Sacred Hoops

by January 25, 2008

By Matt Caputo

People are looking down at Tamir Goodman. The fans seated in the court-level seats of Reading, Pennsylvania’s Sovereign Center are confused by the once-heralded “Jewish Jordan’s” appearance. Even a tiny redheaded preschooler has a hard giggle when his dad points out Goodman’s odd attire. However, no one is staring at the yarmulke on his head; rather, they are dumbfounded to see that he is wearing two different shoes.

“It’s not any superstition or cool style,” says the 25-year-old Goodman, now a married father of two and a seasoned professional. “I have a bruise on my foot, and it’s for comfort until it gets better.”

There is very little about Goodman that is “typical.” The former Baltimore prep star earned notice as the first major Orthodox Jewish basketball player on the modern American high school hoops scene. He says the attention around his game began after the 10th grade. After attending the Eastern Invitational Basketball camp, he earned a reputation as a player to watch on the high school camp circuit. At Eastern Invitational, Goodman was asked to play in the All-Star Game, but it was to be held on Saturday, a day when Orthodox Jews observe Sabbath, or “a day of rest or inactivity.” While his religious beliefs kept him out of that game, Goodman wasn’t discouraged and carried on with his hoop dreams.

By his junior year, Sports Illustrated had dubbed him the “Jewish Jordan,” and he caught the eye of 60 Minutes, ESPN and Fox Sports, too. He averaged 38.8 points per game as an 11th-grader and helped Talmudical Academy to a 26-9 overall record. However, his love for basketball began well before he was a topic of conversation and mildly controversial hoopla.

“I went to an Orthodox religious school with a very strict dress code,” says Goodman. “But I was a huge, huge Michael Jordan fan, and I had to make sure that I would wear something of his every day, like a Michael Jordan wristband under my sleeve or a Michael Jordan jersey under my school shirt.”

In his senior year, Goodman was a point of interest for many national media outlets. He transferred to Tacoma Academy in Baltimore, where the competition was better, and averaged 24.6 points per game. Being named MVP of the prestigious “Capital Classic” capped off Goodman’s monumental high school career. As a junior he’d given the University of Maryland a verbal commitment to accept their scholarship offer and seemed fastened in for a ride into one of college basketball’s top leagues, the Atlantic Coast Conference.

However, Goodman never played a game at Maryland. While it isn’t crystal clear how the commitment, which seemed like a lock, was broken, speculation has it that Maryland found it impossible to rearrange their schedule to free Goodman of having to play on the Sabbath. Although he didn’t make it to the A.C.C. and never got the chance to be a Terrapin, Goodman says he was never bitter about the outcome.

“I have absolutely nothing against Maryland; I still root for them like crazy, especially Coach Williams,” said Goodman, who plays in a Jewish garment under his jersey known as tzitzit. Essentially, strings hang from a shirt that, when knotted, symbolize the 613 commandments of the Torah. Jewish people wear tzitzis as a reminder to obey the commandments and have been since the time of Moses. “It really had nothing to do with them. It was from above, and the whole situation just made me a better and stronger person and a better player. I could never say anything bad about the University of Maryland, because they do so much good in the community I grew up in.”

Once the Terrapins were no longer an option for Goodman, then–Towson University Head Coach Mike Jaskulski approached him about joining the team under the condition that the school would honor his religious needs.

“Coach Jas’ said the guys on the team respected my decision not to break Sabbath so much that they asked him to recruit me,” Goodman says. “I went to the school and met with the athletic directors, and it was a miracle in my eyes that I became the first Orthodox Jew to play division-one college basketball without playing on Sabbath. I have to thank America for that.”

In his freshman season at Towson, Goodman put up decent first-year numbers. He averaged 6 points, 4 assists and 2.4 rebounds. To avoid not playing on the Sabbath, Goodman drove to road games a day beforehand and stayed with someone in the area’s Jewish community. Sometimes, if the sun went down and stars appeared in time, Goodman was able to play in Saturday night games. However, the Tigers struggled with a 12-17 record and were knocked out of the playoffs early. Coach Jaskulski was fired and replaced by Michael Hunt, a former Towson assistant coach.

Goodman and Hunt did not have the best relationship. Goodman alleges that in December of 2001 Hunt threatened him while holding a chair over his head and kicked a stool at him, hitting his leg. Goodman told school officials and promised to leave Towson if Hunt wasn’t removed. Hunt remained the coach and Goodman left school.

“I took the whole experience and I thought to myself, What clearer message could I have had from God telling me it was time to leave Towson?” says Goodman, of his decision to end his college playing career. “He couldn’t have given it to me any clearer. I just picked up and went on to Israel.”

After leaving Towson, Goodman flirted with the idea of going to another school. He’d had offers to transfer when Jaskulski was fired, but he was loyal to Towson for accommodating his religious needs. In 2002, Maccabi Tel-Aviv, a top Israeli pro team, signed Goodman to a five-year contract. Because his mother was born in Israel, Goodman was considered an Israeli national and had no trouble traveling abroad.

“It was a pretty easy choice for me. I wrote in my seventh-grade yearbook that I wanted to be a professional basketball player in Israel and serve in the I.D.F. [Israeli Defense Forces],” says Goodman. “So they came down here, worked me out a few times and gave me the contract. I was very fortunate.”

For the 2002–2003 season, Goodman was loaned to Maccabi Givat Shmuel of the Israeli Superleague. In 29 games, he averaged only 2.2 points per game. In 2003–’04, Goodman played in the Israeli second division with a team called Kiryat Ata. He was named MVP of the championship game before leading his team to a title.

After two and a half years as a pro in Israel, Goodman joined the Israeli Army. Although he was exempt from duty because of his basketball career, he volunteered his service. During his time in the military, he was named Most Outstanding Soldier of his platoon in boot camp.

“I graduated a course and was assigned into a tank unit,” says Goodman, who is very mild-mannered. “I was never in any danger, but I did have guard duty right in front of Gaza during a serious time.”

Goodman met his wife, Judy, also a native of the U.S., in Israel, and they now have two children together, a boy and a girl. When his tour of duty was complete, Goodman returned to Maccabi Givat Shmuel before signing in the Israeli second division with Maccabi Shoham in the 2006–2007 season. In December of 2007, he returned to Maryland to join the Maryland Nighthawks. He’d emailed the team owner in November to explore the possibility. It would be Goodman’s first time playing in the U.S. as a professional.

About a month after Goodman is signed, the Nighthawks are in town to take on the Reading Railers in each team’s second game in the inaugural season of the Premier Basketball League. The PBL is a new minor league in 10 cities, launched by Nighthawks owner Tom Doyle and a number of former ABA (or, as Doyle puts it, “another league”) team owners, who left the league due to instability.

“Certainly he’s a local guy, and he has a huge following here. I am never one to shy away from a good story. We had the seven-foot-nine Sun Ming Ming last year, but with Tamir, it’s that, above all, he can play ball,” says Doyle, who is now in his fourth season as the owner of the Nighthawks and his inaugural run as CEO and cofounder of the PBL. “In the first two home games, you could really see the contingent of fans. He’s a great messenger for basketball in general. It’s great for ticket sales, and Tamir understands that too, but it’s really about the positive message that he puts across.”

In Goodman’s second game in the PBL, he doesn’t start and enters the game to a mute ovation. Though he doesn’t score in 10 minutes of action in the first half, he does make for some exciting plays; earning two assists via fast breaks and coming up with two steals and two boards. He’s unselfish, only taking one shot, a miss. The night before, in the league’s first game, he didn’t take any.

Late in the second quarter, Goodman collides with Railers forward Jared Mills, a local Reading product, and hits the floor hard. Goodman dislocates his finger and is forced to leave the game. Although he doesn’t return, Goodman cheers on his teammates from the bench (where former NBA player and Big East scoring king Lawrence Moten coaches in a team sweat suit). After the game, Goodman and Mills make a point to make sure the other is OK.

It’s clear that, many years removed from his “Jewish Jordan” label, Goodman is excited just to be playing professionally in America. While the PBL is not comparable to the NBA, the playing conditions and team operations have, so far, been quality and worthwhile. With a few bugs to be worked out, the PBL is trying to reestablish independent minor-league basketball in the U.S.

“As far as my team goes, the ownership is great, and they’re very up-front about everything,” says Railers guard Ira Miller, who played at McNeese State and has played eight seasons professionally in Puerto Rico. After working as a juvenile probation officer, Miller is hoping to use the PBL to restart and advance his playing career. “The pay isn’t much, but they help me with travel and pay my living expenses. I have to option to get a little part-time job, but I’m really using this as a chance to get jobs playing overseas.”

Goodman, who is considered a PBL franchise player and excluded from the $130,000 salary cap, is in the PBL for different reasons: It’s the opportunity to come back home and play in front of his family. For him, it’s a chance to reestablish himself as an American basketball player and an ambassador for the power of basketball. It’s an opportunity for him to use his most valued tool—his good example.

“I really feel like I’m a simple person, like everybody else, with a God-given talent, and I try to use my talent to the best of my ability,” says Goodman, who says he has coached more than 17,000 kids in his life and hopes to continue to put on basketball camps and coach youth hoops when he is done playing. “That’s what Judaism teaches, that every single person has their talent, and you’re just supposed to use your talent in the right way, and God will take care of the rest. There is nothing more special than doing something for someone else.”

PHOTOS: Mike Delfin