When his mother visited Israel in November, Tamir Goodman asked her to bring him back one thing: a sky-blue yarmulke. The color would match his basketball uniform at the Talmudical Academy in Pikesville.
"You should have seen Tamir's face when he got that yarmulke," Chava Goodman, his mother, said. "He cried, 'I love it! I love it!'
"He has worn it ever since."
To Goodman, an Orthodox Jew, the skullcap represents the two things closest to his heart: Judaism and basketball. At 17, he is learned enough to lead the mincha (pronounced MIN-kah) afternoon prayer in Hebrew at his synagogue, and athletic enough to have been offered a scholarship in two years to the University of Maryland.
Frequently, his religious and secular worlds overlap.
After completing a 24-hour religious fast, Goodman placed second in a local slam-dunk contest last summer.
When he was bar mitzvahed, he flipped over his favorite gift, a ball autographed by the then-Washington Bullets. Encased in Plexiglas, itis kept out of reach on a shelf in his family's den.
Though he reveres Michael Jordan -- Goodman's bedroom is plastered with posters of the former NBA star -- he never saw Jordan play. "He [Jordan] always seemed to come here on Saturdays [the Jewish Sabbath]," Goodman said. "I was so upset."
Keeping the Sabbath is one of the tenets of his Orthodox faith. But the difficulty of doing that at Maryland, with its slate of weekend games, represents a potential for conflict between Goodman's athletic dreams and his Jewish roots.
The 6-foot-3 high school junior steadfastly refuses to play from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday in college.
Maryland says it may try to juggle its schedule around him.
What outsiders see as friction, Goodman and his family view as a balancing act between the ballplayer's spiritual and temporal lives.
He prays -- and plays -- for about 1 1/2 hours, daily. Jewish studies take another four hours. Add the rigors of an 11-hour day at Talmudical Academy, and the clock is running out.
"Time management is what I do," said Goodman, who gets six hours of sleep at night. Calisthenics, he does on the fly. Around the house, he routinely drops to the floor, does 20 push-ups and bounces back up to be on his way.
Like many teen-agers, Goodman crashes on weekends to catch up on his sleep, after meeting his religious obligations. On a recent Friday, just before dusk, Goodman drove the family to synagogue. For 10 minutes, he stood before the congregation and read in Hebrew from the pulpit prayer book. After the 90-minute service, the Goodmans walked home, a distance of nearly a mile, because they observe the Orthodox proscription against using machinery on the Sabbath.
His rabbi calls Goodman "an average kid who has his own mission of bringing holiness to this world through basketball."
The rabbi, Elchonon Lisbon, leads a local branch of Lubavitch Jews, a sect of Orthodox Judaism that promotes outreach to the nonobservant through personal example.
'A God-given gift'
"Tamir is confident that this is a God-given gift," said Lisbon, "and he is determined to utilize it, to make spirituality for all people as apparent as possible. That's how he views it, and that's what makes him tick."
Goodman's visibility in basketball fits the mold, the rabbi said.
"I've heard Tamir say that he achieves more on the court when he goes out as a role model than when he has a personal agenda," he said.
On the floor, Goodman exudes confidence -- why not, he says God is on his side -- galvanizing crowds with crossover dribbles and 30-foot bombs and Jordanesque drives to the basket. Goodman wears No. 22; his hero was No. 23. "He [Jordan] is one step higher than me," Goodman quipped.
The on-court swagger vanishes off it. His personal life is characterized by humility, evident at school and at home.
"One only has to observe Tamir pray to see how seriously he takes his religion," said Rabbi Moshe Hauer, chairman of Talmudical's board of education. "He prays with a great deal of modesty and piety."
At home in Pikesville, Goodman's bedroom in the basement of the family's two-story house is adorned with photographs that show both sides of his personality. There are slam-dunks frozen and framed, as well as a humbling shot of the Terp-to-be getting chewed out by his high school coach.
"Hey, I was playing bad that day," Goodman said of the photo. "Besides, it's a good picture."
Even on fast breaks, the blue yarmulke is a must. If it falls to the floor, Goodman retrieves it immediately and fastens it to his hair. It's more crucial to his identity than his pair of Air Jordans.
At last count, Goodman owned nine pairs of basketball shoes and God knows how many yarmulkes. He listens to Jewish music as well as to Mariah Carey, Styx and his favorite, The Doors.
A citizen of both the United States and Israel, Goodman gave interviews recently to Sports Illustrated and the Jerusalem Post.
His ties to Israel and his athleticism, Goodman gets from his mother. Chava Goodman threw the javelin, discus and shot in her native Hertzlia, near Tel Aviv. Later, she served in the Israeli army.
The red hair, Goodman gets from his father's side. Karl Goodman, a Baltimore attorney, attends all of his son's games. His mother won't go, fearing she might see him hurt. The closest she'll get is the school lobby, where she says Psalms on his behalf.
Injuries rarely stop Goodman. Twice, he broke his left wrist. The first time, itching to play, he used his mother's rose clippers to cut the cast. Last year, he broke the wrist again during a game and scored 7 points one-handed until yanked by the coach.
"Basketball was Tamir's dream, always," Chava Goodman said. "As a boy he would be outside at 6 a.m., bouncing, bouncing, waking us up and getting blisters on his hands and feet. At 1 a.m., he was out there shouting, 'One more shot, one more shot.' "
Inside, Goodman liked to practice his vertical jump, leaping whenever he passed a door frame.
"Now he's hitting my ceiling," his mother said. "I tell him, 'Next time, take a paper towel up there and clean off all of your fingerprints.' "
Fastidious himself, Goodman showers before games "to clear my mind" and sends his uniform to the cleaners to be washed and pressed. He sleeps with a basketball on his bed.
His dedication is such that Goodman will drop by his coach's house after practice to watch tapes of the practice.
"Tamir has an incredible degree of toughness," said his coach, Harold Katz. "He handles himself with a maturity well beyond his years."
Referring to the deluge of attention since Goodman orally committed to Maryland on Jan. 10, Katz said, "He's formed a shell around his skin."
Looking ahead to College Park, Goodman predicts, "Everyone's going to know me as the Jew and won't step close."
Being set apart, he said, won't shake his observance of his Orthodox faith. "Even if I wanted to break out, which I don't, I couldn't, because there are so many eyes on me."
Focus on the numbers
Maryland sought Goodman, in part, because of his talent borne out by statistics: 37 points, 7 rebounds and 8 assists a game.
Now Goodman must focus on other numbers -- his grade-point average (2.9) and the score he'll get on the SAT in May.
His mother has her mind on still another number, her son's weight. She frets that at 155 pounds, he's too thin.
"I take his lunch to school every day, hot chicken and potatoes or fresh sub sandwiches, for him and his [15-year-old] brother Ariel," she said. "I'd do anything to see him eat."
Goodman has eight siblings, four from his father's previous marriage. One brother is a rabbi; another is studying to be one.
Thinking he might someday follow suit, Goodman attended ninth grade at a Pittsburgh school with an intensive Jewish studies curriculum. While there, he found he could play basketball even while wearing a long-sleeved white shirt. The school played only one game, and he scored 43 points.
He returned to Talmudical as a sophomore, propelling the school to basketball prominence in the past two seasons.
Last year, the Thunder played mostly religious schools. Katz upgraded this year's schedule to include some public and other parochial schools.
Facing stiffer competition, Goodman sometimes relies on a strategy that seems second nature after the endless drill of Judaic studies. Against non-Jewish opponents, he'll sometimes shout signals only his teammates can understand. The code: Hebrew.
Pub Date: 1/24/99