|THE JEWISH JORDAN|
|By Pauline Dubkin Yearwood (12/09/2011)|
|Don’t call him the Jewish Jordan.Not even JJ.
Tamir Goodman is much too polite to say so, but he has let it be known that the nickname he earned when he was a basketball phenom in high school is one he’s been trying to live down since his professional career didn’t go the way of that other superstar.
He has no regrets about that. In fact, he sees it as a message from G-d, telling him that he was supposed to do what he is doing now, running basketball camps infused with Jewish values.
That’s what Goodman will be doing for several weeks in Chicago later this month. Thanks to a grant from the iCenter, a Northbrook think tank and educational incubator, he will lead two of his Coolanu Israel Basketball Camps in the area, one from Dec. 20-22 at Joy of the Game in Deerfield and one from Dec. 27-29 at Anshe Emet Synagogue on Chicago’s North Side.
The camps are designed for boys and girls from third through eighth grades and consist of skills training, games, guest speakers and an awards banquet. A separate training session for high school and college coaches precedes each session.
But there’s much more to the camps, which Goodman runs all over the country.
“Judaism teaches us to use our talents to bring light and goodness to the world,” he said in a recent phone interview. “Through basketball, I want to bring together the entire Jewish community, so together we can all grow physically and spiritually to our highest potential and do as much good as we can.”
“Coolanu,” he notes, is a Hebrew word meaning “all of us.”
If that sounds like a tall order for a basketball camp, it shouldn’t surprise anyone considering Goodman’s history.
That history has been a series of ups and downs, although he says that today he doesn’t see it that way.
The lanky redhead grew up in Baltimore in an Orthodox family, with six brothers and two sisters. He began playing basketball at five and gained national attention as a junior in high school. Playing for the Talmudical Academy of Baltimore in 1999, he averaged 35.4 points a game, a record that even the original Jordan couldn’t boast.
In 11th grade, he was ranked the 25th-best high school player in the country and dubbed “the Jewish Jordan” by Sports Illustrated. That magazine, plus ESPN, “60 Minutes,” Fox Sports and many others ran stories about him, creating an atmosphere of what a Baltimore Sun writer called “suffocating hype” that led to unrealistic expectations about his career, many say.
The fact that he wore a yarmulke secured with bobby pins on the court and tucked his tzitzits under his jersey only added to the mystique surrounding him.
Goodman himself says he took pride in becoming friends with a Muslim student and students of several different religions and ethnicities during high school and college.
After high school, he received a scholarship to the University of Maryland, which had one of the top-ranked teams in the country. That garnered even more media attention, but there was a hitch: contrary to earlier expectations, Goodman would have had to play on Friday nights and Saturdays, something he had never done.
He declined the scholarship, but accepted one from nearby Towson University, which allowed him to sit out games on Shabbat. His freshman and sophomore years were undistinguished, with Goodman averaging six points a game in his freshman year in 2000-2001. In his sophomore year, there were allegations of anti-Semitism and a complaint, later dismissed by the school, against a coach over a locker room fracas.
He left Towson after his sophomore year and fulfilled a dream of his by moving to Israel, where he signed a three-year contract with Maccabi Tel Aviv, the premier team in Israel’s top basketball league. To get more playing time, he was loaned to a team in a lower league, and played for several more lower-tier teams during the 2003-04 season.
He also served in the Israel Defense Forces, where he suffered a knee injury that required surgery. After nine months of physical therapy, he returned to Giv’at Shmuel, one of the lower league teams, to fulfill his contract, averaging just seven minutes of playing time a game during the 2005-06 season.
After his contract was up, he joined another team, where he played more than 20 minutes and scored close to 20 points a game during his first two games. But his knee gave out and his doctors ordered more physical therapy.
While in Israel, he met his future wife, Judy. Today they have four children.
In 2007, Goodman moved back to Maryland to play for the Maryland Nighthawks in the newly formed Premier Basketball League, but broke his finger during his first game and was not able to play further with the Nighthawks.
In 2008, he signed with Maccabi Haifa, but injuries continued to plague him, and in September 2009, he announced at a press conference that he would retire from playing basketball at age 28. He would devote his time instead to an Israeli program that raised money to help disadvantaged children attend basketball games, he said.
Since then, he has coached boys and girls basketball teams at a Jewish day school outside of Cleveland and traveled the country speaking at Jewish day schools and running his basketball camps.
Today, he says, he looks back on his professional career not as a failure or even a struggle, but as a gift, and a lesson, from G-d.
“I played professionally until 2009,” he begins. “I played Division I basketball without playing on Shabbat. That’s an unbelievable miracle, an unbelievable journey I’ve been through. Every spot throughout my career was another experience that was preparing me for what I’m doing now. The ups and downs and challenges of my career were divinely ordained to prepare me for this.”
“This” means the non-profit Coolanu Israel camps, in which, Goodman says, “we’re able to use basketball as a tool to advance Jewish athletes’ skills to each kid’s highest potential.”
But there’s much more. “Behind every dribble, pass and shot, they’re going to be infused with Jewish values, with a connection to Israel, with positive encouragement. With everything I’ve experienced throughout my career, I believe more than ever that basketball was given to me to help and inspire other people, especially kids. Everything I went through in my career was divinely ordained for that,” he says.
So far, he says, he has worked with more than 30,000 Jewish youths in camps and clinics. There’s also a coaches’ component and a DVD he’s made for those who can’t take the training in person, demonstrating drills and “the Coolanu philosophy behind each drill.”
“For every physical thing in the world there is a spiritual counterpart, and coaches should realize when they are training youth they are not just training them to play basketball,” he says.
Rabbi Matt Futterman of Anshe Emet Synagogue saw Goodman in action when the hoop star came to the synagogue last summer as part of a “Journey to Mitzvot” bar and bat mitzvah preparation seminar for sixth graders. He offered some basketball coaching, talked to the students and ran a basketball clinic for high schoolers.
“I don’t think we’ve ever had such a positive response,” Futterman said in a recent phone conversation. “He is a great role model of somebody whose Jewish beliefs have dictated his choices in life both professionally and personally.”
Goodman has a charismatic personality, he says, and “kids love to play basketball with him because he is very professional – the way he talks with them, plays with them, the fact that he made decisions in his life that put his Jewish observance over anything else.”
It’s a message that Futterman says is important to convey to youths. “Kids today are under so much pressure to get into the right schools and so forth, and here is somebody who has made sacrifices but doesn’t see it as a sacrifice. They were impressed with his integrity as much as with his sports facility.”
Futterman says he talked with Goodman about doing something for students who aren’t going away over winter break, and the idea for the December basketball camps was born. Local coaches and high school and college students will assist Goodman in running the camps.
Josh Gleicher, athletic director at Chicagoland Jewish High School in Deerfield, had a similarly positive experience when Goodman ran a clinic at the school.
“He spoke about his journey for about a half hour, 45 minutes,” Gleicher says. “I think the best thing about having someone like Tamir come in and work with the students is that they see you can have success but also be a Jew, be proud of your identity. Tamir is really a proud Jew and he is a role model for these students.”
Goodman’s basketball prowess was also impressive, Gleicher says. “He has a wealth of knowledge in basketball, and this was a really great opportunity to have the kids see him and work with him. He is a guy that really has a strong basketball message, and on top of that, he has a strong Jewish message as well.”
Goodman’s talk helped the students to realize that “you don’t have to sacrifice your religion to sports. There are opportunities to be successful without doing that. It was a great speech, a great presentation. The whole experience is something the students will be able to take away with them very positively,” he says.
That’s exactly what Goodman is hoping for.
“Coaches should realize when they are training youth they are not just training basketball,” he says. “For example, defensive drills, shooting, passing, dribbling – there are all sorts of messages underneath these basketball components.”
Dribbling, for instance, can teach kids “be low to the ground and keep your head up, and you’ll be quicker and stronger. There is the same message in life. Judaism teaches us that we need to be humble, deeply rooted in our identity but keep our heads up. Don’t be satisfied by our own accomplishments but help others.”
Shooting the ball involves preparation. “We need to be prepared mentally and physically,” he says. “Every time a Jewish athlete steps on the court they are representing Judaism, representing Israel.”
As for himself, “I’ve been fortunate enough to play and coach at the best basketball camps in the world, and now I’m able to bring these drills and unite them with Jewish values and connection to Israel and give an incredible experience through sports.”
He conveys these messages to students in other communities and to youths with disabilities as well, he says. “You can bring communities together through sports. A lot of the messages in Judaism are universal messages.”
Those messages, he says, have been received very positively everywhere he has conveyed them. “The feedback has been incredible,” he says. “It is a positive philosophy based on Jewish values. We treasure life, we treasure each kid. Each is extremely special in their own way, and we try to help each kid reach their potential, give them self confidence, enhance their identity.”
Sports, he says, “has done so much good for me in my life. I need more than ever now to have these camps, clinics and seminars and show the positive side of sports. When used the right way, there is a tremendous holiness and good that can come out through sports.” In his speeches and DVDs, he advises coaches and parents to “always use sports as a positive, not a negative.”
For himself, although he no longer plays professional sports, “I’m so grateful for the opportunities I have and so excited,” he says. “It’s a continuation of my career, still using basketball as the path to do this. We are supposed to do as much good as possible.”
To register for the Coolanu Israel Basketball Camps, register online at CoolanuIsrael.org. For more information, contact Diane Halivni at email@example.com or (847) 254-2024.