Even by Tamir Goodman’s standards it has been an unusual two weeks. There’s the all-day studies at a Baltimore yeshiva, some basketball after school, homework and Gemara review — and the interviews with CBS Sports, Fox Sports, ESPN and all the local TV stations.
Goodman, a 17-year-old bochur, is becoming a basketball star.
The high-scoring junior point guard at the Talmudical Academy, an all-boys Orthodox day school, made a non-binding verbal commitment last week to play at the University of Maryland. He will sign an official letter of intent in November, and be eligible to play for the Terrapins —ranked No. 4 this week by USA Today — in the 2000-2001 academic year.
It is believed he would become the first Orthodox Jew to play major college basketball.
“It’s exciting,” Goodman said in a telephone interview, his voice weakened by flu brought on by twice-a-day media interviews in the last fortnight.
Goodman, a lanky, redheaded, buzz-cutted, kipa-wearing, crossover-dribbling, Sabbath-observant, honor-roll student, received some 400 recruiting letters from top teams around the country during the last two years, since he started playing organized ball. He said he chose Maryland, in College Park, because it’s close to home and has an active Jewish community.
“Why not?” he says. “They want me.”
Goodman, interested in a career in sports medicine or physical therapy, will receive an athletic scholarship. UM coaches have indicated they will respect his Sabbath observance, attempting to avoid scheduling Friday night or Saturday afternoon games, and allowing him to miss games on Shabbat.
The Maryland athletic department is barred by NCAA regulations from discussing prospective players. But David Zakar, a classmate of Goodman and creator of the TA basketball team’s Web site, says a shomer Shabbat player in big-time college basketball “was a matter of time.”
“The fact that Maryland would consider doing this is a tribute to their open-mindedness, and to his talent,” says Dave Kufeld, president of the Jewish Sports Congress and a star player on the Yeshiva University basketball team in the late 1970s.
Kufeld was drafted by the NBA’s Portland Trailblazers in 1980 but was cut in the preseason.
“This is more significant than my getting drafted,” he says. “It could be a tremendous kiddush Hashem [sanctification of God’s name].”
Goodman would become the first known Jewish player in Division I history to wear a kipa on the court or sit out Sabbath games.
“Until now it was totally unheard of — this goes beyond Orthodox Judaism,” says Kufeld, a public relations executive in Manhattan. “This could be a landmark precedent of acceptance for a wide range of special needs.”
Goodman, 6-foot-3 and 155 pounds, leads the Thunder in scoring at 36 points a game. His coach, Chaim Katz, says the team is made up of “one Division I player and 11 rabbis.” Goodman also paces TA in assists, rebounds and steals.
“He’s an excellent athlete, a great instinctive player,” says Katz, who has known Goodman since he was an 8-year-old who would come to practices and pester the coach for playing time during drills. Even then, Katz says, Goodman could shoot free throws better than the older players. He had Goodman practice with his right hand tied to his pants, forcing him to become ambidextrous.
“We knew this day [of Goodman receiving recognition for his skills] would come,” Katz says. “I told my brother Tamir would be the best religious player who ever lived. They laughed at me.”
Most newspaper stories identify Goodman as one of the top three high school players in Baltimore, a city renowned for producing elite players and teams.
“He looks like Howdy Doody but plays like Pete Maravich,” a Hall of Fame college and pro player a generation ago who shared Goodman’s slight frame, Katz says. “He surprises people.”
“He has a lot of basketball savvy. He has wonderful moves,” says a Baltimore Sun sports writer. “You don’t see many 6-3 guys who can dunk.”
Goodman, who has led his team to a 39-8 record the last two years, has meant bigger crowds at games in the TA gym, an upgraded schedule for the Thunder and a higher visibility for the 80-year-old school.
Local fans will be able to watch Goodman when TA plays in the annual Red Sarachek Tournament March 18-22 at Yeshiva University in Washington Heights.
For parts of the Orthodox community, which traditionally considers competitive sports bitul zman, a waste of time and distraction from Torah studies, Goodman’s success has earned grudging support.
“Right now, he’s a very big sensation — in the more Modern [Orthodox] crowd it’s a big thing,” says a member of Baltimore’s Orthodox community who has a son attending TA. He adds, however, that “They’re downplaying it at the school. [Tamir] wasn’t in the last newsletter.
At TA, Goodman says, he has become a reluctant celebrity. Teachers stop him in the hall to discuss the last games. “All of a sudden every rabbi is a coach.”
For Goodman, basketball is a form of religious expression. “God’s messenger,” he calls himself. “Baruch Hashem, I have a lot of talent.”
He spent his freshman year out of town, at a Pittsburgh yeshiva with no basketball team. “I was miserable,” he says.
Now he lifts weights three times a week to add muscle, and will attend a basketball camp this summer sponsored by Nike or adidas to compete against better players. A doctor assures him he will grow to 6-6.
Goodman wants to be all the basketball player he can be.
“Hashem gave me the talent,” he says. “I could use it or not use it. I use it.”