Playing basketball with a mission

Athlete: For Talmudical Academy junior Tamir Goodman, the basketball court is a place to live his Orthodox Jewish faith.

January 24, 1999|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

When his mother visited Israel in November, Tamir Goodman asked her to bring him back one thing: a sky-blue yarmulke. The color would match his basketball uniform at the Talmudical Academy in Pikesville.

"You should have seen Tamir's face when he got that yarmulke," Chava Goodman, his mother, said. "He cried, `I love it! I love it!'

"He has worn it ever since."

To Goodman, an Orthodox Jew, the skullcap represents the two things closest to his heart: Judaism and basketball. At 17, he is learned enough to lead the mincha (pronounced MIN-kah) afternoon prayer in Hebrew at his synagogue, and athletic enough to have been offered a scholarship in two years to the University of Maryland.

Frequently, his religious and secular worlds overlap.

After completing a 24-hour religious fast, Goodman placed second in a local slam-dunk contest last summer.

When he was bar mitzvahed, he flipped over his favorite gift, a ball autographed by the then-Washington Bullets. Encased in Plexiglas, itis kept out of reach on a shelf in his family's den.

Though he reveres Michael Jordan -- Goodman's bedroom is plastered with posters of the former NBA star -- he never saw Jordan play. "He [Jordan] always seemed to come here on Saturdays [the Jewish Sabbath]," Goodman said. "I was so upset."

Keeping the Sabbath is one of the tenets of his Orthodox faith. But the difficulty of doing that at Maryland, with its slate of weekend games, represents a potential for conflict between Goodman's athletic dreams and his Jewish roots.

The 6-foot-3 high school junior steadfastly refuses to play from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday in college.

Maryland says it may try to juggle its schedule around him.

What outsiders see as friction, Goodman and his family view as a balancing act between the ballplayer's spiritual and temporal lives.

He prays -- and plays -- for about 1 1/2 hours, daily. Jewish studies take another four hours. Add the rigors of an 11-hour day at Talmudical Academy, and the clock is running out.

"Time management is what I do," said Goodman, who gets six hours of sleep at night. Calisthenics, he does on the fly. Around the house, he routinely drops to the floor, does 20 push-ups and bounces back up to be on his way.

Like many teen-agers, Goodman crashes on weekends to catch up on his sleep, after meeting his religious obligations. On a recent Friday, just before dusk, Goodman drove the family to synagogue. For 10 minutes, he stood before the congregation and read in Hebrew from the pulpit prayer book. After the 90-minute service, the Goodmans walked home, a distance of nearly a mile, because they observe the Orthodox proscription against using machinery on the Sabbath.

His rabbi calls Goodman "an average kid who has his own mission of bringing holiness to this world through basketball."

The rabbi, Elchonon Lisbon, leads a local branch of Lubavitch Jews, a sect of Orthodox Judaism that promotes outreach to the nonobservant through personal example.

`A God-given gift'

"Tamir is confident that this is a God-given gift," said Lisbon, "and he is determined to utilize it, to make spirituality for all people as apparent as possible. That's how he views it, and that's what makes him tick."

Goodman's visibility in basketball fits the mold, the rabbi said.

"I've heard Tamir say that he achieves more on the court when he goes out as a role model than when he has a personal agenda," he said.

On the floor, Goodman exudes confidence -- why not, he says God is on his side -- galvanizing crowds with crossover dribbles and 30-foot bombs and Jordanesque drives to the basket. Goodman wears No. 22; his hero was No. 23. "He [Jordan] is one step higher than me," Goodman quipped.

The on-court swagger vanishes off it. His personal life is characterized by humility, evident at school and at home.

"One only has to observe Tamir pray to see how seriously he takes his religion," said Rabbi Moshe Hauer, chairman of Talmudical's board of education. "He prays with a great deal of modesty and piety."

At home in Pikesville, Goodman's bedroom in the basement of the family's two-story house is adorned with photographs that show both sides of his personality. There are slam-dunks frozen and framed, as well as a humbling shot of the Terp-to-be getting chewed out by his high school coach.

"Hey, I was playing bad that day," Goodman said of the photo. "Besides, it's a good picture."

Even on fast breaks, the blue yarmulke is a must. If it falls to the floor, Goodman retrieves it immediately and fastens it to his hair. It's more crucial to his identity than his pair of Air Jordans.

At last count, Goodman owned nine pairs of basketball shoes and God knows how many yarmulkes. He listens to Jewish music as well as to Mariah Carey, Styx and his favorite, The Doors.

A citizen of both the United States and Israel, Goodman gave interviews recently to Sports Illustrated and the Jerusalem Post.

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