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 worth-while 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.