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The Jewish Jordan Subs Out

Former phenom Tamir Goodman now coaches kids who idolize his NBA pal, Omri Casspi. What happened?

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Tamir Goodman and Omri Casspi. (Sarah Lazarovic)

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.

Goodman was a quick learner. At 10, Katz says, he was “probably already a better free-throw shooter than anyone else we had on the high-school team.” In seventh grade—at age 12—Goodman played on the varsity team at Yeshiva High. In eighth grade, he led the team in scoring.

People often talk about sports in religious terms, but for Goodman, Judaism was his one and only religion. His father, Karl, was an attorney who wore his yarmulke to court. His mother, Chava, had served in the Israeli army. And his grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, lived with the family for six months each year. The family kept a kosher home, and Goodman grew up praying three times a day. In their observant community, it was expected that after completing the eighth grade, Goodman would go to a yeshiva for four years of intense Jewish learning. But the Chabad movement, with which the Goodman family identified, did not have a yeshiva in Baltimore.

Goodman was conflicted. Going away to school meant that he would have to give up his rigorous athletic training. But there were bigger questions plaguing the young athlete as well. “Everyone kept telling me, bottom line, I’d never be able to play college ball because of Judaism [since games were on Shabbat]. They said, ‘Maybe Hashem is testing you with these basketball gifts. Maybe he gave you this talent to test if you had the faith to ignore it,’ ” he told me.

He cherished his Jewish identity, and the idea that he might be failing a test of his religious character plagued him. So, at 14, Goodman put away his Jordans and headed to the Chabad School of Pittsburgh with 50 other religious boys from around the country. The Chabad School was different than other religious academies. Whereas most religious boys’ high schools insist on shunning extracurricular hobbies for the sake of Jewish learning, students in Pittsburgh were taught to integrate both their body and soul in the practice of Judaism. One of Goodman’s first classes at the school was taught by Rabbi Eli Shusterman, a young, ebullient teacher who’d recently graduated from rabbinical school.

Tamir
Goodman playing for Talmudical Academy in 1999. (Baltimore Sun via Tamir Goodman)

Shusterman talked to his classes about destiny. He told his students that God gave every person certain talents; your job, he explained, was to utilize these blessings and make the world a better world through them. As Goodman sat in class, forcing his body to forget the feel of a basketball in his palm, he thought, ‘If this is true, why am I not playing ball? Why am I ignoring my talents? Is that then not the real insult to God?’ That night, he called Katz from a pay phone. “Coach,” he asked, “If I come back, can I play on the team?”

“Tamir,” Katz replied, “If you come back, I’m going to paint your name on the baseline.”

Goodman returned home to Baltimore, and he flourished under Katz’s tutelage, growing into a cerebral player. When passing the ball, Katz remembers, Goodman had a knack for knowing where his teammates would be seconds before they themselves had any idea. His wins racked up, and he started garnering national attention. The summer after 10th grade, Goodman was invited to the Eastern Invitational camp, one of the best basketball camps in the country. With his red hair, kippah, and cooler full of kosher food, he was a curiosity. But his performance at the camp was what really attracted the attention of Division I coaches.

By 11th grade, his game-day cotton tzitzit and three-point shots garnered him the nickname “Jewish Jordan” by a local sportswriter. When teammates teased him about the name, Goodman would uncomfortably reply, “I’m still paying $140 for my shoes.” But the name stuck. Bob Gibbons, a scout specializing in high-school basketball, said that he was “captivated by Tamir’s feel for the game,” citing his “ability to make shots from virtually anywhere within 30 feet of the hoops.” And John Eisenberg, a sports writer for the Baltimore Sun, called Goodman’s touch “magic.”

Scholarship offers began flooding in. In his junior year, Goodman signed with the University of Maryland, his dream school. Coaches there assured him they’d accommodate his religious schedule. A few weeks later, Sports Illustrated ran a 4-page spread about him. After that, Goodman says, “things got out of hand.” He would show up at school and there would be cameras in the hallways and reporters blocking classroom doors. Game days were the worst. The gym at the Talmudical Academy of Baltimore could hold 200 people, yet 3,000 people would try to squeeze through the door, turning the auditorium into a sweaty, loud, rock hall. A few months into Goodman’s senior year, he was called into the principal’s office. The principal looked at Goodman, told him how proud he was of him, and then politely asked him to leave the school. “I couldn’t blame them,” Goodman says. “It was a small Orthodox school. They didn’t know how to deal with the struggles of housing a celebrity.”

Neither did most of the other Jewish high schools with whom Goodman began corresponding. And because he wouldn’t play games on Shabbat, most of the non-Jewish private schools wouldn’t take him. Then he got a call from the Seventh Day Adventists, who also observe Saturday as their Sabbath. They offered Goodman an invitation to play at their school, and he finished his high-school career at Takoma Academy as one of the only white students and the only Jew. When he graduated in 2000, Goodman believed his star was just beginning to rise. That’s what the University of Maryland coach told him, in a letter Goodman still keeps in his scrapbook. “Great meeting you. Keep working hard. You have a very bright future.”

***

Twelve years later, 6,000 miles and seven hours away, the Casspi family gathers on a beach in Tel Aviv while Omri, taking advantage of the NBA off-season, represents Israel in the 2012 European basketball championship. Casspi’s mother, Ilana, has packed a cooler of watermelon, cucumbers, and jachnoon—a Yemeni donut-like dessert that Casspi used to eat, six at a time, until his mother threatened to stop making them at all. Casspi’s father, Shimon, wearing a white NBA hat, is ankle-deep in the ocean, staring angrily at his famous son’s jet ski and muttering to himself. He put thousands of dollars of repairs into the machine last week, but it still keeps leaking water. Giving up, Shimon settles into a low beach chair and takes a sip of water before agreeing to talk about his son. Asked whether he believed Casspi would one day play in the NBA, Shimon just laughs. “When he was young, Omri couldn’t even play paddle ball on the beach,” Shimon says. “He was bigger than all the kids—and awkward.” At this, Ilana, who has been extolling the virtues of her son for the past half hour, turns and glares at her husband. “Maspik!” she says to him in Hebrew. Enough. His comment, though, highlights the dramatically different expectations faced by the young Casspi and Goodman.

In Yavneh, an upper-middle-class suburb in Tel Aviv, Casspi read about Goodman—“Everyone in Israel knew about the Jewish Jordan,” he explains—but didn’t think much about the Maryland athlete, since he had celebrities living in his own house. His mother had played on Israel’s national basketball team. And with both his older brother and younger sister playing basketball competitively, Casspi wasn’t even the best Jewish athlete in his family—let alone the country. The Casspi kids were raised as secular Jews. Though they had Shabbat dinner every Friday night, their world really revolved around basketball. When the kids weren’t at school or at practice, they were watching NBA games on television or shooting hoops against each other in the driveway.

Casspi’s big break came at age 13, when he finally beat his mother in a pick-up game. “After that, I said ‘no more,’ ” Ilana says, laughing. “I knew that he would be good, but we didn’t think he would be the best. In truth, my daughter was the best of the three.” (Aviv, Casspi’s sister, retired from the sport after suffering ACL injuries in both knees.)

Omri
Casspi playing for Maccabi Tel Aviv in 2005. (Facebook)

Goodman with the Towson Tigers

Goodman and the Towson Tigers in 2001. (The Towson Tower Light via Tamir Goodman)

Casspi’s ascent, though, was steady. At 13, he was chosen for the Maccabi Tel Aviv youth team. At 15, he played in the European Under 16 championships, though he wasn’t a standout. “Omri’s beginnings were somewhat humble,” says David Blatt, coach of Maccabi Tel Aviv. “He was not a superstar at 13, 14, or 15 years of age.” In 2005, when Casspi was 17, he was selected as one of the youngest players for Maccabi Tel Aviv. Though Casspi was known for his focus and dedication to the game, he was still unpolished. “He was a little out of shape and overweight and his outside shot needed improvement,” remembers teammate Derrick Sharp. “But his competitiveness, aggressiveness, his passion, and work ethic were unmatched.” That same year, Casspi and Goodman would meet for the first time—on a basketball court.

***

Even before Casspi’s star was rising in Israel, Goodman was facing setbacks. Before the school year started, the basketball coach at the University of Maryland told him that if he wanted adequate playing time, he’d have to participate in practices and games on Shabbat after all. Unwilling to compromise his religious practice, Goodman instead enrolled at Towson University, where the coaching staff would accommodate his schedule. Saturday games were held after sundown, once Shabbat was over, and Friday night and Saturday practices were canceled. That year, Towson went 12-and-17, with Goodman starting most games. Maryland won the national title.

But in the spring of 2001, Towson changed conferences from the Atlantic Ten to the Colonial Athletic Association and replaced their coaching staff. Goodman and the new coach, Michael Hunt, clashed from the start. According to Goodman, Hunt not only refused to accommodate his religious practices, he seemed to punish him for it, refusing to play him in games and blaming Goodman for the team’s lackluster performances in practices. (Hunt could not be reached for comment.)

Hunt’s treatment was hard for Goodman to handle. “Tamir was very fragile and sensitive,” remembers Sam Sutton, Goodman’s teammate at Towson. “It was a big shock to [Tamir] after having a string of coaches who loved him and wanted what was best for him at all times. … [Hunt] was a coach who raged at players and who didn’t appreciate Tamir’s unorthodox schedule.”

Goodman’s college career ended after he filed a police report accusing his coach of kicking a metal stool at him in the locker room after the team played a particularly poor game. It was a sad ending to a promising start. Adam Ginsberg, who worked as Towson’s assistant coach during Goodman’s freshman year, thinks this tension was the turning point in Goodman’s whole career. “I really believe if Towson had not changed conferences and had not let their coaching staff go, we would be hearing a totally different story about Tamir and his basketball successes,” he explains.

Goodman, who didn’t graduate (he will earn a Bachelor of Arts degree in communications from Towson next month after completing online courses), emerged from the experience broken. “I was at my lowest point physically and spiritually,” Goodman says. “People thought I was weak, that I should have been able to handle it.” He fell into a deep depression, barely able to get himself out of bed for four months.

Slowly, with faith—God, he realized, had his own plan—Goodman healed and in the summer of 2002 signed a 3-year contract with Maccabi Tel Aviv, where games never conflicted with Shabbat. Injuries and rusty skills, however, plagued Goodman on the team. During his first season, he was sent to play with Maccabi Giva’t Shmuel, a team of veterans who wouldn’t retire, but who had a penchant for amazing upsets, unexpectedly making it to the Israel Cup Championship in 2003. The 2005 game against Casspi’s Maccabi Tel Aviv squad wouldn’t be one of them.

Before the game, an Israeli news station aired a short segment on Casspi, creating buzz about his talent. He had shed weight and gained muscle, but he was still young and inexperienced, starting the game on the bench. When the coach put him in, though, it quickly became the Omri Show. Bounding onto the court, he sprang to life like a character in a pop-up book. A teammate threw him the ball, and Casspi caught it in his right hand, sped past his defender, and went in for a spectacular reverse dunk. Goodman, who was playing defense, could only stop and stare at Casspi’s back. “In my seven years playing [elite] ball, I’d never seen anything like it,” he still remembers. Maccabi Tel Aviv won the game—108 to 83.

****

Tamir Goodman and Omri Casspi
Tamir Goodman and Omri Casspi in 2012. (Deja Views Photography, Chicago, via Tamir Goodman)

Omri with kids

Casspi speaking at his basketball camp in 2012. (Cleveland Jewish News)

On June 25, 2009, the Sacramento Kings drafted Casspi as the 23rd overall pick in the NBA draft. A few hours later, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Casspi to congratulate him. The draft took place on the anniversary of the death of Casspi’s grandfather, who he was named after. Until that moment, Casspi’s mother says, he would never have called himself religious. But that day, something changed. “He believed that this [decision] came from up above,” she explains. Casspi, who had never before performed religious rituals, began to wrap himself in tefillin each day to pray. He started wearing large Jewish stars around his neck wherever he went. The next year, when Casspi was living in Sacramento, visitors would show up at Casspi’s parents’ house in Israel, leaving with small Israeli flags as souvenirs. Casspi’s face was plastered all over cereal boxes in Israel, and he was spotted hanging out with supermodels.

That same year, after repeat knee-tendon infections and injuries in both hands, Goodman gave up professional basketball. He held a press conference at the Jewish Children’s Museum in Brooklyn, where he announced his retirement. “If you would have asked [in high school] would I be retired from basketball at 27, I would have said no way,” he told the crowd. “But Hashem has a better plan, and it’s his plan.” Goodman moved to Cleveland with his wife and two children (they now have four kids) and started working for Haifa Hoops for Kids, a charity affiliated with Maccabi Haifa that benefits special-needs and underprivileged children. It was a group Goodman could identify with. “I’ve been through so many things in my career, both physically and psychologically,” he says. “It’s given me better understanding for kids’ challenges and difficulties. It’s a sensitivity I never would have had if my career had continued smoothly.” This, he tells me, was his mission all along.

In June 2011, a reporter from the Cleveland Plain Dealer called Goodman while he was traveling in the Poconos. “Did you hear the news?” he asked Goodman. “Omri Casspi was traded to Cleveland.” As news of the trade spread, Casspi’s publicist emailed Goodman, saying that Casspi wanted to meet him. Weeks later, on a cool, late summer night, Goodman drove over to Casspi’s new house on the west side of Cleveland. They sat on his couch for hours, speaking in Hebrew and trading stories. “We had so much in common—basketball, coaches, Israel,” Casspi explains. What struck him then was the strength of Goodman’s faith and how he had been able to embrace the end of his basketball career as proof of God’s greater plan. Goodman brought a mezuzah with him to that first meeting. As he got up to leave, Goodman says, Casspi asked him to affix it to his door.

But professional sports can be lonely. A coach who loves you one day can trade you the next, and the press is just as fickle. In Cleveland, where Casspi was hailed as a savior one year ago, he began to falter on the court, averaging a disappointing 3.5 rebounds and shooting 40 percent from the field. Byron Scott, the Cleveland Caveliers’ coach, publically questioned Casspi’s knowledge of the playbook, and he lost his starting position to Alonzo Gee. Trade rumors swirled after last season, and he admitted to the Israeli press that he’d been disappointed with his performance. But Casspi excelled in the European Basketball Championship this summer and appeared to be playing well during pre-season games.

Pressed on what he thinks life after basketball might look like, Casspi refuses to answer. “I might look old, but I’m only 24,” he says. “I refuse to think about the end.” For now, he’s still a Cavalier and is keeping busy with his partnership with Goodman. In addition to the Omri Casspi basketball camps for young Jewish athletes that Goodman runs in Cleveland, the pair has been tapped to organize a series of NBA Jewish-heritage nights at different arenas and will host high-level basketball camps on both coasts this summer for Jewish athletes.

“From a basketball perspective, I’ve been through a lot last year,” Casspi says. He’s happy to have had Goodman’s advice on dealing with professional disappointment. Back in Israel, Casspi’s family was also grateful for Goodman’s presence. “We love Tamir,” his mother explains. “We were happy to have him help Omri in Cleveland.” And Goodman, the fallen basketball star, found solace in his friendship with the Israeli NBA player. No longer able to play because of his injuries, Goodman says he feels part of himself back on the court when he attends games to watch Casspi. “We have a lot in common,” Goodman says. “I really admire his spirituality, his kindness, and his work ethic. He’s very smart, and very unselfish. A lot of people in his position could be totally different.”

In Goodman, it seems, Casspi has found his biggest fan—and a knowing supporter. “I watched Omri and felt emotionally connected,” Goodman says. “I knew what it felt like to be the only Jew playing in front of thousands of players, and what it felt like to have thousands of Jewish kids living through you.” For Casspi, who not too long ago was one of those wide-eyed kids, learning from Goodman’s experience could be a real game changer.

***

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Tamir Goodman remains an exemplary role model for young Jewish athletes to this day. He continues to demonstrate that one can reach for the sky to maximize their talents and still keep their feet on the floor and be grounded in the priorities of Jewish life. He is a gem of the Jewish community.

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The Jewish Jordan Subs Out

Former phenom Tamir Goodman now coaches kids who idolize his NBA pal, Omri Casspi. What happened?