The Jewish Jordan Subs Out
Former phenom Tamir Goodman now coaches kids who idolize his NBA pal, Omri Casspi. What happened?
Slowly, with faith—God, he realized, had his own plan—Goodman healed and in the summer of 2002 signed a 3-year contract with Maccabi Tel Aviv, where games never conflicted with Shabbat. Injuries and rusty skills, however, plagued Goodman on the team. During his first season, he was sent to play with Maccabi Giva’t Shmuel, a team of veterans who wouldn’t retire, but who had a penchant for amazing upsets, unexpectedly making it to the Israel Cup Championship in 2003. The 2005 game against Casspi’s Maccabi Tel Aviv squad wouldn’t be one of them.
Before the game, an Israeli news station aired a short segment on Casspi, creating buzz about his talent. He had shed weight and gained muscle, but he was still young and inexperienced, starting the game on the bench. When the coach put him in, though, it quickly became the Omri Show. Bounding onto the court, he sprang to life like a character in a pop-up book. A teammate threw him the ball, and Casspi caught it in his right hand, sped past his defender, and went in for a spectacular reverse dunk. Goodman, who was playing defense, could only stop and stare at Casspi’s back. “In my seven years playing [elite] ball, I’d never seen anything like it,” he still remembers. Maccabi Tel Aviv won the game—108 to 83.
On June 25, 2009, the Sacramento Kings drafted Casspi as the 23rd overall pick in the NBA draft. A few hours later, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Casspi to congratulate him. The draft took place on the anniversary of the death of Casspi’s grandfather, who he was named after. Until that moment, Casspi’s mother says, he would never have called himself religious. But that day, something changed. “He believed that this [decision] came from up above,” she explains. Casspi, who had never before performed religious rituals, began to wrap himself in tefillin each day to pray. He started wearing large Jewish stars around his neck wherever he went. The next year, when Casspi was living in Sacramento, visitors would show up at Casspi’s parents’ house in Israel, leaving with small Israeli flags as souvenirs. Casspi’s face was plastered all over cereal boxes in Israel, and he was spotted hanging out with supermodels.
That same year, after repeat knee-tendon infections and injuries in both hands, Goodman gave up professional basketball. He held a press conference at the Jewish Children’s Museum in Brooklyn, where he announced his retirement. “If you would have asked [in high school] would I be retired from basketball at 27, I would have said no way,” he told the crowd. “But Hashem has a better plan, and it’s his plan.” Goodman moved to Cleveland with his wife and two children (they now have four kids) and started working for Haifa Hoops for Kids, a charity affiliated with Maccabi Haifa that benefits special-needs and underprivileged children. It was a group Goodman could identify with. “I’ve been through so many things in my career, both physically and psychologically,” he says. “It’s given me better understanding for kids’ challenges and difficulties. It’s a sensitivity I never would have had if my career had continued smoothly.” This, he tells me, was his mission all along.
In June 2011, a reporter from the Cleveland Plain Dealer called Goodman while he was traveling in the Poconos. “Did you hear the news?” he asked Goodman. “Omri Casspi was traded to Cleveland.” As news of the trade spread, Casspi’s publicist emailed Goodman, saying that Casspi wanted to meet him. Weeks later, on a cool, late summer night, Goodman drove over to Casspi’s new house on the west side of Cleveland. They sat on his couch for hours, speaking in Hebrew and trading stories. “We had so much in common—basketball, coaches, Israel,” Casspi explains. What struck him then was the strength of Goodman’s faith and how he had been able to embrace the end of his basketball career as proof of God’s greater plan. Goodman brought a mezuzah with him to that first meeting. As he got up to leave, Goodman says, Casspi asked him to affix it to his door.
But professional sports can be lonely. A coach who loves you one day can trade you the next, and the press is just as fickle. In Cleveland, where Casspi was hailed as a savior one year ago, he began to falter on the court, averaging a disappointing 3.5 rebounds and shooting 40 percent from the field. Byron Scott, the Cleveland Caveliers’ coach, publically questioned Casspi’s knowledge of the playbook, and he lost his starting position to Alonzo Gee. Trade rumors swirled after last season, and he admitted to the Israeli press that he’d been disappointed with his performance. But Casspi excelled in the European Basketball Championship this summer and appeared to be playing well during pre-season games.
Pressed on what he thinks life after basketball might look like, Casspi refuses to answer. “I might look old, but I’m only 24,” he says. “I refuse to think about the end.” For now, he’s still a Cavalier and is keeping busy with his partnership with Goodman. In addition to the Omri Casspi basketball camps for young Jewish athletes that Goodman runs in Cleveland, the pair has been tapped to organize a series of NBA Jewish-heritage nights at different arenas and will host high-level basketball camps on both coasts this summer for Jewish athletes.
“From a basketball perspective, I’ve been through a lot last year,” Casspi says. He’s happy to have had Goodman’s advice on dealing with professional disappointment. Back in Israel, Casspi’s family was also grateful for Goodman’s presence. “We love Tamir,” his mother explains. “We were happy to have him help Omri in Cleveland.” And Goodman, the fallen basketball star, found solace in his friendship with the Israeli NBA player. No longer able to play because of his injuries, Goodman says he feels part of himself back on the court when he attends games to watch Casspi. “We have a lot in common,” Goodman says. “I really admire his spirituality, his kindness, and his work ethic. He’s very smart, and very unselfish. A lot of people in his position could be totally different.”
In Goodman, it seems, Casspi has found his biggest fan—and a knowing supporter. “I watched Omri and felt emotionally connected,” Goodman says. “I knew what it felt like to be the only Jew playing in front of thousands of players, and what it felt like to have thousands of Jewish kids living through you.” For Casspi, who not too long ago was one of those wide-eyed kids, learning from Goodman’s experience could be a real game changer.
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