Twenty-three years ago, Sports Illustrated anointed Baltimore native Tamir Goodman the ”Jewish Jordan.” A media tsunami ensued, with the 16-year-old rocketing to fame and acclaim as national print and television media outlets clamored for him and the story of his unlikely path.
He went on to make history as the first Orthodox Jew to play Division I and professional basketball despite his religious beliefs, which dictated that he could not play on the Sabbath, from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday.
After a solid freshman year at Towson University, a disagreement with the new head coach who took over during his sophomore year led to him leaving the program.
But his basketball journey didn’t end there, though his temporary glimmer in the national spotlight eventually faded. He still went on to play pro ball for one of the EuroLeague’s most respected franchises, Maccabi Tel Aviv.
A string of devastating injuries forced his retirement from the game in 2009, but his passion for teaching and effecting change in the world through basketball burns brighter than ever.
His basketball camps and teaching clinics are in high demand across the globe. He’s also a successful entrepreneur reimagining how equipment can evolve for the betterment of players, teams and leagues. One of those technologies is the Aviv Net, which can be found in Dick’s Sporting Goods stores. He also finds time to work in the front office for the Hapoel Jerusalem professional franchise.
He recently spoke with The Banner about his life, his journey, his passion for the game and how he wants to use basketball for the betterment of mankind.
Banner: When did the game of basketball begin to speak to your soul?
Tamir Goodman: I loved the game right away. I was playing in the backyard with my older brothers one day when I was about 10 years old. I came into the kitchen crying because I lost. They told my mother, “Tell Tamir to chill out, it’s just a game. We’re older, we’re supposed to beat him. Why is he taking it so seriously?”
I looked at my parents and said, “It’s not just a game to me. I really love basketball.” My parents were very supportive even though that was a very different life path than what most Orthodox Jewish kids were dreaming of.
In high school, you weren’t one to celebrate on the court even though the nature of the game lends itself to some emotional jubilance at times. Where did that sense of composure come from?
I was playing in a local rec league in Pikesville when I was younger in the early ‘90s and after hitting a game-winning shot, I did the “raise the roof” hand gesture. My father never told me anything about basketball. He never said anything like, “You should pass, you should shoot, you should dribble, you should have guarded him better.”
But on the ride home after that game, he said, “You must always remember, God gave you basketball and you must practice humility. You can’t just serve God when you’re in temple, it’s all day, every day, wherever you are.”
Paint a picture of a young, skinny Tamir, Orthodox Jew, showing up in East Baltimore wearing a yarmulke to play ball at the world-famous playground court known as “the Dome.”
When I first started going to the Dome, I was definitely a curiosity. But fortunately, I had some good games there and started to establish my reputation around Baltimore. The Towson Catholic summer league was big back then and I’d play there against some of the best competition in the city.
Based on how I played at the Dome and at the summer league, I got an invite to participate in the NBA camp, I guess they call it the NBA Top 100 camp now.
You were the starting point guard for your varsity basketball team as a middle schooler. But there was concern from some in your community that the game was taking up too much of your focus. A lot of people encouraged you to quit playing to concentrate on your studies. Flesh that out a little bit.
Yeah, a lot of people don’t know that. I played varsity for a Jewish school as a seventh and eighth grader. You have to now imagine that less than one percent of high school players will ever get a Division I basketball scholarship, which was my goal. Now factor in that I can’t play on the Sabbath. What is a college program going to say when I tell them that I won’t play from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday?
That was never ever done before. And, oh yeah, I want to wear my kippah on the court as well. A lot of people and different educators were like, “You’re wasting your time. No college is going to accommodate you. Invest your time in other places.”
And you took that advice and did stop playing for a year. Walk us down that path.
I was like, “If this is what God wants, I’ll totally drop basketball and see what happens.” I spent my freshman year at a school in Pittsburgh where there were no sports. It was all Jewish studies.
On the first day of class, the rabbi says, “Everybody in this world is created from God with a unique mission. And you have to use your blessings to better the world. You take the physical and make it spiritual. Everybody has their own unique way of doing it.”
How did you digest that?
I was like, “Wow, I must’ve had to come here to learn that.” I couldn’t ignore and walk away from basketball. I needed to play, not for my own ego but for a higher purpose. I called my mom back in Maryland and said, “Hey, I’m ready to come back and play ball! I learned what I had to learn.”
What was her response?
She said, “You can come back but you made a commitment, and once you make a commitment you need to stick it out. You gotta finish this year and then you can go wherever you want.”
So I stayed the whole year, but in my mind, I already had my soul aligned with my physical journey. I knew I was going back to play ball, so I spent the whole year training. I came back after hearing what I needed to hear and my soul was united with it.
Your 11th grade year at the Talmudical school of Baltimore is when the national spotlight comes shining on you. You’re 16, 17 years old and become instantly famous overnight with the Sports Illustrated feature story where they gave you the nickname, the ”Jewish Jordan.”
You were featured on CNN, ESPN, 60 Minutes and many others. Your picture was splashed on the front page of The New York Times and The Washington Post, along with publications in Israel and around the world. That had to be overwhelming.
I’m 40 now, and it’s still hard to imagine. Someone from one of the biggest public relations and marketing firms in America recently told me that other than LeBron [James], Allen Iverson, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, there’s never been a high school basketball player with as much attention as I had.
I had a skit on ”Saturday Night Live” done by Jerry Seinfeld about me. It was so overwhelming, but I think we did the best that we could as a 17-year-old with my coach and my family. And thank God I had religion, that’s the biggest thing. If I was just playing for my own ego, I would’ve crashed, I wouldn’t have made it. It would have been too much.
I’m going to throw some names at you and let’s see if you can tell me what they have in common with Tamir Goodman. Ralph Sampson, Dominique Wilkins, Patrick Ewing, Danny Manning, Amar’e Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James.
Most Valuable Player at the Capital Classic. Amar’e spends time in Jerusalem, so we talk regularly. I told him recently, “Hey, there’s only two people in Jerusalem that can say they won MVP honors at the Capital Classic.” I still have a relationship with Carmelo as well. Wow! It was an unbelievable couple of years.
When you were on the high school scene here in Baltimore, Carmelo was killing it over at Towson Catholic and being talked about as the greatest prep talent to rise out of the city since the great Skip Wise.
Yeah, his high school coach and my coach, Harold Katz, were trying to arrange a game between us, but it never wound up happening. That would have been great. Like I said, I was up at Towson Catholic all the time during the summer playing against him. That was my spot. I’m so thankful that I was blessed to have those experiences.
A lot of people also don’t realize that you transferred and played your senior year at a predominantly African American Christian school. Why was that?
It was getting so out of hand at Talmudical. The gym was a fire hazard. It wasn’t even really a gym but a multipurpose room. There were thousands of people trying to get in there. We had to start renting out and selling out various arenas at local colleges to accommodate the crowds.
The school basically said, after my junior year, you can stay here but we’re not going to have a basketball team anymore. I got a phone call from the principal at Takoma Academy who said, “We’re Seventh-day Adventists and don’t play basketball on the Sabbath either. We read about you and feel like we can help you.”
You played on a stacked squad that year.
Brian Wright, who is now the general manager of the San Antonio Spurs was my teammate. Tony Skinn, who played in the Final Four with George Mason and is now an assistant coach at the University of Maryland, was on the squad as well. The experience was very good for me socially and academically. Sometimes you grow the most when you step out of your comfort zone.
Playing there against better competition was a big reason for me being invited to play at the Capital Classic, where I played with guys like Andre Collins, who went to Maryland and Michael Sweetney who played at Georgetown and in the NBA.
Michael Sweetney was a force of nature at Georgetown as a scorer, rebounder and shot blocker, one of the best big men to don a Hoyas uniform.
He wound up being my closest friend out of that group. He was really depressed in the NBA after his father died and he attempted suicide. I brought him here to Jerusalem and he told me what happened.
Thank God I was able to make some phone calls and connect him with some help. He’s coaching now at Yeshiva University in New York. He’s closer than my best friend, he’s my family. I love him, and that all came out of the Capital Classic as well.
You initially accepted a scholarship to play ball at the University of Maryland, to much fanfare. When it became apparent that they wouldn’t be able to arrange their schedule around your inability to play on the Sabbath, you went to play at Towson instead. Do you ever look back and think, “Had I gone to Maryland, I would have gone to back-to-back Final Fours and won a national championship”?
People don’t realize that I root for Maryland to this day and am still in touch with Coach [Billy] Hahn, Gary Williams’ assistant who recruited me. I love coach Hahn and all those guys. You end up being where you’re supposed to be in life. I’m glad it worked out for Maryland and for me. If I saw Juan Dixon right now, or Steve Blake, Steve Francis, Chris Wilcox and those guys, there would be nothing but huge hugs.
Another thing people don’t realize is that you struggled with a learning disability that could have hindered you going to college in the first place.
I had a terrible learning disability in the form of severe dyslexia. I barely passed my SATs. Can you imagine the stress of that after all the publicity? People knew that I had all these scholarship offers but they didn’t know what I was struggling with in the academic setting. But when I got to college, I made the dean’s list.
I remember hearing that the doctor who diagnosed your dyslexia was amazed that you were such an excellent basketball player. He said you couldn’t discern between a circle or a square.
Through the dyslexia, I was blessed with a vision to see the game in ways that others couldn’t. My goal, whenever I stepped on the court, was to get my teammates the ball in the best position possible to make an easy basket. Passing the ball is really what got me going.
There are certain established rules in basketball, like you never leave your feet without knowing what you’re going to do, or you don’t throw a skip pass from certain angles. But for some reason, I could see things that other players weren’t seeing and able to get those difficult passes through.
Your assist game was definitely on another level.
After one game at Towson, the legendary K.C. Jones, who coached Larry Bird and won numerous NBA championships with the Celtics as a player and as a coach, was one of the television commentators. I remember him taking his headset off and coming over to me, saying, “Wow son, you can really pass that basketball.”
At Towson, you were the first freshman to start at point guard in over a decade. You had a solid first year on the court. But that experience ended on a sour note. The head coach that recruited you was fired after your first year, and you and the new head coach had some issues. You left the program seven games into your sophomore year. How difficult a time was that for you?
By far, that was the hardest challenge of my life. I went home for spring break of my freshman year excited about my future, academically and athletically. The coaching staff was telling me how they were going to better utilize my talents as a sophomore. I was living the dream, and then what happened, happened. I was broken emotionally, physically and spiritually.
At what point did you recover from that and emerge with a new energy and purpose?
It took me a while to pick myself up. Eventually I came to the realization that going away from who I am is not making me feel better. Quitting basketball was not helping. I just said to myself, “I can’t understand why that happened, but I do know that everyone in this world has a unique mission.” And my mission is to play basketball because if I’m not, I don’t feel alive. I started working out and pushing myself harder than ever.
How do you wind up signing with Maccabi Tel Aviv, one of the top professional teams in the world that competes in the Israeli Basketball Premier League and internationally in the EuroLeague?
I got a call from the head coach, David Blatt, who wound up later coaching LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. He asked if I’d consider turning pro and coming to Israel. I met him in New York and after a one-hour workout, I signed a three-year contract to come overseas.
Not many people in the prime of their athletic lives take a yearlong sabbatical from pro sports to join the army, but that’s exactly what you did. I don’t think people know that part of your story either.
My grandmother was one of the oldest Holocaust survivors in the world. She survived the camps for four years. I was closer to her than anyone else in the world. She was an angel who had some of the hardest human suffering imaginable. She was a teenager when her parents were taken away from her and burned in the ovens of Auschwitz. Despite what she endured, she spent the rest of her life loving, giving and sharing.
Damn, that’s heavy bro.
I just wanted to honor her with my service.
You live in Israel but will be back in Baltimore soon. What do you have cooking?
I’m coming back for some speaking engagements and meetings. There will be a Jewish basketball tournament with about 12 teams participating, hosted by my high school coach and mentor, Coach Katz. That’s from December 1-4 at Beth Tfiloh.
On Sunday, December 4th, I’ll also be doing a unity clinic for the African American and Jewish community at the Park Heights Jewish Community Center with Coach Katz and Andre Collins, my good friend who played his college ball at the University of Maryland and Loyola.
You’ve been doing these clinics, teaching the game to youth for over a decade now, in addition to the other things that keep you busy, like working in the front office of an Israeli pro team and your entrepreneurial ventures. What keeps you motivated to keep teaching the gospel of basketball?
Everything that’s going on in the world, the extreme hate, it’s hurting me to see it. I’m a Jewish kid that grew up in Baltimore. I graduated from a predominantly African American Christian school. I roomed in college with a Muslim player, and I played professionally with people from all over the world. I know firsthand that basketball is the greatest platform to bring people together.
I always tell people that basketball is the universal language. You can go anywhere in the world, unable to speak the native tongue, but if you go to a court and can play the game, you’ll walk away with some immediate new friends.
That’s 100 percent true, because what’s important in basketball? Can you play and are you respectful of the game? If you have those two ingredients, you can go anywhere in the world and be embraced.
Unfortunately, injuries ultimately derailed your career by the age of 28, but you still managed to live out your dreams of playing Division I college basketball and as a pro as an orthodox Jew. But you’re still married to the game. Talk about the ending and when you knew the time had come to give it up.
It’s tough when you realize that the thing you love the most, you can never do again. I went through seven years of numerous rehabs, surgeries, physical therapy. I did everything I could and fought to the end. When I was injured, I still read every scouting report so I’d be mentally sharp when I got healthy again.
Ultimately, I realized that I couldn’t play anymore, but the ultimate motivation was always to give back. That was my true calling. Maybe if I stayed healthy and had gaudy statistics, I don’t know if I would have reached my potential as a person. The injuries made me much more creative and much more sensitive. I look at it as a hidden blessing.
At this point in life, other than obviously your family, what are you most thankful for?
I’m thankful that I can now help other players through the game, whether as a teacher, motivator or through the technologies and companies I’m associated with. I have a vast network in the basketball world internationally and I work in the front office for Hapoel Jerusalem in one of the better leagues outside of the NBA. I’m thankful to still be married to the game and to be a resource to help other people fulfill their dreams.