The Omri Casspi-Tamir Goodman Team
of the 130 kids at the Omri Casspi basketball camp in Cleveland are not
particularly gifted athletes. They are at the basketball camp mainly to
meet their idol, Omri Casspi, the first Israeli to play in the NBA.
The 6 foot 3, red-headed, red-bearded camp director motions for the NBA
pro to address the eager group of young Jewish basketball fans, but instead
of talking about his own accomplishments, Casspi begins with a speech
about the camp director.
That's because the latter 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
(photo source: Cleveland Jewish News)
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. 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
At the same time that 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.
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
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.
In the summer of 2002 Goodman 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.
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.
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.
"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
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 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.
Tamir Goodman and Omri Casspi in 2012. (Deja Views Photography,
Chicago, via Tamir Goodman)
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.
[Excerpted from a post on //the chosenfan on June 8, 2013 by Dave Miller]
P.S. Omri Casspi was released by the Cleveland Cavaliers and on July
13, 2013 was signed by the Houston Rockets.
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