Tamir Goodman in action: I just have to be patient and keep doing what I’m doing.In front of thousands of screaming fans and rolling television cameras, Tamir Goodman stands alone just right of center court. He races toward the basket, soars to the rim, and slams the ball down.But the orange orb richochets off the backboard; Goodman has missed his first attempt in the all-star game half-time dunk contest.
He’s given the ball and told to try a second time, but he misses again. And again.
He walks off the court to where his teammates sit, receiving reassuring pats on the back. A few minutes later he’s outside in the cool, dark air, leaving the rowdy masses behind. He grabs his head, elbows jutting out, distressed by his performance.
But he doesn’t curse. He doesn’t shout. There are no recriminations. He doesn’t blame a bad arm or the rambunctious crowd or cite any of the other stock excuses that professional athletes fall back on. Instead he pulls out his cellphone.
“Ema,” the lanky redhead says and pauses, waiting to tell his mother how the night went. “I gave it my best shot.”
He then asks if she can whip up a couple of schnitzels while he makes his way back home. He’s hungry and eager to take advantage of a home-cooked meal while his mother is visiting for Pessah.
It isn’t the first time that Goodman has had to put a disappointing experience behind him.
Dubbed the “Jewish Jordan” in the American press and profiled in Sports Illustrated before he had graduated high school, Goodman entertained an offer from University of Maryland, then ranked second in the US, before receiving a three-year deal from national powerhouse Maccabi Tel Aviv last August.
But in his first season in Israel, for which he was loaned out to Maccabi Givat Shmuel, the 21-year-old point guard has averaged a mere 2 points, 0.5 assists, and 0.6 rebounds in only 9.8 minutes of action per game. Partway through the season, Ma’ariv dubbed him the year’s biggest disappointment – just one of several publications in the national press to take potshots at him.
That, though, hasn’t dented Goodman’s upbeat attitude or halted his frequent grins. Indeed, Goodman is remarkable in spite of his reputation rather than because of it.
“I know a lot of people doubted me there tonight. But I know that I could win that contest. And I know that I gave it my best shot. So I’m just going to wake up and go to practice with a smile on my face tomorrow morning,” he says while enjoying the cool night breeze on the balcony of his modest Givat Shmuel apartment.
Despite the traces of exhaustion in his piercing blue eyes – whose color is heightened by his matching kippa – the Orthodox Jew with the all-American looks continues with positive statements.
“If I didn’t believe in myself then I wouldn’t go back to practice tomorrow after a night like tonight, but I’ll be all right. I just have to be patient and keep doing what I’m doing.”
It’s tempting to dismiss such unflappable enthusiasm as disingenuous, except that earnest sanguinity is perhaps Goodman’s most outstanding feature. And one week later, he uses the same language to review his most recent performance – though it was a completely different experience.
“I believe in myself and I know if I do things the right way, when the time is right, everything works out,” he says. The night before, he scored eight points – the last two on crucial free throws with mere seconds left in the game – to help power his team past Bnei Hasharon and into their first-ever State Cup finals. (They gave Maccabi Tel Aviv stiff competition but ended up losing out on May 1.)
Though slightly more alert and up-tempo than he was after the all-star game, the shaggy stubble of the Omer period (between Pessah and Shavuot) is the only tangible sign that it’s a different week. He lounges on the same balcony chair with the same kippa perched on his head as he says, “Nothing has changed with me between last week and this week. I’m going to go to practice and work just as hard as I did last week.”
Maccabi Tel Aviv head coach David Blatt, who decided to sign Goodman, doesn’t doubt it.
“He’s an honest, pure kid. No smoke and mirrors. No phoniness. Tamir’s a real person.”
In fact, that integrity is what Blatt says endeared the 1.9-meter, 80 kg. player to him when they first met in the States.
Blatt remembers that he immediately “fell in love” with Goodman because of “the feeling I had looking him in the eye and being looked back in the eye by a kid who really knew who he was and what he wanted and was willing to work for it.”
While an intense work ethic and a focus on improvement are among Goodman’s defining characteristics, it is his religious convictions that have garnered him the most attention – in America primarily because of their novelty and in Israel largely because of their crowd appeal.
He has become a hero to Orthodox children throughout the country. As he relates after the all-star game, “These three religious kids came running over to me afterwards and said, ‘Just the fact that we saw your tzitzit tonight made our night, whether you made [the dunks] or not.’”
He explains, “It’s not that I’m forcing anyone to wear tzitzit, but I am showing you can be proud to be Jewish and you can wear your tzitzit and you can compete at this level.”
He takes care with his tzitzit during games. As he paused on the sidelines before entering the recent Givat Shmuel-Hapoel Jerusalem game for his handful of minutes, he checked to make sure they were hanging properly. After the game he emerged from the locker room with one object in his hand: his Bible.
“Though dati’im (religious people) are in sports, they feel that maybe they can’t be in professional sports. But Tamir opened the gate. You can be religious; you can be Shomer Shabbat; and you can be in professional sports,” explains Dedi Graucher, an award-winning Israeli singer who has informally adopted Goodman since his arrival in Israel. “He’s a pioneer. There’s no doubt about it.”
Though there have been other Orthodox ballplayers on professional teams, notably Avraham Zuchman in the 1960s and 1970s, Goodman has obtained the most international acclaim.
And Goodman, whose identification with the Chabad movement is obvious from the calendars, snapshots, and videos of the Lubavitcher rebbe found throughout his apartment, considers himself to be “on a special shlihut(mission) from Hashem.”
His high-profile profession, he explains with eagerness, “brings me closer to Hashem, [who] wants me to represent him and represent Judaism and spread Judaism around the world as much as possible and show everyone that you can be Jewish and compete in anything you want and still be proud of being Jewish.”
In fact, he says of the Sports Illustrated article: “The thing I really liked the most about it was that I was so proud that I had my picture taken with my tefillin on, that my tefillin were in Sports Illustrated.”
But the Jewish question hasn’t been all fun and games. His plan to go to Maryland unraveled after the school proved unwilling to reschedule games that fell on Shabbat – a concession they’d originally agreed to when they offered the high-school junior a four-year scholarship.
“They thought that when I got there, I’d be so in awe of Maryland because I’d be living my basketball dream that I’d totally forget about my religion, but they didn’t realize that what made me who I am was my religion and I wasn’t going to give up on that even if I was playing for the number two team in the nation.”
Press reports at the time suggested that Goodman’s less-than-stellar summer basketball clinic performance made the team less willing to rearrange its schedule. Barring exceptional circumstances such as criminal activity or academic fraud on the part of a prospective student, colleges can’t rescind a scholarship offer once a student has accepted.
Maryland Coach Gary Williams declined to comment for this story.
Maryland first became interested in Goodman in his junior year of high school. Goodman, who grew up in Pikesville, a largely Orthodox suburb of Baltimore, Maryland, routinely put up 35-plus points per game at the Chafetz Chayim Talmudical Academy of Baltimore before transferring to the higher caliber Seventh Day Adventist Takoma Academy. He was named the Most Valuable Player at the Capitol Classic, in which the top Washington, D.C.-area high school students compete against the all-stars from the rest of the country’s best, and played in Adidas, Nike, and other prestigious summer camps that scout the best talent.
But the summer before his senior year a minor injury contributed to disappointing numbers at summer camps, and in the fall Maryland met with Goodman to tell him the school wouldn’t move games from Shabbat.
Others were more willing to accommodate Goodman.
“When things didn’t work out for him at Maryland, we were ecstatic that we’d have the opportunity to have him enroll at Towson,” says Mike Jaskulski, who then coached at Maryland’s Towson University.
He was the first freshman Jaskulski ever started at point guard and put up middling numbers (six points per game, 37 percent shooting).
When the team still finished well below .500, the school dismissed Jaskulski and replaced him with Michael Hunt. Hunt wanted little to do with Tamir, who found himself largely consigned to the bench for the 2001-2 season.
After one game, Hunt reportedly yelled at Goodman and threatened him with a chair. The administration backed Hunt and Goodman decided to leave the team and eventually the school.
But then Maccabi Tel Aviv swooped in, signing him to a three-year deal. No stranger to the Jewish state – his mother is an Israeli and his grandmother still lives here – he received his identity card in September when he started to train with Givat Shmuel.
Though Maccabi Tel Aviv is Israel’s best team, having dominated the national scene for decades and even taken the European crown two years ago, sports analysts caution against ascribing too much glory to Goodman’s having snagged a contract with them.
Eran Weitzman, a basketball analyst for the Internet site “One,” says that Maccabi Tel Aviv regularly soaks loads of money into preventing competitors from snagging potential players without proper review of their abilities.
“If there is a talented Jewish kid in kindergarten,” he says, Maccabi Tel Aviv will come in and sign him just to make sure they control his future. “For Tamir Goodman it was the wrong evaluation.”
“The reality is he is not good enough to play for Maccabi Tel Aviv, so they traded him to another team – Givat Shmuel,” basketball media analyst Arie Maliniak says, noting that Tel Aviv still picks up a portion of his salary. Officials wouldn’t confirm Goodman’s salary, but basketball insiders say it’s comparable to or even higher than that of many starters on Givat Shmuel.
Weitzman called the farming out of Goodman to Givat Shmuel “a gimmick for the area, to bring crowds, to sell tickets.”
The team has enjoyed strong attendance this season. While that has recently been due to their history-making success – debuting in the State Cup finals and playoff final four – Goodman’s celebrity hauled in unprecedented attention early in the season.
But Blatt justifies the move by saying it allowed Goodman more playing time, which the young player needs to hone his abilities.
“Unlike many people, I didn’t have real high expectations for Tamir for his first year or two. He needs time to develop. He’s only 21. It’s professional level.”
Two of Tamir’s former coaches dispute the claim that he lacks the needed talent.
Noting that Goodman won the Capital Classic MVP award despite scoring a mere four or so points, Jaskulski says it’s his passing, vision on the court, and leadership that distinguish him.
“There’s nobody better than Tamir Goodman at being able to direct the orchestra,” claims Jaskulski.
And Haim Katz, his coach at the Talmudical Academy, called Goodman “the most reluctant scorer I ever met.”
Katz, however, says he disagreed with Goodman’s decision to sign with Maccabi Tel Aviv before gaining greater experience at the college level in the States.
It was Katz who plucked the prodigy from obscurity at the tender age of seven. That’s how old Goodman was when he began accompanying his 14-year-old brother Reuven to practice with Katz.
He described the sensation of watching and playing the game as “straight infatuation.” He recalls getting up at 6:30 a.m. to watch Sportscenter and then shoot hoops for an hour before school. He adds, “If we had to wear a dress shirt to the yeshiva, I’d have a Michael Jordan wristband underneath.”
According to Reuven, one of Tamir’s four older brothers (he has two older sisters and twin younger brothers as well), the brothers would spend hours outside playing ball rain or shine. To this day, the family remains incredibly close. Tamir ranks being so far away from them as one of the toughest parts about living in Israel.
His younger brother’s aptitude was driven home for Reuven the day his teenage friends needed a substitute for an injured player. Everyone on the court was 17 or 18 except for Tamir, Reuven, now 28, recounts. Though Tamir was only 10 or 11, “he just took over the game; he scored almost every basket.”
The shock those players experienced was similar to that suffered by the hardcore inner-city players in downtown Baltimore the first time they were exposed to the Orthodox Jew from the other side of town. It happened the day Katz took him down to the “Dome,” a breeding ground for top-rate – and tough – urban basketballers.
“If you go to play basketball and you’re going to play in the dome, you better be black and you better have game,” Katz says. “Tamir was whiter than the ‘wife-beater’ T-shirt he was wearing.”
At first things were pretty nasty, with kids “riding him like there was no tomorrow.”
But, recounts Katz, “It took Tamir about three possessions until he had them eating out of his hand.”
“When we finished, they were going, ‘Hey, Tamir, when you coming back?’ Katz mimics. “It was an awesome display.”
Goodman counts many positive faith-based encounters with non-Jews over the course of his career.
His Muslim roommate at Towson used to carry items into the succa since the campus lacked an eruv. (He won’t say how this experience affects his view on the Palestinian issue since he refuses to discuss politics.)
And he chuckles when he recalls how, at the end of his year at the Seventh Day Adventist Takoma Academy, it fell to him to lead the morning prayer.
“It was my turn to give a 10-second speech, and I spoke for two hours straight about Judaism. I left everybody breathless.”
But while Goodman’s religion wasn’t an issue at Takoma, Katz says that at the Talmudical Academy it was. Once the media started paying attention to the school’s star player – at one point he received 700 interview requests, including ones from ESPN Sportscenter, Connie Chung, The Washington Post, and Howard Stern (he turned down the last) – he was dogged by criticism for pursuing the un-Jewish activity of basketball.
The criticism intensified when Goodman decided to spend his senior year at Takoma, though he selected the school in part because Seventh Day Adventists celebrate the Sabbath on Saturday and the school exempted him from religion classes, allowing him to study Torah instead.
Goodman points out that the scorn was directed not just at him but his entire family, including his mother, with whom he’s particularly close despite the fact that she never attends his basketball games.
“All of the sudden I was like a metzura’at (outcast). In the supermarket people would walk away from me, wouldn’t say hello, nothing,” his mom, Chava, recollects. Later, when he turned down Maryland over the issue of Shabbat, she says, “All of a sudden everybody was saying ‘kol hakavod.’ Everybody, all of a sudden, is coming back to you, becoming friends with you. It was a nightmare.”
She said the initial criticism was particularly unfair given that the Talmudical Academy had asked Tamir to leave.
Media speculation suggested Maryland’s desire to see him face stiffer competition than yeshiva students usually face might have factored into Goodman’s decision to transfer.
According to the principal, Rabbi Zvi Teichman, “It was an issue mainly of the mission of our school, which is not sports events on the level that Tamir necessitated.”
Goodman once had the same attitude. In ninth grade he went to Pittsburgh to study Torah fulltime – sans basketball.
“I thought that basketball is something that religious people shouldn’t be involved in, like a lot of people to this day think. So [I said to myself], ‘I’ll ignore it, I’ll ignore it, I’ll ignore it. That’s my test in life.’” Instead, he realized, “I have to use my talents. I can’t ignore them. There are some people who need to sit and learn all day, and they do bring peace to the world and special sh’china [holy presence]. That’s their job. But at the same time, there are doctors who need to go to medical school. There are lawyers who need to go to law school and still be Jewish.”
Graucher uses similar language to defend Goodman’s career path, noting that Goodman is an example of how to be religious and a celebrity.
“The main focus should not be on being shomer Shabbat (Sabbath observant),” he adds. “Behavior – that’s the name of the game. Be a mensch.”
Goodman seems to have that part mastered, since mensch is a word that crops up often among people trying to describe the well-named player (Tamir means “tall” in Hebrew).
It’s practically the first word that comes to Teichman’s lips: “He was a mensch, really a mensch.”
“He’s a guy that everyone on the team loves,” says Captain Oren Aharoni, a 29-year-old Givat Shmuel starter. He adds, “He’s working very hard. I’ve never seen a guy work like he does.”
Even the Channel 1 announcer commentating during the win over Bnei Hasharon, watching Goodman in his wide-leg defensive crouch aggressively guarding the opposing team, describes him as a hard worker and patient player.
“Even if he only gets two minutes, he doesn’t cry. He tries to do the maximum.”
Goodman’s average day includes two practices, which in the morning usually features weight-lifting, and Torah study in Kfar Chabad. As he drives around Petah Tikva in his small gold Fiat, he seems to be running for mensch of the year when he interrupts his own retelling of his previous night’s success at sinking the key foul shots to point out Rabin Medical Center and the sick children “fighting for their lives right now” inside.
In his self-effacing way, he tells how he befriended an 18-year-old cancer patient even after she failed to be impressed by meeting Goodman soon after his arrival in the country.
“He hasn’t proven himself in Israel,” was her response according to Goodman, who was standing nearby. “She was like, ‘So what?’ I thought that was really cool of her.”
Ever since he went to an NBA contest for a bar mitzva present and waited after the game only to have his favorite star brush by without signing an autograph, Goodman wants to make sure that his own fans realize “I’m just like them.”
To spare them his experience of being the only Jew at basketball clinics, he’s working with Graucher to set up a competitive summer basketball program in Israel.
When he describes his own difficulties at being the only kippa-wearing kid among the trainees, he seems to reveal a chink in the armor: “You learn about discipline and hard work and overcoming stuff and achievement and those key words.”
Key words? As in platitudes or at least practiced phrases?
“I think those are the key words for success in life,” he explains.
Imagining speaking to prospective participants, he gives them a pep talk straight from his own experiences: “Yes, it’s going to be hard. Yes, you’re going to deal with a lot of things. A lot of people are going to doubt you. Yes, you’ll have to go to a lot of games where reporters come to watch you play and you don’t even play for a second. But when they talk to you after the game you have to stay positive, you have to give them an interview, you have to still invite them over.”
“Because the week after that you’re going to have a time where you won the game and put your team in the championships,” just like Goodman did against Bnei Hasharon. “You have to stay positive through the tough times, you have to stay with it, and then eventually all the doors open up.”
He acknowledges that the media scrutiny has had an effect on him – but contends that it hasn’t necessarily been a bad one.
“I’m sure they said bad things about me after [the Jerusalem] game even though I didn’t really play. I never even paid attention to it at all. I totally stayed confident. I knew when I got my chance, I’d be ready, like last night [during the semi-finals]. In that sense it’s made me stronger. So I can’t look at it as a negative. It helped. If I hadn’t gone through that when I was younger, I wouldn’t have been able to stay through what I went through last week,” in which he missed the three dunks.
But developing that strength is something he admits he still needs to work on: “You have to develop a thick skin on you, which I still need to get thicker. I’m too sensitive.”
He notes, “Sometimes I think I need to be tougher, but I don’t think I need to change who I am. Who I am got me here and it’s going to, with God’s help, get me further. I don’t need to change who I am and all of a sudden become some mean, tough athlete.”
Teammate Oren Aharoni says Givat Shmuel is the right place for Goodman right now because of the squad’s family atmosphere, though after victorious games Goodman often hangs back from the euphoric group hugs of his teammates.
Aharoni says the close-knit team gives Goodman some relief from the Israeli media onslaught, which has often been harsh.
“They make you great and they kill you at the same time,” he says.
“What hurt him the most was the American journalist who named him the Jewish Michael Jordan,” says basketball media analyst Arie Maliniak. “It really hurt him because there’s no way he will meet those expectations. He’s a quite nice, average professional player. I’ve heard he practices very hard. Even if he only plays a few minutes, he plays hard. That’s an asset for a team … But if you call someone the Jewish Michael Jordan, you expect him to be one of the top players in the world, and that’s really a joke.”
Goodman says he has tried to ignore media criticism and the Jewish Jordan tag.
“I never asked to be called that,” he says. “I always try to downplay it.”
Blatt seconds that sentiment. “Tamir never asked for the kind of publicity and the kind of fame and attention he was given mainly because he wears a kippa and happens to play basketball.”
Blatt is vague about Goodman’s chances of making the switch to Maccabi Tel Aviv.
“Even if he doesn’t become a Maccabi Tel Aviv player,” Blatt says, “that kid’s a success because of his values, hard work, and commitment.”
Goodman is also vague on his chances of reaching Maccabi Tel Aviv, and the rest of his future for that matter. He couldn’t confirm his coach’s assumption that he will indeed remain with Givat Shmuel for the coming year. He merely returns to “trying to be the best I can be” and being satisfied where that takes him in terms of basketball.
He is similarly noncommittal about Israel.
“If you asked me today I’d say yes,” he says of whether he expects to stay in the country once his contract expires two years from now. “But if you asked me last year, I wouldn’t have known I’d be here.”
He is clear on only one point: “I hope that Mashiah’s coming very soon and we’re all going to be here.”