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A kid from Pikesville, Md., named Tamir Goodman recently accepted Gary Williams’ offer to attend the University of Maryland on a basketball scholarship. Sixteen-year-old redheads don’t get many offers from Top 10 programs. Neither do Orthodox Jews.
Plain and simple, a Goodman is hard to find.
For now, Goodman plays for the Talmudical Academy of Baltimore (TA). The 6-foot-3, 155-pound guard/forward/center/whatever-he-feels-like-playing has averaged about 35 points per game this season. Pretty good for a junior, even in a division as weak as the Maryland Independent Basketball Conference. But Coach Harold Katz says to ignore the numbers. It’s how Tamir plays, not his stats, that shows he’s got game.
“Everything Tamir gets, he gets on his own,” Katz says. “The bottom line is, my team is Tamir and 11 rabbis. Wait ’til he gets on the court with some real players. Then you’ll see what he can do.”
The goys in the ‘hood already know what Goodman can do, since he spent his summer on some of the city’s toughest playgrounds. And so, apparently, does Gary Williams, who won’t even get Goodman until the 2000-2001 season.
When asked why Goodman chose Maryland, Katz told a reporter, “Because there are no Jews in Oklahoma.”
There are Jews in his home state, however. And the Goodman-Maryland deal has made him, overnight, a big deal in Baltimore’s close-knit Orthodox Jewish community.
He’s the biggest thing since sliced challah.
Though TA has just 62 students, more than 400 people overstuff the Samuel Holtzman Multi-Purpose Room for a Saturday night home game against Antioch Christian. Goodman is making his first appearance in uniform since the College Park accord. You can’t rightly call this a sellout, because nobody’s charging admission, but staffers say it’s the biggest on-campus crowd in the school’s 80-year history. And everybody’s there for the kid who knows that Jordan ain’t just a river.
The mood inside the tiny gym is divine. Think Hoosiers, if that story had been set in Crown Heights, not the Heartland. There is no room for cheerleaders. That’s OK, because TA doesn’t allow them, anyway. Cheerleaders are immodest, and modesty is big here: The TA players and coaches, and essentially all the males in the SRO crowd, wear yarmulkes. A few cool kids, balancing hipness and Orthodoxy, wear baseball caps with culturally identifiable inscriptions, like a black-and-orange lid with “Orioles” in Hebrew. Just as long as their heads stay covered…
When Goodman walks onto the court with his team, the youngsters mob him. Even during warmups, they want to touch him, and he lets them.
“Tamir feels like he’s playing for the Jewish people,” says Karl Goodman, the proud father and a Baltimore lawyer. “But he still takes out the garbage.”
The mere name of the gym, the Multi-Purpose Room, shows how little emphasis TA puts on its basketball program. The school’s December newsletter makes no mention of Goodman or the team. In fact, the closest thing to a sporting event that rates a write-up is the pin-the-shamash-on-the-menorah contest that took place at Rabbi Steinberg’s Chanukah party. (According to reports, everybody had fun.) TA students might be expected to know and learn from what took place in a garden named Eden, but not Madison Square. Classes go from 7:45 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., with three prayer breaks per day. The Jewish Sabbath runs from dusk on Friday to dusk on Saturday. No games or practices are scheduled during this holy time.
There is concern among TA staffers that the fuss over Goodman could skew some students’ perspective.
“We’re getting 100 calls a day asking us about the ‘Jewish Jordan,’” a TA administrator tells me. “One man even asked me if I’d like my son to be a basketball player. I answered, ‘No, but I’d like him to play basketball.’ That’s how we feel here.”
Not all of Goodman’s elders are so restrained, however. During the Antioch game, Larry Cohen, a basketball fan, civil servant, and Orthodox Jew (not in that order), says he supports the Goodman phenomenon. “Tamir’s Orthodoxy is incredibly important here. It’s what defines us. All communities have some things they excel at. For us, basketball isn’t one of them,” says Cohen, who played for TA in 1973. “You have to understand something: We’ve never had an Orthodox player, ever, play basketball at his level. Not just here, anywhere! Ever! In the history of the entire world! Ever!”
But even Cohen wonders if the University of Maryland and the NCAA will adapt to Goodman’s Orthodox ways. Adapting those ways to the University of Maryland and the NCAA is not an option. He will wear his yarmulke, on the court and off. He will honor the Sabbath in College Park just as he does in Pikesvillemeaning no basketball on Friday nights and Saturday days. He won’t suit up during high holy days, either. Maryland’s schedule this season has five games that Goodman would miss for religious reasons. According to Katz, Williams has pledged to work around Goodman’s faith. (NCAA rules forbid Williams to comment on recruits to the press.) Katz isn’t so sure others will cut the kid any slack, however.
“People will look at the yarmulke and the white-guy aspect and say he’s going to fail,” Katz huffs. “But you strip that away, and you’ve got a real basketball player. Everybody who says Tamir can’t make it is going to have to apologize.”
Against Antioch, Goodman puts in 33, despite being triple-teamed for most of the game. But this isn’t his night. With 40 seconds to go and TA up by 2, Goodman’s 3-point try clangs off the rim. Seconds later, at the other end of the floor, he goes for a steal but instead gets whistled for his fifth foul and disqualified. With Goodman on the bench, TA doesn’t score again. Antioch wins by 3. Katz storms off the court in a rage.
The crowd that spills out of the Multi-Purpose Room, however, hasn’t taken the loss hard at all. To this bunch, whether it’s basketball or pin-the-shamash-on-the-menorah, it’s how you play the game.
Goodman, still in uniform and carrying a basketball, emerges from the locker room 20 minutes after the buzzer. He quietly goes to center court, where his father has been waiting, and gives him a sweet kiss. He then walks to the side of the court where he missed his last shot and starts draining 3-pointers, one after another. A rabbi stands beneath the rim and feeds the ball back to Goodman after each made shot. Katz, watching from across the floor, predicts Goodman’s postgame practice session will last several hours. The gym is nearly empty, but it’s still quite hot. In front of a few stragglers, his coach, his rabbi, and his God, Goodman takes off his sweaty jersey. He leaves his hat on.Dave McKenna
Goodman and the Talmudical Academy come to D.C. on Feb. 3 to play at the Lab School.