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An Unorthodox Player
Michael Bamberger
February 01, 1999
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
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February 01, 1999

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

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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.

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 daring. 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.' "

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