For the first time in 17 years, Harold Katz won’t be coaching basketball this season. He says the game, among other things, has let him down.
Katz, 36, used to coach at the Talmudical Academy, a small school for Orthodox Jews in Pikesville. Before he took it over, the Talmudical program was so chronically feeble that its players called themselves the Fighting Davids and played home games before crowds of a few dozen friends and family members in a tiny gym called the Holtzman Multi-Purpose Room. Katz didn’t share the school’s tolerance for losing. He changed the team’s nickname to the Thunder. He yelled at his players. He drew technicals.
The biggest step in his march toward victories, however, came when Tamir Goodman, whom Katz had coached in area youth leagues, grew old enough to wear Talmudical’s uniform. By his sophomore season, two years ago, it was clear that Goodman was the best kid the school had ever produced. By last season, he was hailed as the best ballplayer ever to wear a yarmulke.
Katz served as the barker in the cultural carnival that sprang up in January, when Goodman, though just a junior, verbally agreed to a scholarship offer from the University of Maryland. No Orthodox Jew had ever been so courted by an NCAA power. Overnight, Goodman became a hero in a community that generally puts next to no emphasis on athletic prowess.
Within weeks of the signing, Goodman was also the most popular high school basketball player in the country. The notoriety came not so much for his scoring (about 36 points per game) or his no-look passes. Instead, folks mainly wondered how a skinny gym rat who honors his God by not playing ball from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday could stay true to his faith on a campus where observing the Sabbath means catching an Ozzy Osbourne gig.
The crowds that flocked to see Goodman after the signing forced Talmudical to move its last several games from the Multi-Purpose Room to local college arenas. Fans packed even the larger venues, bought Thunder T-shirts, and waited in line after games for Goodman to sign them.
In the midst of the hype, Goodman never boasted about his abilities, either to the fans or to the many reporters drawn to the boy they called “the Jewish Jordan.” But Katz, a funny, intense man who enjoys talking, did it for him.
“He can play at Maryland,” Katz told me. “Anybody who knows basketball can see that.” Among those who knew basketball, Goodman insisted at the time, was Gary Williams, the Terrapins’ coach. Over the next several months, he said much the same thing to anybody who approached him with a microphone or pen and paper.
For a while, he had a real pleasant story to tell.
There’s little warmth or fuzziness left in Katz’s version of the tale right now, though. He thinks the same news organizations and basketball newsletters that built up the youngster’s game turned on him after Goodman played below expectations in July at the Adidas ABCD Camp in Teaneck, N.J., a high-profile annual gathering where the best youngsters in the country dunk before talent scouts and shoe company executives. The editors of Hoop Scoop, a geeky on-line publication that tracks high school recruits the way the CIA once did Russian spies, accused Goodman of faking a knee injury at the camp, then added, “We never thought he was that good anyway.”
Katz says Goodman wasn’t faking.
“I should have never let him play at the camps,” he says. “I knew his knee was hurt, and I told him to stay out. But he said he wanted to go, and I didn’t stop him. I was irresponsible.”
Shortly after the poor camp showings, stories began appearing in the Baltimore Sun about how Maryland’s interest in Goodman was waning. Then the scholarship was either withdrawn by the school or refused by Goodman, depending on whose version you want to believe. All parties agree that Goodman left a message on Williams’ answering machine in September informing the coach he needn’t save a seat on the Terrapins’ bench. Goodman accepted a free ride to Towson State University last month. Maryland officials have said they never took their scholarship offer off the table, and that Goodman backed out.
Katz now insists that it wasn’t the cruel summer that soured Goodman’s relationship with Maryland. He says it was his religion. When Williams realized that Goodman really wouldn’t be playing on Friday nights or Saturday afternoons, he began looking for a way to renege on the scholarship offer, says Katz. Goodman’s mother provided Katz with notes she took at a meeting she and her son had with Williams that support this opinion, he says.
“Tamir not going to Maryland isn’t about his basketball,” says Katz. “It’s about the Sabbath. They started having a problem with it in March, and they should have told the [kid] that in March. But instead, the way it was handled was typical of [the school’s basketball program]. I am amazed how 40- and 50-year-old men can piss all over a young kid like they did. I’ll never forget or forgive them for that.”
Also this summer, Talmudical administrators decided the school couldn’t take another year of Mensch Madness. The 1999-2000 year’s schedule includes only 20 games, or about half as many as last season. Home games will again be scheduled on campus, back where the Fighting Davids used to toil.
And with the rabbis’ blessing, Goodman transferred to the Takoma Academy in Takoma Park for his senior year. That school, operated by Seventh Day Adventists, pushes a gentile dogma, but observes the same Sabbath as Talmudical.
Talmudical didn’t want Katz back. “Harold Katz ran the program like he thought he’d end up in the NBA,” laughs one school administrator. “That’s the attitude most schools want their basketball coach to have. But this isn’t the place for a Lombardi mentality. The rabbis want to put a lot less emphasis on basketball, where it used to be.”
With all the notoriety he got last season, Katz surely could have landed another coaching job. But he says that the Goodman saga took his heart out of it.
“The dishonesty I’ve seen, the utter lack of compassion, the lack of ethical and moral standards, the lack of perspective in basketball now, it amazes me,” he says. “Here’s one kid who wanted to stand up for something out of the ordinary, so even if you didn’t like his game you’d have to respect him. But instead, all these adults just try to tear him down, change him. Why? Because his moral standards are too high? I’m not preaching like Jesus here, but, in our culture, basketball is the religion. Really, I hate basketball right now.”
That hatred didn’t keep Katz away from Sligo Middle School in Silver Spring on Monday afternoon, where Takoma Academy played against Holy Cross. Katz sat by himself in the mostly empty gym and took notes on his former star. Takoma Academy won, though Goodman didn’t show the flair for the game he used to back in the Multi-Purpose Room. But then, his season’s still young.—Dave McKenna