'Jewish Jordan' still keeping the faith

Tamir Goodman recites his evening prayers, secures his yarmulke on his head with two hairclips and a ball of tape and jogs onto the court for pre-game drills. Tzitzit dangle from the corners of the spidery guard's blue and yellow No. 12 jersey as he grabs a ball and starts hitting three-point shots as easily as if he were pushing quarters into a vending machine.

You might remember Goodman. "The Jewish Jordan." The Orthodox Jewish teenager from Pikesville, whose 35-point games at Talmudical Academy filled high school gyms in 1999. So good as a 16-year-old junior, he received a full scholarship offer to the University of Maryland.

Now 25, with a neatly trimmed red beard bordering his still-boyish face, Goodman plays in the second tier of Israel's professional basketball league. Not the place NBA scouts come looking for the next Michael Jordan.

On this March evening, his team, Maccabi Shoham, is struggling to overcome a losing season to clinch a playoff spot. His team's lackluster performance is reflected in this night's turnout. The small community gym north of Tel Aviv, plastered with ads for construction companies and "Say no to drugs" messages, has seats for 300, 22 of which are filled at game time. There are no cheerleaders, no announcers and no television cameras. It is quiet except for the sound of basketballs bouncing off the hardwood.

When the buzzer sounds, the 10 starters step onto the court. Goodman is not one of them. His 6-foot-3 frame is folded up on the bench. It's the place he'll stay for all but 10 minutes of the game, caught between critics who say the former high school superstar is more hype than talent and his struggle to prove them wrong.

Since his brush with stardom in Baltimore, Goodman's career has been like a bad carnival ride, teasing fans with great thrills and excitement but delivering mediocrity and disappointment. Maryland backed out of its scholarship for Goodman - concerned about his ability to play in the Atlantic Coast Conference - so he ended up at Towson University. After a strong freshman year, his coach, Michael Hunt, allegedly kicked a chair at him and Goodman quit.

By 2002, Goodman was back on top when Israel's Maccabi Tel Aviv, one of the strongest teams in international basketball, signed him to a three-year contract. Arriving in Israel amid great fanfare, Goodman was farmed out to a lower-level Israeli team, Givat Shmuel, where he could sharpen his skills.

But he never got the playing time he expected. Credited with being a quick, energetic guard and good passer, he did not meet the high expectations fans had for him. As one popular Israeli basketball Web site put it, Goodman "threw enough bricks to build a new building."

In 2003, he was traded to a third team and then suffered a knee injury that required surgery. After nine months of physical therapy, he went back to Givat Shmuel, where he averaged just under seven minutes a game. Eager to display his skills, he dropped down to Israel's second division to play for Maccabi Shoham this season.

"We brought him in to lead us and to improve us because he is probably the best player we've got," says Matan Simantov, 28, Maccabi Shoham's power forward.

Slowed by injury
At first, it seemed as if Goodman had found a place where he would thrive. In his first two games he played more than 20 minutes and scored close to 20 points a game.

"He was playing amazing," says Victor Skornik, 38, Maccabi Shoham's coach.

But the carnival ride was not over.

In December, Goodman's left knee gave out again and his doctors ordered him to undergo weeks of physical therapy. He didn't play again until March.

During this night's game, Goodman's third since recovering from his injury, it was clear Maccabi Shoham had adjusted to life without him. It was well into the first quarter before Skornik tapped Goodman. Goodman was on the court less than a minute before the player he was guarding made a three-pointer. His coach screamed, ordering Goodman back to the bench.

But Goodman returned to the court several more times, displaying flashes of brilliance and an ability to energize his team. He hit a dramatic layup just before halftime and made a three-pointer seconds before the final buzzer. But it was not enough. His team lost, 89-87. Goodman scored seven points. With more playing time, he knows he could have done far better, he says.

"It takes away all the talent God gave me," he says.

Skornik, his coach, said he understands Goodman's frustration but urged him to be patient.

"He needs time to play again like before," Skornik says.

To his critics, Goodman's mixed performance this season once again confirmed their doubts about him.

"He is a nice bench player, and I guess a lot of people who expected him to take the fast path to glory were quite disappointed," said Eran Soroka, a veteran basketball writer for the Israeli newspaper Ma'ariv.

If basketball were what defined Goodman's life, the story might end here. The tale of another high school star who never quite lived up to the promise of his younger days. But there's always been more to Goodman.

In a game often defined by overpaid superstars who make headlines off the court for brushes with the law and self-destructive behavior, Goodman briefly turned the sport on its ear.

Fulfilled by faith
An Orthodox Jewish redhead with freckles, Goodman was taunted as "Howdy Doody" when he first appeared in Baltimore tournaments. Here was a pale, white kid topped with a yarmulke who drew crowds to witness his crossover dribble and his Jordan-like drives to the basket. Yet he would never compromise his Jewish faith for his game. Come the Jewish Sabbath, from sundown Friday till the third star appears on Saturday evening, he wouldn't pick up a basketball. It's his day of rest and prayer.

He seems fulfilled off the court, perhaps more than he has ever been on it.

Even today his genuine idea of a good time is to pull down a book of the Talmud and pore over a page with the eagerness many of his peers might save for a game of Sudoku. At the time, what was so striking about Goodman's story was the basketball world's willingness to accommodate him.

Towson reworked its schedule so there wouldn't be games or practices on Friday night or Saturday. His mother would pack him kosher food for away games, and members of the local Jewish community would be marshaled to cook for him. During Hanukkah, Goodman's teammates disabled the fire detector in their hotel room so he could light the menorah candles without setting off the alarm.

As the first Orthodox Jew to play Division I basketball, Goodman became a role model in the Jewish community and a test of American tolerance.

"He was a Joe Lieberman in sneakers," says Jeffrey Gurock, a professor of American Jewish history at Yeshiva University, where he is also an assistant basketball coach. "He became the fulfillment of the American Orthodox youngster's fantasy that a kid could be so good as a basketball player that the world would stand on its head to accommodate his religious values."

At the peak of his popularity, Goodman was receiving more than 700 media requests a week and was interviewed by 60 Minutes and Sports Illustrated and featured on ESPN.

But soon after he rejected the Maryland scholarship offer, saying the coaches became uncomfortable with his not playing on Saturdays, writers starting voicing doubts about Goodman's talents.

Among Jewish fans, however, Goodman continues to enjoy celebrity status. Eight years after the hype of his high school years, Goodman is still sought after to speak to Jewish groups in Israel and the United States. He has run basketball clinics and camps in Israel, England and America, where he often speaks with Jewish players on issues of Zionism and life in Israel.

'Big Rabbi'
He recently started a charity to help Israeli children who were victims of the Israeli-Hezbollah war last summer. He is a devoted member of the Lubavitch movement, a sect of Orthodox Judaism that reaches out to the non-observant. In Israel, Goodman is the only Orthodox professional basketball player, a distinction that has earned him the nickname "Big Rabbi."

The fact that his basketball career has not been a huge success does not bother many of his fans.

"There was a time when it was almost heretical within the Jewish community to say, by the way, he is not such a good player," Gurock says.

As Goodman's star has faded, other Jewish sports figures have emerged, combating the stereotype of Jews as only scholars, Gurock says. Benjamin Rubin, a 17-year-old Orthodox Jewish hockey player from Montreal, appears to be on the fast track to the NHL. Dmitriy Salita, a Ukrainian-American top welterweight boxer, is also deeply observant and refuses to fight on the Sabbath.

While Goodman acknowledges he is a role model in the Jewish community, he doesn't like to talk about his critics or discuss whether he failed to live up to everyone's expectations. He says he prefers to look forward.

"People can say what they want to say. I keep on truckin'," he says.

It's rare to hear Goodman utter anything negative. Or for him to express doubts. "Positive" is the word used by almost everyone who meets him. "Nice" is another. He's the kind of guy who hugs strangers, makes them feel like he is their best friend. He punctuates his sentences with "Thank God" and all his hopes with "God willing." He emits a glow of goodwill that his coach and teammates say is contagious.

Goodman lives in a modest second-story apartment in Givat Shmuel, near Tel Aviv, with his wife, Judy Horwitz. The couple was immediately drawn to one another, in part, because they realized they both shared more than their faith. A former cross country and track and field star from Cleveland, Horwitz would not compete on the Jewish Sabbath, either. Goodman says he wanted to marry someone who understood how important basketball was to him.

They got married in 2003 during a ceremony in the hills outside Jerusalem, six months after they met. They have a 2-year-old daughter and a second baby due this summer.

Goodman supplements his basketball income with coaching at summer camps. This summer he will do a monthlong basketball camp at Camp Ramah in the Poconos. Whenever he finishes his playing career, he plans to dedicate his time to coaching basketball and motivating youth.

Israel, Goodman says, is now his home. It's the country where his mother was born and raised and where his grandmother still lives. Goodman volunteered in the Israel Defense Forces in 2004, learning how to repair and maintain armored personnel carriers.

From Goodman's balcony you can see downtown Tel Aviv and in the distance the hills climbing toward Jerusalem, where he heads every chance he gets to pray at the Western Wall.

"Overall, I can't thank God enough," he says of his life here. "I feel like I have been so blessed."

Inspired to excel
But behind his sunny personality, Goodman is clearly eager to prove that he is better than the scoreboard and his critics say, according to friends. He is deep down a tough competitor and one who believes that God gave him his athletic talents to use them.

"I can see that he is frustrated," says Simantov, Goodman's teammate. "I know when you grow up with a lot of expectations around you, the bigger the expectations, the bigger the disappointment."

After the game, Goodman steps out of the arena. It's a cold, windy March evening and Goodman is upset he didn't get to play more.

"Every time I was in I was doing great. But you can't do a lot in 10 minutes," Goodman says, exasperated. "If I get the ball, I can make all my teammates play better, too."

He stops in the parking lot, pulls his cell phone from his bag and speed-dials his grandmother to ask her if he can come for a visit. At 86, his grandmother, Rosa Sheffer, is tall, fit and looks decades younger than her age. A Holocaust survivor, she moved to Israel from Yugoslavia in 1948, arriving on a boat with thousands of European Jews coming to build the new Jewish state. She lives in a small apartment north of Tel Aviv, filled with photos documenting Goodman's athletic career.

Outside, Goodman points to a pillar where one of his grandmother's neighbors set up a wire hoop so he could practice during his childhood visits here. This is the place where Goodman comes to draw his strength.

"She is my inspiration. I love that she overcame so much in her life," he says.

Surprisingly, she has never gone to one of her grandson's games, afraid, she says, that he might miss a basket. Still, she is the family's most devoted archivist of Goodman's achievements. From one of her closets she pulls a large shopping bag spilling over with hundreds of yellowing newspaper and magazine clippings. She spreads them on the dining room table, where Goodman shuffles through the highlights of his high school days like playing cards.

Maryland offers Goodman full scholarship. Goodman voted MVP of Michael Jordan's Capital Classic. All over, the talk is Tamir Goodman.

For a moment, Goodman appears lost in the memories. Marveling at what was. Wondering what might still be.

"I know God gave me enough talent to play at any level in Israel. It's just a matter of getting in the right situation," he says as he gathers the clippings and stuffs them back in the bag. "God willing, the truth will come out."