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Under Glare of Media Spotlight, Yeshiva Star Pursues Hoop Dreams

March 23, 1999
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

It’s unlikely that the annual high school basketball tournament at Yeshiva University has ever experienced anything like the kind of media attention it got this year.

Reporters from The Wall Street Journal, “60 Minutes II” and the New York tabloids flocked to Y.U.’s campus in Manhattan over the weekend to cover the competition — as did a record number of 1,100 fans.

“We’re not used to this,” said Richard Zerneck, Y.U.’s athletic director. “It’s a phenomenon.”

Just one player created all the frenzy: Tamir Goodman.

Goodman, a gangly, 6-foot 3-inch junior who plays for the Talmudical Academy of Baltimore, is one of the major sports stories of the year. Not in Jewish sports, or in high school sports, but in sports. Period.

An Orthodox Jew who plays wearing a yarmulka, Goodman, nicknamed the “Jewish Jordan,” has given a verbal commitment to play for the University of Maryland basketball team after he graduates in the spring of 2000.

The university has told Goodman, who has short red hair and wears wire-rimmed glasses for reading, that it will try to create a miracle: During Goodman’s tenure, the high-powered school would play no games from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday to avoid any conflict with Goodman’s observance of Shabbat. If not, Goodman has made it clear that he will skip those games.

Goodman, 17, one of seven sons, has already come under a lot of pressure to perform on the court, even more than the average high school phenom.

After all, how many of them have had a four-page spread in Sports Illustrated headlined, “An Unorthodox Player,” as Goodman did in the magazine’s Feb. 1 issue?

In the tournament in New York, he lives up to his star billing. He averages 45 points a game in his team’s first two games — a win against Shalhevet and an overtime loss to Valley Torah, both of which are in Los Angeles.

In a game against a Long Island school, Hebrew Academy of Five Towns and Rockaway, on Sunday, the crowd monitors his every move. Some are loudly in his corner, groaning when he misses shots or commits a turnover; others appear to be relishing his every mistake.

Unfortunately for the Great Orthodox Hope, there are more than his usual share on Sunday.

Goodman is heavily guarded all game long. As a result, he must rely on his teammates, who are unable to come to the fore — his squad’s other standout has a broken leg.

He still scores a game-high 13 points, including six straight early in the fourth quarter, and gives his team a chance to tie in the final seconds when he finds an open teammate under the basket for a gametying lay-up.

The shot is missed, and Talmudical Academy goes down to defeat.

But the pressure that Goodman experiences as a star player is just part of his burden: As the lone savior of the Orthodox sports world, he has also become a role model for Orthodox kids.

When he travels, says a family friend, Jewish children sometimes accompany him to shul to watch him daven, or pray.

Goodman shows that you “can be good at basketball and religious at the same time,” says Evy Evron, 14, a local fan. “It’s good to feel so much pride for `our team,’ the Jews.”

Competitor Hillie Goldman, 18, says that “as long he stays true to Judaism and he doesn’t sell out to the NBA and remains a kiddush hashem, that’s all that matters.” Goldman refers to the term for sanctifying God’s name just minutes after his team, HAFTR, defeats Talmudical Academy.

It’s a burden that Goodman has admitted wears on him at times, but at a news conference after Sunday’s game, he said he welcomes it.

“I realize I’m a role model for Jewish kids. If during a game like today, I curse a lot, that’s not very Jewish,” he said. “God gave me these talents and if I use them in the wrong way, he could take them away from me.”

Some rabbis at his school, concerned about an over-emphasis on secular success and idol worship, are wary of Goodman’s role-model status.

But his coach, Harold Katz, isn’t concerned. Learning Torah, Katz said at the news conference, is paramount, but after that, “don’t give up doing what you want to do.”

Goodman, who’s not concerned that he will be tempted by outside influences at Maryland, appears to be doing just that.

During the second quarter of Sunday’s game, Goodman makes a move that he later calls “instinctual.”

His kipah falls off his head during a scramble for a rebound, and before dribbling the ball up court, he pauses to bend down and puts it back on his head.

The crowd roars its approval.

It’s moves like these that lead one fan, Fredda Finkelstein, a teacher for another school playing in the tournament, Hillel Community Day School of Florida, to say the words a mother loves to hear, “He plays like a mensch.”

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