The skinny redhead with the blue yarmulke on his head gets the ball for Towson University late in the game. Several well-dressed children among the large group of yarmulke-wearing spectators at the Towson Center are yelling “Shoot, Tamir, shoot.” But the baby-faced guard passes the ball rather than taking an ill-advised shot.
Tamir Goodman, hailed as the “Jewish Jordan” after gaining scholastic fame at Baltimore’s Talmudical Academy, never gives in to momentary temptation, whether it involves taking a bad shot or compromising his Orthodox Jewish faith.
“I can’t play basketball without religion,” Goodman had told a reporter Friday, one day before the game against Liberty. The Towson freshman is used to media attention. He drew attention from Sports Illustrated, ESPN and CNN after accepting a scholarship to play in the ACC at Maryland two years ago.
Goodman is the protagonist in an experiment to discover whether sports can coexist with religion at a secular public college. The 6-foot-3 point guard with impressive credentials in ballhandling, passing and athleticism honors the Jewish Sabbath, which means he won’t play or travel from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.
Such strictures were a significant reason why Maryland pressured Goodman to back out of his commitment to its program. There also were doubts whether he could successfully compete on the ACC level. So he transferred to Towson, where he has fit in very well.
“Sometimes God puts you through tough things to see if you can withstand it, but in the end things work out for the best,” said Goodman, who averaged 35.4 points as a high school junior and then 25 points and nine rebounds at Takoma Academy his senior year. “I don’t have any hard feelings towards anybody. I’m where
I want to be. Everything I dreamed of is here.”
Goodman made Towson’s starting lineup in just his third college game, and has been a steady contributor all season. He had a season-high 16 points and six assists in the Tigers’ 75-57 win over Liberty, controlling the tempo of the game, regularly breaking the press and creating plays as Towson improved to a 6-4 record.
“He made us look flat-footed,” said Mel Hankinson, the Liberty coach. “His penetration led to assists and got us in foul trouble. We were not counting on him to hurt us like that.”
Towson coach Mike Jaskulski wants Goodman to shoot more (he has averaged just 3.8 shots a game this season). Says the coach: “Sometimes it seems like he wants to be liked so much by his teammates that he often will pass up a open shot, and when he does that he’s gonna hear about it.”
Goodman’s presence already has provided a box office boost for his suburban Baltimore school. Season ticket sales have gone from a mere handful to about 300, with much of the increase coming from Baltimore’s Jewish community. Overall attendance is up 32 percent to an average of 1,318 over the first five home games. The school has added a kosher concession stand, with beef hot dogs, knishes and popcorn.
The most important reason Goodman came to Towson was its willingness to adjust to his religious requirements. Such things as game times, practice schedules and travel plans have been changed to accommodate him.
“We did a lot of homework on everything from kosher food to the Jewish holidays, just a lot of things,” said Jaskulski, who aggressively recruited Goodman despite potential scheduling headaches. “It seemed like every morning I would be in the shower thinking, ‘What about this?’ Something new would come up, and we would try to research it.”
With cooperation from other America East Conference schools, the coach was able to put together a schedule with no games on Friday night or Saturday afternoons. Towson moved late Friday practices to the middle of the day, asked other players not to schedule Friday afternoon classes and avoided practicing on Saturdays when possible. Goodman has missed only the first practice of the season, because of the Jewish holiday of Sukkoth.
But rescheduling games, which mainly meant pushing back Saturday afternoon contests to evening, might be the easiest part of what Jaskulski calls an “ongoing” process of making sure Goodman’s faith will not be compromised.
For instance, Goodman is permitted to attend Saturday morning practices on game days in street clothes as long as he can walk to the gym. Activities such as riding in a car or elevator and even turning on lights go against the rules of the Sabbath. He can watch but not participate in walkthroughs during the Sabbath.
Goodman was a spectator at practice on a recent Saturday. He also kept his teammates company at a video session to scout that night’s opponent but couldn’t watch the tape himself.
“I asked Tamir a question about something on the film,” said Jaskulski, who didn’t know viewing videotape falls into the Sabbath’s work category. “He said, ‘Coach, I can’t watch this.’ I just moved on. I grabbed him afterward and said, ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t realize. I thought you just couldn’t turn on the projector.’ He said, ‘No, I can’t watch.’ There are always little issues that pop up.”
Jaskulski and Goodman quickly worked things out. The point guard now gets a private scouting session after sundown on Saturdays, shortly before games.
The team, which provides kosher food to Goodman at all team meals, also has to closely monitor Friday travel plans. The Tigers must complete trips and practice and leave Goodman at the place he will stay often a Hillel House (Jewish center) on a particular campus by sundown. From there, Goodman will attend Friday night services. Jaskulski is trying to find residences close enough to the gym so that Goodman can also walk to pregame practices on Saturday.
“That’s where we really have to operate in a preventive mode and plan ahead,” said Jaskulski, who has a printout of sundown times and Jewish holidays on his desk. “I am not so sure scheduling games is as big an issue as folks have made it out to be. The bigger issues are the travel issues.”
The only possible game conflict will be if Towson advances to the conference championship game, scheduled for 11:30 a.m. on Saturday, March 10. ESPN has a contract to televise the game at that time. Jaskulski says he will concern himself with that only if it becomes a problem.
Although the schedule is a challenge for Jaskulski, other players say they don’t mind if they often have to leave hours earlier on trips than they otherwise would. Several say they are appreciative of having Friday nights off. And even though one player is getting special treatment, they understand and respect the reasons why.
“Nobody really looked at it as changing all this stuff because of one guy,” said senior Brian Barber, a part of last season’s unanimous team vote to accept Goodman despite any potential conflicts. “It’s more like the new schedule is out. It wasn’t singling him out; it was embracing him. He’s gone against adversity, and he is going to continue to go against adversity. He’s going to stand up for his beliefs.”
The feeling is similar for Goodman’s roommate, Mohamed Fofana, a Muslim from West Africa. The two are close despite their religious differences. Fofana, a 6-8 freshman who played at Bullis Prep, enjoys learning about Orthodox Judaism and feels the Tigers aren’t giving up anything of substance to allow Goodman to play and be true to his faith.
“He has a right to do that,” Fofana said. “He gives all week to the team. I think we can handle a few small sacrifices on the weekend and let him focus on religion.”
Which is all Tamir Goodman wanted in the first place.