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Williams fails, Goodman aces test of faith

All Gary Williams had to tell Tamir Goodman was that it couldn't work. But that's not what happened, is it?

Not even close.Not even at the bitter end.

Williams had to jump last Jan. 10, had to offer Goodman a basketball scholarship to Maryland, had to lock up this high school junior, right then and there, before other schools could enter the mix.

His ignorance of the complexities presented by Goodman's Orthodox Jewish religion is forgivable. His refusal to play it straight with a 17-year-old -- particularly one of such principle -- is not.

Goodman never changed his position. Maryland did.

And so we are left with one of the saddest, most embarrassing chapters of Williams' 11-year tenure at College Park -- the inevitable result of a cultural gap that only the right coach and program could bridge.

That coach and program might not exist in Division I college basketball. But Goodman returned his scholarship only after deciding that Williams would not fulfill his promise to try and accommodate his observance of the Jewish Sabbath.

"I'm not that upset. I got over it," Goodman said. "It wouldn't have worked out if I had went there. I'm happy I found out now rather than when I was there. I would have had to transfer."

Goodman spoke late Thursday night from Queens, N.Y., where he was heading to a mikvah (ritual bath) and the gravesite of a famed Lubavitch rabbi on the eve of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year.

He sounded relieved to be free of the tension with Maryland, relieved that he no longer must worry about pleasing coaches who might limit his minutes -- penalize him -- for refusing to play or practice on his Sabbath.

And you can bet Williams is relieved, too.

He now can give Goodman's scholarship to a player who will be available seven days a week instead of six, a player whose religious beliefs won't disrupt Williams' almighty program.

Goodman answers to a different almighty, and that was the heart of the conflict.

One side believes in the sanctity of ACC tournament semifinals being played on Saturday afternoon. The other side believes in the sanctity of a Sabbath that has existed from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday for the past 5,760 years.

Williams is not an anti-Semite -- he would have had the same reservations about a Seventh-day Adventist who observes the same Sabbath, and embracing such a player would be difficult for any major program.

To a successful college coach, a player's race and religion are irrelevant. The only question that matters is, "What can you do for me?"

All of Williams' flaws were on display in this episode, from his impulsiveness in making Goodman the initial offer to the temper he displayed in a one-hour meeting on Sept. 2 with Goodman and his mother, Chava.

"They don't care about me as a person," Tamir Goodman said. "They don't respect my beliefs. They yelled at my mother. What kind of thing is that?"

It's a big-time college basketball thing, Tamir.

And as disingenuous as Williams acted, he is hardly the only coach to conduct himself in such fashion.

As William Avery was deciding whether to leave Duke for the NBA, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski told his mother, "Your son is going to ---- my program," according to ESPN Magazine.

Think maybe one day these blowhards will learn?

Krzyzewski's posturing backfired, just as the good-cop, bad-cop routine by Williams and assistant coach Billy Hahn backfired in the meeting with Goodman and his mother.

You can't bully a mother who once was a member of the Israeli army and needed to learn the difference between the ACC and ABC.

And you can't bully a kid who is willing to part with his dream of an ACC scholarship to, in the words of his mother, "sanctify God's name."

The Goodmans had little use for Williams' recruiting double talk, his head coach bravado, his situational ethics -- all standard operating procedure for the head of a major Division I program.

According to Chava Goodman, Williams said that if Tamir were the No. 8 or No. 9 player at Maryland, he could lose playing time to a player of similar ability if he did not practice on the Sabbath.

"What if Tamir happened to be a very good player? Is he still going to be No. 8 or No. 9?" Chava recalled asking Williams.

"No," she quoted him as saying. "Then he'd be in the starting five."

Williams declined comment yesterday. NCAA rules prohibit college coaches from commenting on prospective student-athletes.

Chava Goodman took notes in Hebrew during the meeting, and sat on her living-room sofa Thursday night, translating into English with the help of her husband, Karl, and Goodman's adviser and former coach at Talmudical Academy, Harold Katz.

"The Sabbath is not negotiable," she recalled telling Williams and Hahn. "Tamir will never, ever play on the Sabbath. You should have done your homework."

Bingo.

At another point, Chava Goodman said that Williams asked what he should do if the media accused Maryland of benching her son for missing practice on the Sabbath.

"It's not my problem," Chava told him. "You have to solve it. I can't help you."

Bingo again.

Williams should have stopped himself eight months ago before offering Goodman a scholarship in the afterglow of Maryland's 94-48 victory over North Carolina State (oh, how things might have been different if the meeting had taken place after the previous week's loss to Duke).

And Hahn should have acknowledged Maryland's concerns last spring when confronted by Katz.

"I asked them twice in April and once in May, `Do you want Tamir or not? I'm hearing on the street that you don't want Tamir,' " Katz said. "They [Hahn] said, `If you don't hear it from us, it's not true.' "

So, the question lingered through the summer, with other schools steering clear of Goodman, knowing he was committed to Maryland. Only after Goodman struggled at all-star camps -- in part because of a knee injury that limited his lateral movement -- did Williams summon him for a meeting.

He wanted Goodman alone -- no Katz, no parents.

He wanted to plant doubt in the kid's mind, knowing his public facade would crumble if he withdrew the scholarship offer.

He wanted the outcome he got yesterday.

Some will interpret Goodman's explanation for turning down Maryland as a convenient excuse by a player who is either A) incapable of competing in the ACC or B) unwilling to accept that challenge.

Williams offered the scholarship because he believed Goodman could play at Maryland. Maybe Goodman isn't as good as Williams initially thought. But what's the worst-case scenario? That Goodman would be a more skilled version of Matt Kovarik?

Goodman dreamed of becoming a Terp. His basement includes framed photographs of him with Williams, and him and Katz with Williams and Hahn. No one can question his courage when he played hurt this summer, and remained unshakable in his beliefs.

Maybe he will sign with another major program willing to accommodate his observance of the Sabbath. Maybe he will land at a lesser Division I school where television doesn't dictate the schedule. Or maybe he will jump straight from Takoma Academy to a professional career in Israel.

"He will play somewhere next year, that's for sure," said Goodman's father, Karl.

Maryland legitimized him with its scholarship offer. And Goodman quickly discovered the double edge of sudden fame -- the rush of international exposure, and the backlash from segments of his own Orthodox community. He was all but asked to leave Talmudical, and now attends Takoma Academy, a Seventh-day Adventist school in Takoma Park.

Trailblazers rarely make smooth entrances into mainstream society. This wasn't Goodman's first bump, and it probably won't be his last.

"We're not interested in imposing our religion on anybody," Karl Goodman said. "It seems like Maryland is uncomfortable with it. Therefore, it would mean a lot of pressure on Tamir, and the team. We didn't need it."

The message is that a kid with strong religious beliefs can't fit in with the Maryland men's basketball team, and maybe not with any major college program.

If that's not an indictment of big-time college sports, what is?

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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