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An Unorthodox Player Though his devotion to Judaism could limit his time on the court, high-flying high school junior Tamir Goodman has already landed a scholarship to Maryland

Feb. 01, 1999
Feb. 01, 1999

Table of Contents
Feb. 1, 1999

Faces In The Crowd

An Unorthodox Player Though his devotion to Judaism could limit his time on the court, high-flying high school junior Tamir Goodman has already landed a scholarship to Maryland

It's the gloaming of a winter Saturday, and all through the
tranquil streets of Upper Park Heights, in the northwestern
corner of Baltimore, are clusters of men, in their dark suits
and felt hats, walking to one shul or another. There are three
dozen synagogues and 30,000 Orthodox Jews in and around Upper
Park Heights, which is why there are kosher delis, pizzerias and
butchers all along Reisterstown Road, the main shopping street
in the neighborhood. But the only things open today are the
shuls. It's Shabbos, the Jewish day of rest. Remember thy
Sabbath and keep it holy. Commandment IV on the original Top 10
list. From sundown every Friday until the third star appears on
Saturday evening, Orthodox Jews don't drive, spend money or talk
on the phone. And they certainly don't play competitive
basketball. The Sabbath is a break from the rest of the week. It
has been that way for 5,759 years.

This is an article from the Feb. 1, 1999 issue Original Layout

Tamir Goodman--an 11th grader and the point guard on the
basketball team at Talmudical Academy, a small Jewish day school
(enrollment 72) in nearby Pikesville, with classes from
prekindergarten through 12th grade--is in his house, waiting for
the Sabbath to end. It's two days before his 17th birthday. He
takes this day-of-rest business seriously. His weekday schedule
is relentless. School runs from 7:45 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., with
half the day devoted to Judaic studies, the other half to
secular studies. After school in the late fall and winter,
there's a two-hour basketball practice three times a week.
There's homework. Three evenings a week he lifts weights. Most
nights at 10 he can be found at the home of Harold Katz, his
coach, watching tape of his games. By Friday night he's worn
out. Tamir needs his Saturdays. It's his day of sleep.

But this particular Shabbos hasn't been so restful. Ever since
Jan. 10, the day he made an oral commitment to attend Maryland on
a basketball scholarship in the fall of 2000, there has been no
rest for Tamir. Everybody wants to give him advice.

Even before he committed to Maryland, some of the kids at
Talmudical Academy had given Tamir the nickname Jesus, after
Jesus Shuttlesworth, from the Spike Lee movie He Got Game.
Because of his basketball skill, Shuttlesworth is yanked every
which way by everyone he knows, including his girlfriend. That
happens to be one thing Tamir doesn't have to worry about.
Talmudical Academy has no female students and discourages dating.
Tamir would rebel against this if only he had the time and the
opportunity. Anyway, he prefers another nickname: the Jewish
Jordan. JJ for short. Tonight there's a home game. The gym will
be crammed and the Jewish Jordan will be expected to perform.

Finally, three stars have appeared in the winter sky, time for
Havdalah, the short service that marks the conclusion of the
Sabbath. Tamir's mother, Chava, a native Israeli who embraced
observant Jewish life as an adult, lights a braided candle and
douses it in a little puddle of wine. Tamir's father, Karl, a
lawyer who has been Orthodox all his life, returns home from
shul and catches up on the 38 messages his answering service has
handled in the past 24 hours, including one from a
fortune-teller accused of fraud for failing to lift a curse on a
customer. Shabbos is over. Tamir swallows two aspirin to
alleviate his flu symptoms, showers, puts on his uniform and
adjusts his yarmulke. He's not a scholar, and makes mostly B's.
His best classes are the Judaic ones. With his mother, to whom
he is especially close, he speaks Hebrew. He expresses his love
through his reliability and his artistic bent through his play.
He hugs his father, mother, six brothers, sister-in-law, cousins
and friends and is out the door. Game time.

In the Goodman family van, while driving three of his teammates
to the game, Tamir blasts the radio and backs up Natalie
Merchant on the refrain of Wonder: "They say I must be one of
the wonders of God's own creation." Poor Tamir. As a rock star
he has no future. Ditto as a cantor. He's 6'3". His body is 150
pounds of bone and sinewy muscle. He often begins sentences with
"Hey, y'all," an unlikely expression he has picked up from his
black buddies at the Dome, the legendary East Baltimore
basketball hangout. He has bright red hair, braces on his lower
teeth and long bony fingers that can be found a foot over the
rim when he's rebounding or dunking. He's built for basketball.
That's why Maryland, currently the fourth-ranked college
basketball team in the country, offered him a scholarship midway
through his junior year in high school.

This will be new terrain for everybody: Many Jews have played
big-time college basketball, but rarely one from an Orthodox
background. The Terrapins coaches were undeterred by the fact
that Tamir might miss several regular-season games on Friday
nights and Saturday afternoons, plus critical games in the ACC
and the NCAA tournaments, and that he will need kosher meals
wherever he goes. They saw what he could do with a basketball in
his hands and a yarmulke on his head and rushed to secure his
talents before word of his skills leaked out.

Tamir arrives at the Talmudical Academy gym, a.k.a. the Samuel
J. Holtzman Multi-Purpose Room. It's a mess, littered with soda
cans and papers and the debris of the school week. Tamir picks
up a broom and a basketball. He dribbles, runs and sweeps, all
at once. Some of his teammates--Moshe Ben-Avraham, Shaye
Guttenberg, Shlomo Tajerstein--are helping, too. The visiting
team, Antioch Christian School, an Apostolic Christian school
near Annapolis, Md., arrives and heads to the men's room to
change. For teenagers the Antioch kids are uncommonly polite and
reserved. During the game they wear sweatpants, owing to their
religious custom of modest dress. Between the Antioch players'
legwear and the Talmudical players' headwear, it's a perfect
match.

By 7:30 p.m., game time, the yardwide swaths between the
sidelines and the gym's walls are jammed with people. Most of
the adults sit in folding chairs or stand. Hundreds of children
sit at their feet. Scores of grown-ups have assembled on the
stage at one end of the auditorium. Somehow, several hundred
people have found viewing spots in a gym designed to accommodate
no spectators. Some are there to see the game. Most are there to
see Tamir.

Paul Baker is in the house. Baker, who used to scout for the
Washington Bullets and now runs a summer basketball camp in
Baltimore, looks and acts like a priest, with his mock
turtleneck and his leisurely handshake. "Chaim," says Baker,
using Katz's Hebrew name while talking to another spectator,
"was looking for some validation that Tamir was as good as he
thought he was, so he called me last year. You could see
immediately that Tamir was the real deal. Chaim told me that
Tamir wanted to go to Maryland. I called Billy Hahn, Gary
Williams's assistant at Maryland. In August, Hahn comes to my
summer camp. Tamir's there. The first thing Tamir does is make
nine straight three-point shots. Nine! Can you imagine? In
December, Hahn comes to watch Tamir in a Christmas tournament.
Tamir goes for 28 in a game. Hahn goes back to Williams and
says, 'Let's do it now.'"

Against Antioch, however, Tamir is having an off night--he's
missing many more three-pointers than he's making--and still his
game is enthralling. Watching him dribble, you can't tell which
is his dominant hand. (It's his right.) His pull-up jumper is
out of a textbook. Once or twice a game he will drive with his
right hand, get rim-high, see an opponent's hand trying to block
the way to the hoop, then duck under the net, switch the ball to
his left hand and toss a soft shot off the glass for two points
that only look easy. He makes 84.4% of his free throws. He can
dunk at will but usually chooses not to. (His father bought
Talmudical Academy a pair of $400 breakaway rims so Tamir could
dunk with impunity.) His defensive game is not strong but his
passing is. No-looks, behind-the-backs, you name it. If his
teammates were better at catching the ball, he'd probably have
half as many assists as he does points, which through Sunday he
was scoring at an average of 36.9 a game.

But on this Saturday night all's not well for the Thunder. As
the game gets tighter, Katz becomes more animated and irritated.
When guard Shaye Guttenberg asks which player he's supposed to
be covering, Katz inexplicably yells, "I'm still the coach
here!" To one official he says, "I can't believe they pay you
for this." When Tamir makes one pass too many, Katz asks loudly,
"You gonna be Santa Claus all night?" Later, when Tamir is
called for his fourth foul, Katz says to his bench players, "If
he fouls out, we're dead. I just want you to know that." There
would be an element of comedy in this were it not so obvious--to
Katz and to nobody else--that all that is worthwhile in life is
bound to the outcome of this game. With the Thunder leading
60-56 and with just over three minutes left in the game, Katz
sits Tamir down. He can't afford to lose him. He'll need him
later. Katz takes this action with a heavy, heavy heart. The
officials have wounded him. Katz is 35 years old. At the moment
he looks 55.

Katz has five children, six if you count Tamir. Tamir has been
his basketball project for nine years. When Tamir was eight,
Katz told the Goodmans they would never have to pay for college
for Tamir. On the subject of basketball, Katz is the Goodman
family rabbi. Tamir was a natural talent, molded by Katz and the
Baltimore playgrounds, where he wasn't always welcome. More than
once he heard words like "you Jewish faggot." Katz and Tamir
would talk. These incidents only increased their resolve. No one
gets more satisfaction from Tamir's success than Katz, whose
fascination with basketball may charitably be described as
obsessive. He grew up in Wilkes Barre, Pa., the son of an
Orthodox rabbi, and as a teenager attended an Orthodox boarding
school that didn't have a basketball team. As an adult he's
making up for lost time. In his house Collected Writings of
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch shares a bookcase with Basketball
Methods by Pete Newell. Katz knows basketball, he knows it. He
says he has three times turned down offers to be an assistant
coach at Division I colleges. His devotion to his family and to
the Jewish Sabbath made taking the jobs impossible. So he does
what he can to fulfill his basketball dreams. For now they are
being played out by Tamir Goodman and the team he has created in
his own image, the Talmudical Academy Thunder.

The Saturday night game against Antioch is a fierce affair.
Tamir draws his fifth foul with 16 seconds left and the Thunder
leading 63-62. He's done. Katz, it turns out, is too. A last
outburst--nothing memorable, really--results in a technical
foul. Antioch makes four free throws in the final 16 seconds and
goes on to win 66-63. The Thunder drops to 10-5 on a night Tamir
has scored 33 points. After the game he is swarmed. Dozens of
kids, all wearing yarmulkes, want his autograph. He signs away,
silently, as if he has been doing this all his life. Later he
takes out his frustration by dunking one ball after another. By
11 p.m. he's at Tov Pizza with his father, Katz and a few
teammates. They're all fine, except for Katz. He's still
despondent. He's blaming himself for the loss. "I'm just not
very good at what I do," he says morosely. He's dreading Monday.
He knows already what's going to happen.

Sure enough, on Monday afternoon he is asked to meet with Rabbi
Yehuda Lefkovitz, the executive vice president of Talmudical
Academy; Rabbi Zvi Teichman, a principal at the high school; and
Rabbi Moshe Hauer, the chairman of the school's board of
education. They were displeased by Katz's volatility on
Saturday. They're worried about the large number of fans--and
the large number of outsiders--at home games, many more people
than the gym can accommodate. They aren't comfortable with all
the press attention the school is receiving because of the
talents of a basketball player. They aren't pleased with the way
the younger kids view Tamir as an idol, for idolatry is
antithetical to Judaism's most basic tenet. They are happy for
Tamir and they are proud of him, but athletic success in the
secular world is meaningless to them. Raising strictly observant
Jews, learned in their own traditions, who will work toward
Tikun Olam, the repair of the world, that is the school's
purpose. (Of the 20 or so kids who graduate every year, all but
two or three go to Israel and study in a yeshiva for at least a
year before starting college in the U.S.) On Tuesday morning the
rabbis tell Katz they want the home game against Capital
Christian, scheduled for 6:30 p.m. that day, to be moved up an
hour, before school lets out, to keep the crowds smaller.

The mood on Tuesday at Talmudical Academy is unsettled. Reva
Gold, the school secretary, approaches Katz in the gym. "Your
wife is worried," she says. "She calls, you hang up on her. She
says you're not eating. You need to eat." She hands Katz a
little stack of papers that he's to post around the gym. They
read: DUE TO THE LARGE NUMBER OF SPECTATORS, WE ARE FORCED TO
CANCEL ALL REMAINING HOME GAMES THIS SEASON. THEY WILL BE PLAYED
AT OUR OPPONENTS. THIS IS A SAFETY ISSUE. THANK YOU FOR YOUR
UNDERSTANDING. Katz, sitting in a courtside folding chair, sags
visibly. He hands the papers to Shlomo Tajerstein, a senior
center, who's stuck with the job of taping them to the walls.

The game against Capital Christian begins promptly at 5:30 p.m.,
before a sparse crowd. With 3:33 left in the first quarter,
Tamir pulls up for a 23-footer and bangs it home. Talmudical
leads 13-6 and Tamir has scored five points and has three
assists. The very moment that his three-point shot descends
through the rim, the lights go out. The gym is pitch black,
except for a single TV light. It takes several minutes for the
lights to come on, and with them so does Capital Christian. With
19 seconds left, the Thunder has a one-point lead and Shlomo is
at the line. He misses! The ball takes a big bounce off the rim,
and Tamir taps it in for two points. Talmudical wins 74-71.
Tamir has scored 39 points and Shlomo 26. If the rabbinical
decree isn't lifted, it will be the final home game of Shlomo's
career.

An hour later, Tamir, Shlomo and Katz are on their way to
College Park to watch Maryland play Georgia Tech. Tamir is
driving his father's car. As they enter Cole Field House and
make their way to their seats, a dozen or so rows behind the
Terrapins' bench, some fans start to whisper, "There's the
Jewish kid." Tamir is wearing clunky loafers, Levis, a tight
yellow V-necked sweater and a colorful yarmulke. Suddenly the
men of his neighborhood, in their dark suits and felt hats, seem
far, far way. There's a smattering of applause for Tamir. He
waves. His next team is in front of him, and so is the rest of
his life.

Later Talmudical Academy has a change of heart. The home games
will return home. The school sees the writing on the wall. You
can't keep the outside out forever.

COLOR PHOTO: MANUELLO PAGANELLI [Tamir Goodman holding basketball--T of C]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY MANUELLO PAGANELLI Wings and a prayer Tamir is a devoted Jordan fan, but religion comes first as his morning starts with the devotional putting on Tefillin, in which small boxes containing prayers are placed on his head and strapped around his arm for the reading of the Siddur. [Tamir Goodman holding book]COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Still growing At 6'3", Tamir is averaging 36.9 points and 7.1 rebounds for the 12-5 Thunder, but he figures he'll grow to 6'6". [Tamir Goodman in game]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY MANUELLO PAGANELLI Holy men Karl and Tamir not only rigorously observe the Sabbath but also visit a synagogue together at least twice a week. [Karl Goodman and Tamir Goodman praying]
If Tamir's teammates were better at catching the ball, he'd
probably have half as many assists as he does points.
The rabbis are happy for Tamir and proud of him, but they aren't
pleased with the way the younger kids see him as an idol.