Tamir Goodman does not see his basketball career as a cautionary tale. There was a purpose, he believes, to the way it all unfolded.
The suffocating hype that mushroomed shortly after Sports Illustrated dubbed Goodman "The Jewish Jordan" while he was still attending Baltimore Talmudical Academy in 1999 certainly created unrealistic expectations for his career. Goodman — who initially committed to attend the University of Maryland, but instead ended playing briefly at Towson University and then overseas — never achieved the level of stardom many predicted. Debilitating injuries to his hands and knees forced him to retire at 28.
But these days, Goodman says he has no regrets. If he had never experienced disappointment, or struggle, he would have never found what he believes is his real purpose in life — helping people.
"How can you help people if you've never struggled before?" Goodman said. "Had I not gone through all that, I never would have been able to relate to kids."
Goodman was in Baltimore Thursday conducting a basketball clinic at the Chimes School for Children with Disabilities, and though he changed very little physically over the years — he is still broom-handle skinny, and keeps his red hair closely-cropped — he looks happier and more at peace than he has in years. Goodman now lives in Cleveland with his wife, Judy, and their three children, but these days, he travels the country putting on clinics and trying to use basketball as a way to bring people together.
"Basketball has so many great lessons," Goodman said. "What do you need to be a great dribbler? You need to bend your knees, stay low, but keep your head up. So what's the lesson behind that? Stay low, stay humble, always be grounded. But also look up, don't always think about yourself. See the world around you. Every little part of the game has a spiritual lesson you can share."
At the Chimes School Thursday, he enthusiastically led a group of special needs kids through layup drills, dishing out encouragement, hugs and high-fives every few seconds, then pumping his fist the rare times a basket was made. Unlike some former athletes who might use a clinic like this as little more than a photo opportunity, Goodman went about his instruction with an obvious patience and tenderness.
"Our kids need every opportunity to be around positive role models," said Mary Schaefer, the Chimes School principal. "A lot of them, if they were in other programs, would be the kids either bullying other kids, or being bullied themselves. So any opportunity you get for any kind of positive reinforcement is really awesome for them. He really had them focused. They tuned right in, they were listening, and he had the right energy level. That was really nice."
The hype that turned Goodman's career at Baltimore Talmudical Academy into a national story was always going to be difficult to live up to. In the pre-YouTube era of the Internet, he became a legend virtually overnight, even though the number of people who had actually seen him play was very small. At one point, after Sports Illustrated profiled him, he was featured on ESPN and 60 Minutes, and when he announced he was going to Maryland, he received nearly 700 media requests a week.
Goodman soon came to understand that — because he was an Orthodox Jew who not only wore his yarmulke on the court but also declined to play on the Shabbat — he wasn't simply playing for himself. He came to represent the hopes of many who shared his religion.
"I didn't really understand what was going on at the time," Goodman said. "I was pretty naive. I was just a young boy who loved basketball. I never thought about what it meant to be a Jewish basketball player. I never wanted the attention."
That pressure, however, was enormous.
"I was very concerned for him," said Rabbi Elchonon Lisbon, who has been the rabbi at the synagogue Goodman's family attended, Chabad of Park Heights, since he was very young. "But I was always amazed at how well he was able to handle himself every step along the way."
The curiosity people had regarding Goodman's career only ballooned after he was awarded the MVP of "Michael Jordan All-Star Capital Classic." But in some respects, that game represented the high point of his athletic career. He still feels somewhat uncomfortable with the "Jewish Jordan" label.
"I never got to meet Michael, but I would like to meet him someday and just apologize for any headaches the whole thing may have caused," Goodman said. "I didn't start it. I never asked to be called the Jewish Jordan. But once that name came along, I just tried to use it to help inspire others."