The Jewish Jordan Subs Out
Former phenom Tamir Goodman now coaches kids who idolize his NBA pal, Omri Casspi. What happened?
Most of the 130 kids at the Omri Casspi basketball camp in Cleveland are not particularly gifted athletes. After being called for fouls, the young kids continue to double—and even triple—dribble. They are at the basketball camp mainly to meet their idol, Omri Casspi, the first Israeli to play in the NBA.
“Omri! Omri!” they yell, pulling at his shirt, when he walks into the room.
“Have you ever met Michael Jordan?” one asks.
In the back of the Fuchs Mizrachi Jewish Day School auditorium, near boxes filled with red “House of Omri” T-shirts, stands the camp director. He is 6 foot 3 and wears a Casspi T-shirt over his tzitzit. It’s noon—lunchtime—and he’s busy. He pops the lid off the yogurt cup for one kid, checks on a fourth-grader who skinned his knee during practice, and then walks over to Casspi. The camp’s namesake is leaning back in a plastic chair, sucking down a bottle of water, trying to recover from his 24th-birthday festivities the night before. The director motions for Casspi to address the eager group of young Jewish basketball fans.
A few screeches and scratches of the microphone later, Casspi, in loose gray basketball shorts and a five-o’clock shadow, starts speaking to the kids, sprawled on their backs and stomachs on the court. But instead of talking about his own accomplishments, he begins with a speech about the camp director. For the kids, who’d rather probe Casspi for his deepest thoughts, like his favorite ice-cream flavor, the speech is boring. But for anyone who had followed the national basketball story over the last decade, it would have been a dramatic story.
That’s because the camp director is none other than Tamir Goodman, the high-school basketball phenom nicknamed the “Jewish Jordan,” whose professional basketball career fizzled early. “I don’t know how many of you guys know this,” Casspi tells the kids. “But I played against Tamir in Israel. What stood out to me then—and what stands out to me now—is how humble he was. He always had his legs on the ground, and he knew at all times who he was,” he says. “You have a lot to learn from Tamir.”
Thirteen years ago, when he was 17, Goodman was famous for the combination of his amazing shooting touch and his yarmulke. Touted in the pages of Sports Illustrated and profiled on ESPN, the Orthodox Jewish high-school student was an icon for every aspiring Jewish athlete. The day Goodman committed to the University of Maryland, sportscasters spent hours of airtime forecasting his future, prophesying that the Orthodox Jew could become one of the NCAA’s best players. But having “Jordan” attached to your name is a burden to bear, especially for a skinny teenager whose shoulder muscles had not yet fully developed—and whose talent might never live up to others’ stratospheric expectations. And for an athlete just as committed to God as to the game, it can be nearly impossible to reach the upper echelons of a sport that demands your attention and focus seven days a week, with no time off for Shabbat. In Goodman’s case, it was.
Meanwhile, as Goodman was being touted in the pages of American sports magazines, a tall, slightly overweight, secular Israeli teenager named Omri Casspi was challenging neighborhood kids to pick-up games on a public basketball court near Tel Aviv. Far from the glare of cameras and reporters, Casspi was able to develop from awkward second-stringer on Maccabi Tel Aviv, the premier team in Israel, in 2005, into the country’s best-known athlete and a starter on the Sacramento Kings in 2009, cavorting with supermodels and posing for cereal-box covers.
“Omri is the story of the underdog, the self-made man,” says David Blatt, the coach of Maccabi Tel Aviv, who has worked with both athletes. And Goodman’s is the story of how the weight of expectations can overwhelm a young athlete. “Even today the term ‘Jewish Jordan’ makes me cringe because it did such a disservice to him,” Blatt says. Despite their different trajectories, however, Casspi and Goodman would discover they had more in common than they realized. They would share the same agent, Steven Heumann; the same team uniform, Maccabi Tel Aviv; and then, in 2011, the same Cleveland area code. Though geography brought the two together, their shared experiences are what united them. When Casspi started faltering on the court, it was Goodman who could relate, bringing the star closer to Judaism and grounding him in his roots. And Goodman, who’d lost much of his connection to professional basketball, found a second wind supporting his friend.
“I believe we were brought together to help each other,” Goodman says.
On a Sunday night in August, Goodman walks from his backyard in University Heights, a suburb of Cleveland, to the playground of Garrity Elementary School. He’s wearing a white baseball cap and carrying a scrapbook of his basketball career, from age 5 to age 27, when he left the game for good. “I find it’s easier,” he says, “to tell my story through pictures.” Goodman was born in 1982 to an Orthodox family in Baltimore, Md. The seventh of nine children, Goodman worshiped his older brother Reuven, copying everything he did. When Reuven started playing high-school basketball, his little brother followed. While the teenage boys shot layups and dribbled balls around and under their legs, 7-year-old Tamir sat, observing. During breaks, the younger Goodman asked their coach, Chaim “Harold” Katz, for his own drills to practice. Katz was both amused and annoyed.
“It was just me coaching, I had no assistants then,” Katz remembers. “I thought if I gave the kid some drills, he’d leave me alone.” Instead, the opposite happened. After practice, Goodman would beg Katz for a critique of his skills. Later, Goodman would ride his bike in circles around Katz’s house, waiting for the coach to come home. The minute he arrived, Goodman would throw himself at the coach, asking him to demonstrate a move he’d just seen on TV or to check out his left-handed shot. Eventually, Katz accepted Goodman’s presence as an inevitability and even started looking forward to the questions.
Rebecca Meiser is a freelance writer living in Cleveland.