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When Basketball Is a Matter of Faith By IRA BERKOW

Fifty or so basketball players — college players or college bound — were shooting in the gymnasium at the State University of New York at Stony Brook last Sunday. Amid the thump of balls, the snap of nets and the morning sunlight streaking in from windows, one would hardly have picked out the skinny, redheaded kid as unusual.

Among the players trying out for the American team to the Maccabiah Games in Israel next summer, the thin redhead was not as physically impressive as others. He was, however, the only player wearing a yarmulke, a small, round, light-blue skullcap pinned in place.

There was little definition to his arms and legs, and at 6 feet 3 inches and 170 pounds, he seemed even smaller and slighter, this despite a rigorous weight-training schedule in which he has gained 35 pounds in the last two years. At 18 years old — and having graduated from high school in June — his face retains the youthful quality of someone even younger. He seemed almost out of place in this gym of athletes, perhaps over his head. But could looks be deceiving?

This was Tamir Goodman, and, under closer observation, one could discern a certain grace, an unmistakable intensity, the palpable confidence of an athlete in his moves, in the way he handled the ball, even his light banter with other players.

In the past two years, Goodman has had a great deal of attention thrust on him. It began when he played for Talmudical Academy in his hometown, Baltimore — the academy is a yeshiva, or Orthodox Jewish parochial school — and averaged 37 points a game. He played point guard, shooting guard, small forward and anything else that was needed, with a repertory that included effortless no-look passes and spectacular dunks.

He was being hailed as the Jewish Jordan, a hunk of pressure capable of sinking the greatest of young talents, even emerging pros, let alone a kid from a school that emphasized Torah study over the pick and roll.

The yeshiva’s gym held barely 100 spectators. When it was announced that Goodman was headed to the University of Maryland, the ensuing publicity and growing interest forced home games to be moved to the Loyola College Arena, which was filled to capacity, with 3,000 spectators and hundreds turned away.

Some yeshiva officials frowned upon the attention. Basketball, they believed, was something too much of the material world, and detracted from study of Torah, considered broadly as the body of Jewish religious literature that includes the Scripture and the Talmud.

In his senior year, seeking better competition, Goodman transferred to Takoma Academy in nearby Takoma Park, Md., a Seventh-day Adventist school that observed the Sabbath on the same days he did. Goodman did well enough at Takoma that an assistant coach for Towson University, Julius Allen, who scouted Goodman, said, ”I’m a New York guy, and it’s obvious that Tamir could go into Harlem or anywhere and play well and be comfortable doing it.”

An Offer From Maryland

At Takoma, Goodman averaged 25 points a game, but ”shared the sugar,” hoops jargon for providing assists, with an average of nine a game. This generous attitude surely contributed to ”T,” as he was called there, being popular with his teammates.

While the high school leagues Goodman played in were of less than the highest caliber, the Maryland basketball coach, Gary Williams, offered him a scholarship in his junior year. Goodman accepted, saying that he could not play games or practice on the Sabbath, from sundown Friday to an hour after sundown Saturday.

He is from a family of nine children. One of his brothers is a rabbi and another is studying to be a rabbi. Observation of Orthodox Jewish rituals and teachings is the center of their lives.

”As much as I wanted to play college basketball, I knew that basketball is temporary, but God is forever,” Goodman recalled. ”I don’t want to do anything that might put me in disfavor in the eyes of God.” He explained this to Williams.

”It’s do-able,” Williams said.

A year later, Williams, having watched Goodman scrimmage against some Maryland players, had second thoughts. ”In the spring and summer he didn’t play well — he may have been hurting with a knee,” Williams recalled. In fact, Goodman had sprained a ligament in his knee, and was given medical advice not to play.

”I wanted to play, but I was a bonehead for doing it when I was injured,” he said. ”I was just a 16-year-old kid, and I could hardly move.” Goodman shot 4 for 14 in the scrimmages.

Williams said, ”We called him in and said we would still honor the scholarship, but would he be happy not playing?”

”The whole story is that if he’s a star player, you might make more concessions,”Williams added. ”But if you’re an eighth or ninth man, you take your chances. If you can’t play, and the other guy does the job in your absence, he should play. Every once in a while, you make a mistake. We made a mistake.”

Goodman did not want to go to a school that was no longer interested in him. But coaches at Towson University, a Division I school in the America East Conference, five miles from Goodman’s home, had followed his career, and wanted him, seeing great potential primarily as a point guard.

”What we especially like about Tamiris his attitude and floor leadership,” Towson Coach Mike Jaskulski said. ”He sees the whole court, and he’s one of these players who makes his teammates better.”

What about the Sabbath restrictions on his playing? ”I told Tamir and his parents that I would do everything I could to work it out,” Jaskulski said. Towson went to Chris Monasch, commissioner of the America East Conference. Would the league make some adjustments in the scheduling and allow Towson to play on Thursday and Saturday nights or Sundays whenever possible? The answer was yes.

”In an educational setting,” Monasch said, ”we’re not about to create anything that would be an obstacle to someone’s religious beliefs. Within the confines of cost, of building availability and classroom requirements, we try to balance things out. This isn’t a first. We have Jewish coaches who we’ve made similar scheduling accommodations for regarding Jewish holidays in the fall.”

A Role at Towson

Playing Division I basketball at Towson — even though the competition is considered a notch or two below that of Maryland and the Atlantic Coast Conference — is ”a dream come true,” Goodman said.

”My whole life, people have been saying, ‘Put down the basketball; it’ll never be possible for you to go further than high school ball,’ ” he said. ”And in the yeshiva, basketball was looked down upon by a lot of people. Well, I live my life by the teachings in the Torah. But I can’t be sitting around and studying the Torah all day. I need to be running and jumping. Basketball is a great passion for me. It’s been that way since I was 7 or 8 years old. Trying to do what you do best is worthwhile. That’s got to be in the Torah somewhere.”

He said: ”Torah and basketball go hand in hand for me. Torah makes me a better basketball player because it emphasizes good character, integrity and responsibility. You have to be on time, respect others and work hard.”

Goodman said he had been disappointed by Maryland’s decision. ”I believe I could play for Maryland,” he said. ”I respect them, but I don’t respect how they went about dealing with me. They aren’t enemies. I just move on. And I feel very privileged that Towson did what it did for me.”

Adam Ginsburg, an assistant coach at Towson and assistant coach for the United States Maccabiah team, said that Goodman knows he will not be expected to carry the team at Towson, which was 11-17 last season.

”He’ll play a role,” Ginsburg said, ”but we have several veterans returning and the responsibility will be shared.”

Goodman’s mother, Chava, is happy that he is going to Towson. ”Coach Jaskulski emphasized academics over basketball, and that showed me proper priorities,” she said. Goodman is an honor student who would like one day to work in sports, with children, though before that he would be open to a pro career ”some place.”

”We’re so proud of Tamir,” Chava Goodman said. ”He’s a young man who always tries to do the right thing. He does the chores required of him, runs errands, throws out the garbage. And he brings me roses every week for shabbos,” — the Sabbath.

Goodman had driven from Baltimore to Stony Brook last week, spending Friday night in a rabbi’s home and missing the Saturday afternoon and evening workouts. He showed up at the gym at about 9 p.m. Saturday, and shot baskets in some drills; he felt he never quite got the stiffness out of his body, and was unhappy with his performance.

Larry Shyatt, the head coach at Clemson University who volunteered to be head coach of the American basketball team for the Maccabiah Games, observed Goodman’s workout. ”He’s a wonderful kid,” Shyatt said, ”but his shooting, that’s his major deficiency.”

Shyatt also described Goodman as a player with ”great savvy in the open court, a very diligent worker and very serious about his basketball, and all the hoopla has not ill-affected him.”

Goodman was so unhappy with his play on Saturday night that he rose at 6 the next morning and, although practice was not scheduled until 10, he was in the gym at 7 to work on his game. ”I’m constantly being tested,” he said. ”But I believe the saying that God doesn’t put on you more than you can handle.”

He thought he could handle the competition in the tryouts. After all, this summer he has played in a fast Baltimore summer league, with local products like Sam Cassell of the Milwaukee Bucks. In the Capitol Classic last April, a game that brings together the best high-school players in the Washington, D.C., area, Goodman was named co-most valuable player.

A Strong Finish

On defense in a full-court scrimmage at Stony Brook, Goodman allowed his man to go backdoor on the first play. But Goodman continued to hustle as a defender and played effectively from that point. He looked for and hit the open man with passes, though on occasion he forced a pass. He missed his first jump shot, from 3-point range. Undeterred, and without hesitation, he shot the next time he was free, and scored from about 25 feet out.

In quick order, Goodman took another shot from about the same spot, and sank that one. Open in the corner, he swished another 3-pointer. In between, there were a couple of air balls, but also a slashing drive for a hoop, a slashing drive and a good dish-off for a basket, a rebound and a double-pump scoop under the basket for two points and several more outside jump shots that found the mark.

Afterward, Shyatt said he had liked what he saw, especially the shooting that seemed to improve overnight. ”He’s got deficiencies,” Shyatt said, ”but they’re correctable. He has a good chance to make the team.”

A second tryout session will be held in April.

Goodman had suffered bruises — the competition was stiff and uncompromising — but he was not displeased with his play on Sunday. Goodman went over to several of the other players, congratulating them on their play, and paid his respects to the coaches. But he did not have time to hang around.

On his return to Baltimore, Goodman wanted to make a side trip to a cemetery in Queens, to visit the grave of Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the revered leader of the Lubavitch Hasidic movement, who died six years ago.

”I want to ask him for a blessing,” Goodman said, tugging on his sweats. And as quickly as he would make a move to the basket, the tall redhead with the blue yarmulke, his equipment bag swinging at his side, was out the door and on his way.

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