A baggage handler at Baltimore-Washington International Airport recognized a familiar face, a redhead with a crew cut and closely trimmed beard and big kippah, the other day.
“What’s up, Jewish Jordan?” the baggage handler, an African-American, asked Tamir Goodman.
A decade after Goodman earned the distinctive moniker while starring on his yeshiva high school basketball team in Baltimore, Goodman is still a hero in his hometown. His combination of Sabbath-observant piety and laser-passing skills earned predictions of a bright future where frum players had never gone before, but that career never quite materialized.
Now, he is about to step back into the athletic spotlight.
During high school Goodman was a media celebrity, profiled in Sports Illustrated, and he went on to a brief collegiate career at Baltimore Towson’s University. He fought injuries and rumors of underachievement, made aliyah, got married and started raising a family. He served in the army and earned a commendation as his boot camp platoon’s Most Outstanding Soldier, then signed with Israel’s top pro basketball team but ended up playing for a series of lower-level clubs.
It looked like his sports career might be over, but Goodman, now 26, signed last month with the Maccabi Haifa Heat of Israel’s Premier League, the country’s highest professional basketball league, after a two-day tryout at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He played briefly this season with the Maryland Nighthawks of the newly formed Premier Basketball League, spent several weeks practicing and working out in Baltimore, and returns to Israel at the end of August for the start of his team’s pre-season training camp.
“I never gave up,” he said.
“We are delighted to have Tamir join the team,” said Jeffrey Rosen, who became owner of the Haifa Heat a year ago. “We expect that Tamir’s signing will bridge the relationship between the Israeli and American Jewish community, as well as the Israeli and American basketball community.”
Goodman, who identifies himself as a member of the Chabad-Lubavitch chasidic community and calls basketball his distinctive form of shlichus, or religious outreach, will be, as far as he knows, the only religiously observant player in Israel’s pro basketball league. The team is “100 percent” supportive of his no-playing-or-practicing-on-Shabbat policy, he said, adding, “thank God.”
His unwillingness to sacrifice Shabbat for the sake of sports reportedly caused problems in college.
“He’s never forgotten what’s important,” said Chaim Katz, Goodman’s high school basketball coach at the Talmudical Academy.
“Tamir does a lot of charity work,” running racially mixed clinics to which he invites developmentally challenged youth, Katz noted. “He wants to play basketball because he wants to help kids.”
Through Tamir Goodman Charities (www.tamirgoodman.com) he has helped Israeli children affected by Kassam rocket attacks in Sderot.
“He’s living his dream,” Katz said, “He earned his spot” on the Haifa squad. “He’s gotten bigger and stronger — much bigger and stronger. He’s shooting the ball better.”
“I feel great,” Goodman told The Jewish Week in a telephone interview. “My knee” — injured and rehabilitated in recent years — “is great. I feel that I’m at the top of my game right now.”
Goodman, who lives in Givat Shmuel, near Tel Aviv, is moving to Zichron Yaakov, in northern Israel, to be nearer to Haifa. His wife, Judy, a former cross country and track and field star from Cleveland, “is very excited” about his opportunity to keep playing top-level basketball. “We’re in this mission together,” she said.
Maccabi Haifa (www.mhbasket.co.il) is one of the original eight teams in Israel’s Premier League, formed in 1953-‘54. Like other Israeli basketball teams, it has played in the shadow of perennial-champion Maccabi Tel Aviv, and suffered a dip in its on- and off-court success in the 1990s.
Goodman is the first player that Rosen, the team’s American-born owner, has signed this year to turn the Heat’s fortunes around, and both men hope Goodman’s celebrity will increase interest in the game and Israel-diaspora ties.
The “Jewish Jordan” nickname helps. Goodman didn’t choose the label. It embarrassed him at first. Now he reluctantly embraces it. High-visibility branding is a boost to his religious mission, he says.
“I hear it almost every day,” Goodman said. Like the baggage handler at BWI. “I have a feeling it’s going to be like this forever.”