Friday, February 09, 2007

'Jewish Jordan' speaks on balancing basketball with Orthodox faith

By Nathan Edgerton
Princetonian Staff Writer

A six-foot, three-inch point guard took Dillon Gym by storm Wednesday night, effortlessly sinking 19 of 20 shots from just inside the three-point arc. As he spun, dribbled and launched the ball high into the air, the lanky player would have caught the eye of many college coaches.

But he wasn't a high school prospect aiming for a spot in the Princeton men's basketball program. He was Tamir Goodman, a player for an Israeli semiprofessional basketball team, and he was shooting some hoops with rabbi Eitan Webb, director of Princeton Chabad, and two reporters.

Earlier in the evening, over garlic bread and soup at Webb's Nassau Street apartment, Goodman discussed balancing his talent and passion for basketball with his determination to observe the rules of Orthodox Judaism.

Now 25, Goodman first garnered national attention as a junior in high school, averaging 35.4 points per game for the Talmudical Academy of Baltimore. He earned recognition in Sports Illustrated and was interviewed by ESPN, 60 Minutes and Fox Sports. In 11th grade, he was ranked the 25th-best high school player in the country. He was dubbed the "Jewish Jordan," a title he said he has been trying to downplay ever since.

Goodman received a scholarship to the University of Maryland, which has one of the top-ranked basketball teams in the country. The news of his plans to go to Maryland attracted over 700 media requests that week, he said.

But the team's schedule of practices and games would have meant playing on Friday nights and Saturdays, against the rules of Orthodox Judaism.

"They said I'd have to play on Shabbat," he said. "I refused."

Goodman's talent was evident at a young age. As an eighth-grader, he held the starting point-guard position on the varsity high school team of Yeshiva High of Greater Washington. Many rabbis and members of his local Jewish community frowned upon his dedication to basketball, encouraging him to spend more time on religious study.

He enrolled in high school at the Yeshiva of Pittsburgh, which lacked a basketball team. His religious training there convinced him that it was proper to continue playing basketball.

"I learned that I needed to use my talent for Hashem," Goodman said, using the Hebrew term for God.

He enrolled at the Talmudical Academy for his sophomore and junior years, but the school became unhappy with him for allegedly drawing heightened attention to sports and distracting other students from focusing on the Torah. He transferred to Takoma Academy, a Seventh-Day Adventist school that allowed him to study with a rabbi while the other students studied Christian materials.

Following a senior season in which he averaged 25 points per game, he practiced with the Maryland basketball team for the summer.

When he decided not to play for Maryland, Towson University offered him a spot on its men's basketball team.

In December 2001, during his sophomore year at Towson, an incident with his coach led to the end of his season. Irate after a game, Goodman said, his coach "held up a chair like he was going to hit me, then kicked another chair into my leg." Goodman alleges that the coach was anti-Semitic.

Goodman refused to play unless the coach was fired, but Towson did not reprimand the coach.

Two weeks later, he got an offer to train with the Israeli basketball team Maccabi Tel Aviv. After passing the team's skills tests, he signed a three-year contract.

Goodman said he's happy to be playing in Israel but that the atmosphere is different from playing in the U.S.

"I think 100 Israeli fans are louder than 3,000 American fans," he said. "If you don't play well, people start throwing things at you."

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