Sacred Transitions: A Conversation with Tamir Goodman

In 1999, a feature in Sports Illustrated introduced the wider basketball ball world to “The Jewish Jordan,” Tamir Goodman. At that point he was a high school junior, notable for both his 35.6 points per game scoring average and his orthodox Jewish faith. After graduating, he chose to forgo a scholarship offer to the University of Maryland because of an expectation that he would have to play on the Sabbath. Goodman spent one year at Towson University, before embarking on a professional career in Israel that ended in 2009. Now 31, Goodman was nice enough to carve some time out of his busy summer schedule to talk with Hardwood Paroxysm about both his career and retirement.

Hardwood Paroxysm: When you look back on your basketball career, what are some of the high points that stand out?

Tamir Goodman: The high point that stands out for me is that when I was a little kid everyone told me it was going to be impossible for me to play Division 1 basketball in college, or professional basketball, simply because I can’t play from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday because I observe the Sabbath. But just looking back and knowing I was able to live out my dream, I’m so grateful. Every single day it hits me at some point, even without me trying to think about it. I’m just so thankful that I got to live out my dream. I’m so thankful for everyone that allowed me to do that and helped me do what I was told was impossible when I was a kid.

To get a chance to experience that, and everything basketball has taught me throughout my playing days, and be able to incorporate that into what I’m doing know, I’m just so grateful.

HP: You spent most of your professional career playing in Israel. Hypothetically, if you’d have the opportunity to play in the NBA, how do you think things might have worked out differently for you and would there have been more pressure on you playing in the NBA than you faced playing in Israel?

Goodman: I never really think that way. I always think that the way it is, or the way it was, is the way it was supposed to be. When I was in Israel I enjoyed every moment of it and it was just an incredible experience for me – both being able to play professionally and be sort of a mediator; there are so many American players who came over to play in Israel and I’m fluent in Hebrew but meanwhile I grew up in America. It was just a great role of being able to have a special relationship with both Israeli players and American players. The Israeli league has just grown up so quickly and so many players are ending up in the NBA from Israel, more and more every year.

I also got to serve in the Israeli Army, which was an incredible experience for me as well. All in all, I couldn’t imagine it ending up any better for me than the way it was.

HP: I’m wondering about your experience and your journey and whether you see parallels when you watch other players. For example, Jeremy Lin with the Knicks two years ago. He received a ton of attention because he was successful but he also received a lot of attention because he’s from a culture that’s really underrepresented in American professional sports. Did you see any parallels between his experiences and your own journey?

Goodman: You know when everything happened with me I was only 16 years old. I think there was one week where I had 700 media requests. You can’t really understand what that means.

I was just a kid that loved basketball and I loved being Jewish. I was just trying to be the best Jewish athlete that I could be. It was that simple. I loved my family. I loved my coach. I loved my team. I loved my school. That was it and I didn’t understand much more than that.

But here I am 31 years old and I go through the airport in some random city and the guy checking my bag says, “You’re the Jewish Jordan.” That affects the rest of your life and it happens so quickly.

The thing about me was that I was lucky because it wasn’t about me. It was something that was bigger than me. It allowed me to handle everything much better because it wasn’t about me personally. That allowed me to handle the ups and downs of my career much better. From what I understand with Jeremy Lin and definitely with Omri Casspi, who I’m close with and was the first Israeli player to play in the NBA, for them it’s also about something that’s bigger than themselves. If you have a lot of success, you say “This is not about me, it’s about something bigger than me.” If there are challenges you know how to get right back on track because it’s not about you, and that gives you extra motivation. I can’t quit now. There are a lot of things out there I need to accomplish so I can inspire other people. So that’s the mindset that allows them to handle these kinds of situations and I think that’s what Lin has done, and that’s what I see Omri doing almost on a daily basis.

The advice I would give them, not that I need to give them any advice, is play for something bigger than yourself. That will help you reach your potential and help everyone else around you reach their potential as well.

HP: So are you saying that basketball was made simpler for you, because of your faith?

Goodman: A hundred percent. I didn’t play for myself. I played for all the people who are told they won’t be able to do it, or that X, Y or Z was going on in their life and that was a constraint. But for me, I tried to say that I’m proud to be Jewish. Yeah, I can’t play from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday but I believe my religion is an empowering religion. It doesn’t limit me, it gives me a blueprint for day-to-day living. Playing for that and trying to unite people through basketball, and playing to represent Israel and the Jewish people, all of that gave me much more motivation and guidance.  That’s something that basketball players really need. You always need to be motivated, never satisfied. You always need to be moving forward, whether you had a good game or a bad game. You always need to be able to bounce back and be strong, handle adversity, be a good listener, be dedicated, have organizational skills, you need to be able to respect people and have a strong identity, all of those things you need to be a successful player and I got that through my religion.

HP: I’m guessing I’ve heard the answer to this already, but has there ever been a time when you wished you got more attention for just being a “good basketball player” instead of being a “good Jewish basketball player?”

Goodman: The way I handle it now is the same as the way I handled it then. Everybody was so excited about the “Jewish Jordan” and all the media attention, but it wasn’t about me. It was always about how I could motivate you through that. I keep learning more and more about how can I take this game of basketball and the attention I’ve gotten in my life and use it as a tool to inspire other people around me.

I’ve never thought about what if it would have been different. My religion has taught me that you work with what you have, you don’t work with what you don’t have. There’s an old saying in Judaism, “Who’s considered a rich person? The person who’s happy with what they have.” If you always go around wishing you had this or wishing things had been like that, you might be missing blessings that are right in front of you.

HP: If I can venture off for a second, you mentioned Omri Casspi and I know you guys are close. He’s had kind of a rough go of it the past few seasons, but just signed a two-year deal with the Rockets. I assume he’s pretty excited. Do you see some things in place in Houston to help him be successful, and what can he give the Rockets?

Goodman: We’ve had our camps together the past couple of weeks, so I got a chance to help him work out and watch him work out. He looks like he’s in great shape. I’m so happy for him and he seems to be really happy to be going to Houston. I think it’s just such a great team, and a great organization for him. I think with their style of play and his style of play, I think he’ll really be able to contribute; not only with the three pointer, but his ability to get up and down the floor with his size. It’s going to be a really exciting opportunity for him.

HP: I know you battled back several times, but ultimately your career was cut short by injury. I’m wondering if you can talk a little about making that transition out of professional basketball. Specifically, I’m curious about the experience of spending you whole life building towards this career. You’re always working, training and getting better. So much of your time, energy and thought is spent working towards this goal and then all of a sudden you have to find a new goal to focus on.

Goodman: I gave everything that I had, my entire life, my body, to basketball. Ultimately, in 2009 I had to retire due to the injuries. But I never quit. I came back from three career-ending injuries. I literally played until the day I just couldn’t physically play anymore. I’m in physical pain everyday, for the rest of my life. Both of my hands and my left knee are just really injured, but I’m glad that I played until the very last day I could.

I think the transition for me has been easy for several reasons. First, I know that I never quit and I left everything on the court. Second, it was only through my injuries and setbacks that I found some of my biggest lessons. It was only through those challenges of losing everything that I’d worked for my whole life that I found new creativity that I never knew, and new sensitivity that I never knew.

All those years I’d be in the game, without actually being in the game. From 2004-2009, I’d be on the bench just recovering from injuries and rehab. When I did finally get a chance to play and I did play well, it was literally the next game that I’d get hurt again. So when I was on the sidelines I wasn’t just down and out. If coach called a play, I was running that play in my head as if I was in the game. I still watched every pre-game scouting report, every film session, everything. I still lived the game one hundred percent, even though physically I couldn’t be there for the game and actually play most of the time. But being in that type of environment and finding, through that, ways to still be involved in the game and inspire other people through the game, without me physically playing, that’s what I do now.

I never would have been able to do that if it had not been for the injuries. How can you inspire someone if you, yourself, have never really been challenged? Up until that point in my life I had a lot of success, thank god. I got to live out my dream, but I wouldn’t be able to work with the campers I work with now and have that sensitivity to help them in their lives, with whatever they’re overcoming, had I not lost my dream, so to speak. It’s given me a sensitivity to struggle and creativity. It drove me to finish school and get my degree. It allowed me to write the book (The Jewish Jordan’s Triple Threat: Physical, Mental and Spiritual Lessons from the Court) and combine spiritual and physical basketball together.

And now, with Zone 190, I would never have been able to come up with this concept without the injuries. The only way I came up with Zone 190 was because I was in the gym, for hours, by myself trying to come back. The doctors weren’t giving me a chance. The coaches weren’t there to help me. The players weren’t there to help me. I was in there saying, “I wish I had someone to pass me the ball from that angle. I wish I had someone who could put their hand up in my face while I’m shooting. I wish I could come off a screen and have someone pass me the ball.” There was nobody out there.

Sometimes in life it’s not just about overcoming the challenges, but it’s about picking up the pieces of what each challenge in life is teaching you and where it’s directing you, then flipping all that negativity into something positive. That’s what I’ve dedicated my life to doing. I’m very appreciative for every day that I got to live out my dream, but I’m also very appreciative that I’ve been able to take everything that I’ve experienced and use it as a tool to hopefully better the next generation of young athletes.

HP: Can you give us a little more detail about Zone 190?

Goodman: Basically, Zone 190 is a multi-angle pitch back tool for basketball, with a defensive hand configuration. It allows a player to replicate game scenarios without anybody else in the gym. It’s shaped in a unique 190-degree frame that can be easily moved anywhere. You can place it at the top of the key and practice getting the ball from the right wing or the left wing, or coming of a screen passing it off and getting the ball back at unique angles. Then when you shoot there’s a defensive hand in your face that let’s you practice shooting a contested shot. There’s also two other defensive hands that you can dribble underneath and make a move, sweeping underneath. It’s also great for post players, it forces you to stay low. Basically, you can replicate all sorts of game-like situations with this one apparatus.

I’m very glad that the feedback has been so great and I feel like it really gives players an opportunity to train and get ready for game situations, even when they’re in a gym all by themselves. When I found myself in the gym all by myself with the hope that I’d be able to play again. I took that negativity and turned into Zone 19o.

HP: Now that you’ve had some distance from your playing career, fifteen or twenty years down the road, what would you like to be remembered for?

Goodman: That I reached as much as possible of the potential in what god was expecting me to contribute to this world. That I was able to see the positive potential in everyone that I come across and help them reach the potential that god created in men, without any limitations. We find ourselves in this world that’s sometimes dark and scary, and kind of negative sometimes, but if we can bring as much light as possible into our lives and help other people see the light in their own lives, and for me specifically to be doing this through sport and basketball, I think that’s what I’m supposed to be doing. I think my soul was brought down to this world to do as much good as I can through this game and that’s what I’m committed to doing every day.

You find out more about Tamir Goodman and Zone190 at his website, TamirGoodman.com, and follow him on Twitter, @TamirGoodman.