Both Jews and basketball historians are vaguely familiar with the story of Tamir Goodman, but its details, like the man himself, have largely disappeared. As Passover—a holiday that exists to preserve Jewish history—comes to a close, this is the story of Judaism’s last great basketball hope, and how, in a way, the meteoric rise and fall of “the Jewish Jordan” was all my fault. Like all Jewish accounts of the past, it starts before the beginning.
For a brief few months in 1997, no basketball player, collegiate or otherwise, captivated the attention of my household more than Sam Jacobson, a workmanlike but otherwise unspectacular shooting guard from the University of Minnesota. Jacobson’s veneration emanated not from his skillful passing and reliable stroke but instead from his perceived taste for gefilte fish and his familiarity with the five books of Moses. In our household, any player’s athletic limitations and skill deficits were instantly and permanently forgiven provided that he had a ritually induced lack of foreskin.
Contemporary basketball role models for young Jews with professional-basketball aspirations are not easily found; there are currently as many Jews in the NBA as there are giraffes in the NBA. Dan Schayes’s unremarkable career having met its end, my brother and I hastily but gleefully crowned Jacobson the next hope for our people with an enthusiasm that bordered on violating the Second Commandment.
Optimism is often simply the result of inadequate research. At one point during his senior year, Jacobson declared definitively that he was not Jewish, and that he wished Jews would stop sending him mail saying how much of an inspiration he was to them. Instantly, I cared about Jacobson’s quest to enter the league about as much as sheep care about fiscal crisis in Slovenia. Yet, while Sam Jacobson’s sun plummeted out of sight, another, much younger star began to rise just down the road.
In a rundown Jewish high school, where the seats before the school’s Torah scrolls vastly outnumbered the seats before the basketball court (which had none), Tamir Goodman was gradually becoming one of the most talked-about names in Baltimore high-school basketball. The Baltimore Jewish Times, setting intersynagogue squabbles and retirement-home gossip aside, devoted page after page to the Talmudical Academy’s star shooting guard. In the Baltimore Sun’s high-school box scores, point totals next to Goodman’s name frequently reached 30 or more, and he almost always accounted for more than half of his team’s total. Suddenly, the Talmudical Academy was defeating much larger public schools with legitimate basketball programs, and Tamir’s legend grew with each victory. He was the biggest local celebrity Pikesville, the almost entirely Jewish neighborhood of Baltimore, had ever seen. Tov Pizza, the local kosher pizza joint, was suddenly a place to be seen, just because Tamir would occasionally eat there after school.
But while media coverage of Tamir stretched a mile wide, it was only an inch deep. No one actually seemed to know if he was a great player for a high-school junior or a great player for a Hasidic Jew. The community also had no idea, given that the only hoops most of Pikesville’s Jewish residents, many of whom were elderly, ever cared about came in a bag from Joan and Gary’s Bagel Shop.
Always on the lookout for the next great Jewish basketball player, I, too, embraced Tamir, but did so ambivalently. After all, it’s not easy to deify a player with whom I shared the same age, hometown, and position. Furthermore, our two schools would play each other in the first round of a local invitational tournament, and I would have the responsibility of locking down the hope of my people.
The gym at Howard High School was packed the night we played. The tournament typically drew a lot of fans, but that night everyone wanted to see the player dubbed by many as “the Jewish Jordan.” Rumors spread through the locker room that even Billy Hahn, the University of Maryland’s top assistant, was on hand to scout the game.
I had heard that Tamir could spot up from anywhere past half court, and that he actually threw down a full 360 dunk in a game. Our defensive scheme for the evening was apparently modeled after the crude collective defense played against a dominating player in a game of 21. At least two players literally had no defensive assignment other than to stand around the paint, waiting for Tamir to shed me and knife his way to the basket. The scouting report on Tamir’s teammates compared them to a brown-sack lunch, both figuratively, in the way he carried them, and literally, in the way they were no more likely to score than a peanut-butter sandwich.
In many ways, Tamir proved as good as advertised. He created shot after shot without relying on any kind of conventional basketball moves. He moved differently than any player I’d ever faced, jerking back and forth in a lightning-quick flurry of fast-twitch muscle. There was none of the fluidity that is often associated with great scorers, just a kind of controlled chaos of limbs that left me continually off balance. With his bird face and his pale skin, he resembled a coked-up ostrich with a yarmulke.
Tamir had moments of unadulterated brilliance, and the entire gym rocked to the rhythm of his game. He hit a handful of threes a step inside half court, and threw down a variety of fast-break dunks as onlookers, delighted by delusions of cleverness, invented alliterative monikers for his moves, like “the Hebrew Helicopter” or “the Abrahamic Ankle-Breaker.” His court vision also proved impressive, despite the fact that many of his no-look passes careened off the hands and faces of his teammates. He finished the game with over 30 points as the Talmudical Academy squeaked out another victory.
Yet, for all of his skill and showmanship, Tamir’s weaknesses glared prominently as well. In one particularly demonstrative move, he exploded toward the hoop, only to stop instantaneously to subtly head-fake, and I, completely deceived, left the ground flailing wildly as I realized I’d been duped. Having expertly created separation for his shot, he released a leaner from the free-throw line that awkwardly clanged off the front iron. Though I sometimes struggled to do so, it became clear to me that a superior defender could turn Tamir into the player he least wanted to be: a jump shooter. While Tamir frequently created his own shots, he also struggled to finish them.
This weakness was made more notable by the fact that he was being guarded by me, a slow-moving two guard whose single greatest athletic achievement would later be a fifth-place finish in a Belzoni, Mississippi, catfish-eating contest. Thirty points in a high-school game is impressive, but to score them while only shooting around 40 percent from the floor against me revealed significant shortcomings.
Tamir was a great player, but it became clear the moment the buzzer sounded that the greatness that Jewish kids across the country hoped he would attain would ultimately be beyond his grasp. But if I noticed Goodman’s flaws, few others seemed to do so. Over the course of 32 minutes, in the minds of the spectators, my hero eviscerated me; in my mind, he fell from grace.
Everyone in attendance was so enamored with Tamir, they neglected to recognize the total lack of athleticism of the player guarding him. They wanted so badly to believe in Tamir that they turned a blind eye to the reality of the situation. Billy Hahn, mesmerized by the performance, secured a scholarship offer for Tamir immediately following the game. The local news assembled a highlight reel of the night’s game that did not exactly flatter me—I could not have appeared more inept had I been trying to guard Tamir atop a unicycle. Tamir’s play against me that evening led to an exponential increase in his hype and landed him an offer from a top Division One basketball program. A few weeks after the game, Sports Illustrated would feature him, complete with pictures of him dressed in Talit and T’fillin so as to look as otherworldly as possible, and SportsCenter would air a five-minute segment chronicling the miracle of the Hasidic basketball star.
That game would ultimately become the pinnacle of Tamir’s potential’s potential, and better competition would later expose Tamir’s limitations. That he fell as quickly as he rose is well documented: his Maryland scholarship fell through (according to Maryland, over a conflict with his observation of the Sabbath, but those who really knew his game knew better), and, after just one year in college, a falling out with his coach at Towson University drove him to Israel, where he sees little playing time as a member of the Euroleague power Maccabi Tel Aviv.
It wasn’t Tamir’s choice to be the hope of our people; it wasn’t his fault that he could never meet the outlandish expectations of others, desperate to live vicariously through him. Since the night we faced each other on the court, I’ve always felt guilty about my role in the construction and ultimate destruction of the myth of Tamir. Never had I wanted to be more badly dismantled as a basketball player and never was I as disappointed that I just wasn’t dismantled enough. Maybe if I’d played better that night, Tamir could have happily been a star at a school like Brandeis University, proudly representing his people on a much more realistic level. Instead, he suffered public embarrassment and derision, and it all stemmed from that one game.
The neighborhood of Pikesville wasted no time in forgetting Tamir. You won’t see his jersey hanging from the rafters of the Talmudical Academy; after he left, the school folded its program. I’ve since given up on finding the next great Jewish player; I could barely even generate halfhearted enthusiasm for UCLA’s Jordan Farmar in this year’s NCAA tournament. Even though he never made it, when my future hypothetical kids get pressure from their grandparents to quit that basketball nonsense and focus on medical school, I’ll pull them aside and tell them about how that gym went crazy when the kid with the yarmulke dunked on everybody. Maybe we don’t need a hero, we just need a myth.