamir] after having a string of coaches who loved him and wanted what was best for him at all times. … [Hunt] was a coach who raged at players and who didn’t appreciate Tamir’s unorthodox schedule.”
Goodman’s college career ended after he filed a police report accusing his coach of kicking a metal stool at him in the locker room after the team played a particularly poor game. It was a sad ending to a promising start. Adam Ginsberg, who worked as Towson’s assistant coach during Goodman’s freshman year, thinks this tension was the turning point in Goodman’s whole career. “I really believe if Towson had not changed conferences and had not let their coaching staff go, we would be hearing a totally different story about Tamir and his basketball successes,” he explains.
Goodman, who didn’t graduate (he will earn a Bachelor of Arts degree in communications from Towson next month after completing online courses), emerged from the experience broken. “I was at my lowest point physically and spiritually,” Goodman says. “People thought I was weak, that I should have been able to handle it.” He fell into a deep depression, barely able to get himself out of bed for four months.
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