Tamir Goodman sits at an empty table, waiting for the guests to arrive. Slouched in his chair, Goodman seems like any other Orthodox Jew who would visit Rabbi Eitan and Gitty Webb’s home (the Chabad house on Nassau Street), save for his flaming red hair and beard. He wears a yarmulke and fringes, and he sprinkles Yiddishisms and Hebrew sayings into conversation. At first, he does not look particularly physically imposing, either—at least until he stands up. Once Goodman straightens out his 6’3” frame, only then could one believe that he could be a professional athlete.
Goodman is at the Webbs’ apartment to speak about his new foundation, Tamir Goodman Charities, which helps Israeli children who have been victimized by bombings, and to reflect on his American basketball career, which ended in the beginning of 2002. Thirty minutes pass; still, no one shows up.
The setting has become so intimate and informal that Gitty brings out onion soup for Goodman and her two guests—another reporter and me. It soon dawns on Goodman, one time a teenage hoops star, top prep recruit and Jewish communal hero, that no one is coming.
No matter. He spends the first hour sitting on the floor, talking to his audience of two about his high school success and the value of religion. Though his star has faded, he is without regrets; , he is thankful for all God has given him.
As the event winds into the second hour, Goodman, tired of talking about his past, asks us if we want to play basketball. Within minutes, this one-time star shoots hoops with us in Dillon Gym, giving pointers that immediately improve our game. At one point, he drills 27 of 30 shots, and just as he gets ready to leave, he begins floating half-court shots toward the basket with his left hand—his non-shooting hand.
Who is Tamir Goodman, and what happened to him? For a fleeting period of time eight years ago, he was national news. Goodman rocketed onto the scene in a Sports Illustrated profile, where, as a University of Maryland recruit averaging 36.9 points per game, he was portrayed as a God-fearing, yarmulke-wearing force on the basketball court. Goodman’s refusal to play on the Sabbath, which many Orthodox Jews call “Shabbos,” seemed like a potential burden, but nothing that would preclude him from accepting Maryland’s scholarship offer.
Once the story exploded, the lanky redhead became an even bigger draw, packing the gym at his high school, Talmudical Academy, whenever he played. The turnout would be so large that, at first, all home games were moved to different locations; then, for his senior year, the rabbis at his school canceled the basketball program, since, they claimed, it took the students’ attention away from Torah study.
Goodman moved to the Seventh Day Adventist Takoma Academy for his last year of high school. At the peak of his popularity, the “Jewish Jordan,” as he was called, received 700 media requests a week. He appeared on “60 Minutes” and ESPN, and in many high-profile publications, as well.
But Shabbos was a big problem, and Goodman’s seemingly unreasonable request to alter the team’s schedule in order to accommodate the Sabbath forced him to make a choice: to play every day of the week, or to not play at all. Goodman chose the latter, and his national exposure disappeared along with Maryland’s scholarship offer.
His descent into obscurity hastened once he joined the smaller, lightly regarded Towson State University men’s basketball team, for which he started as a freshman but posted uninspiring numbers. He left shortly after joining the squad because of a conflict with his new coach, and he then signed a three-year contract with Maccabi Tel Aviv—at the time the best basketball team in the Euroleague—only to be demoted to a lesser league in order to improve his game.
After a stint in the Israeli army, Goodman suffered a knee injury that almost derailed his career—yet another cruel twist in his disheartening story. But, following successful surgery—and divine help, he would say—Goodman began the climb back, and this past season he averaged 20 points per game for his team in a second-tier Israeli league.
Goodman’s story seems similar to that of Seymour “Swede” Levov, the subject of Philip Roth’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, American Pastoral. In the book, Levov, who grows up in a Jewish community in Newark, distinguishes himself athletically (he is a star player) and physically (he has features that Jews almost never have, hence the nickname), and is widely known as the best—nay, only—athlete his Jewish community has ever produced. But the talk of Levov’s athletic potential, like Goodman’s, ends shortly after high school, when his playing career takes a few lumps. Levov then fades away as the years pass.
Goodman, though, would never compare his story to Levov’s. Athletic achievement aside, Roth’s character was a man who, once out of the community, abandoned his Jewish roots; if anything is more important to Goodman than basketball, it’s his faith. Goodman, an intensely religious person, lives his life strictly by the rule of Jewish law. He still prays three times a day and, unlike other athletes who only praise the Lord when they have had success, blesses God at every opportunity. When he injured his knee, he visited the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s grave in New York and asked for guidance. Even though his basketball career hasn’t unfolded the way some may have predicted, he has no regrets, because his faith in God is so strong. “I could have had two rings,” he said, alluding to the University of Maryland and Maccabi Tel Aviv championships that he could have won, “But it’s OK; I’ve still got Shabbos.”
Even once his playing days are over, Goodman is sure he will still find a way to stay involved with basketball. “God gave me basketball as a gift to spread to others,” Goodman explained, and through his charity, he is trying to do just that. The organization gives free basketball clinics to victims of bombings in Israel and donates free tickets to let the victims watch Goodman’s games. Goodman, while no longer a media fixture, can still use his name for the benefit of others.
It’s quite clear that, while Goodman is still immensely talented—his performance in Dillon is just one indication that he hasn’t fully lost his athletic spark—his time in the lime light has faded. It may even be fair to call the much-hyped “Jewish Jordan” a flop—originally a top recruit who ultimately didn’t play more than two years at a low-level Division I school. Gone are the Sports Illustrated profiles, the Howard Stern interview requests, the screaming hordes packing the gym. His very presence on campus can’t even muster a minyan of interested students anymore, and his shooting displays don’t draw the crowds that they used to.
But to Goodman, none of this matters. When asked if he missed the years when he was at his most famous, Goodman chuckles and shrugs. “I’m happy with whatever God has decided to give me,” he says. Now a husband and a father, Goodman has obtained a greater sense of responsibility and has regained the sense of normalcy that he didn’t have as a hyped-up high-schooler. Unlike so many others who have had brushes with fame, Goodman remains relatively unchanged. What former star would shoot hoops with two out-of-shape scrubs?
The shoot-around ends, and I walk with the rabbi and Goodman back toward Nassau Street. He talks admiringly of a former NFL linebacker, a Jew, whose religious convictions became even stronger once he retired. We then part ways. “Behatzlacha” (“good luck” in Hebrew), he says to me, and he fades away once again.