FOR A boy growing up in New York in the 1960s, several players on the Mets were worthy of adoration: Tom Seaver, the pitcher destined for baseball's Hall of Fame; the fleet-footed outfielder Tommie Agee or even Ron Swoboda, a Dundalk native who stole the hearts of Orioles' fans with his diving catch in the 1969 World Series.
A Jewish youth then, however, also had to reserve a corner of his heart for Art Shamsky, a fringe player and a rare Jew in the major leagues. Hebrew school lessons about the importance of religious custom were driven home by the fact that Mr. Shamsky wouldn't play on the Jewish High Holy Days. Wow, the kid in Hebrew school thought, this faith stuff must be important.
The Tamir Goodman story rekindles such emotions. He's the Orthodox Jewish high school basketball player from Pikesville whose raw talent is apparently so impressive that he has already been offered a future scholarship to play at the University of Maryland -- and he still has another year of high school.
The story has received much attention because it's so complex and curious: It's not every day that one of the best college basketball teams in the country courts a player whose religion forbids him from playing between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath. (There's talk the school will petition to shift Saturday games to the evenings.) Or whose wearing of a yarmulke, or skullcap, poses a conflict with rules that outlaw "head wear" on the court.
A high school star
This tale has a long way to go before the lanky, 6-foot-3 redhead at the Talmudical Academy in Pikesville steps on the court for the Terrapins. He wouldn't play college ball until the 2000-01 season at the earliest, and it's not automatic that a high school star makes the team or gets off the bench in Division I basketball.
That Tamir has garnered this much ink on the sports pages, however, is uplifting for many Jews, who admire their ethnic heroes in the arts, medicine and other endeavors, but rarely in big-time sports.
As Baltimorean M. Hirsh Goldberg wrote in his book, "The Jewish Paradox," Jews crave sports heroes of their own partly to combat the stereotype of Jews as "thinkers instead of doers." Or, as Henry Ford put it more viciously in 1921, "Jews are not sportsmen. Whether this is due to their physical lethargy, their dislike of unnecessary physical action or their serious cast of mind -- it is nevertheless a fact which discriminating Jews unhesitatingly acknowledge."
Earlier this century, the hard-scrabble, urban Jewish ghettoes produced athletes who became famous in their own right: pro basketball star Dolph Schayes; pioneering pro quarterback Sid Luckman; Hank Greenberg, a home-run hitter who was the highest paid major-leaguer in the years immediately before World War II; and the best-known Jewish ballplayer of all, the great pitcher Sandy Koufax. But the assimilation of Jews and the opening of professions once closed by bigotry parallel a drop in Jewish sports idols. Another effect of the melting pot is that the Jewishness of an athlete is not always emphasized: the heritage of gold-medal swimmer Mark Spitz was little noted before terrorists stormed the Olympic village in 1972.
Tamir's nickname -- "JJ" for "Jewish Jordan" -- isn't the only indication of the thirst among Jews for one of their own to cheer in the sports world. There are so few Jewish-born stars that the comic Adam Sandler named Rod Carew, a black baseball star of the '60s and '70s, in his hit "The Hanukkah Song" about Jewish pop-culture icons, chiming in with the explanation: "He converted."
Web sites are even devoted to this arcane topic. One, JewishSports.com, names Pittsburgh Steeler punter Josh Miller as its "Jewish athlete of the month" and profiles Jay Fiedler, a substitute quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings. Incidentally, Mr. Miller and Mr. Fiedler are part of a quartet of Jewish players in the NFL.
Gary Williams, the University of Maryland basketball coach, exhibits courage in pursuing a student-athlete whose religion compels basketball to be a secondary devotion. The school has come a long way from the mid-1980s when Bobby Ross, its last successful football coach, was informed by two Jewish players that they couldn't play on a Saturday that coincided with Yom Kippur, an annual holy day of fasting and repentance. Mr. Ross was quoted at the time: "Couldn't you do Yom Kippur another day?"
A lot of people who have never seen Tamir's shine will pray -- er, wish -- that he prospers.
Andrew Ratner is a deputy editorial page editor.
Pub Date: 1/25/99