Jews & Sports

from Big Mo's Sports Desk

The Omri Casspi-Tamir Goodman Team

Most 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 Tamir.

(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 was.

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 says.

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 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 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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