JNS.org – Before last year, basketball camps for Jewish youths never had an instructor quite like Omri Casspi, a forward for the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) Cleveland Cavaliers and the first Israeli-born player in NBA history.
Casspi is a de facto ambassador for the Jewish state in his sport, and his business partner Tamir Goodman also knows the feeling. Goodman, 31, was a nationally ranked high school basketball player who went on to play collegiately for Towson University (a school in Division I, the highest level of college sports) and professionally in Israel. As an observant Jew, Goodman sported his yarmulke on the court in front of national television audiences.
“I’ve experienced what it’s like trying to be the best ambassador as possible for Israel and the Jewish people,” Goodman told JNS.org.
Casspi and Goodman, who played against each other in Israeli professional basketball, are now teammates in a venture that aims to inspire a new generation of Jewish athletes. The second summer of their five-day basketball camps “designed to improve skills in a positive and Jewishly spirited environment” is scheduled for two upcoming sessions, June 30-July 4 in Englewood, NJ, and July 7-11 in Boston.
Goodman, who in high school earned the nickname “Jewish Jordan” and was profiled by Sports Illustrated magazine, retired from on-court action in 2009 to pursue a new career as a coach and an inspirational speaker. He moved from Israel to Cleveland, the hometown of his wife.
The 24-year-old Casspi, who started his NBA career with the Sacramento Kings, was traded to Cleveland in the summer of 2011, prompting the local newspaper, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, to call up Goodman and ask him about the deal. Goodman recalled he was “so happy and excited” to hear that Casspi was traded to his city.
Casspi’s publicist eventually reached out to Goodman, and the next day, Casspi himself called.
“We just connected right away,” Goodman said. “I went down to his house to meet with him and we just started talking, we just continued talking, and talking, and talking. We really have a lot in common, we played with a lot of the same players in Israel, and played for some of the same coaches, and it was just really fun to talk to him like that.”
Casspi and Goodman ultimately decided to partner on basketball camps. More than 100 children, up to the 8th grade, attended last year’s camps, and so far 80 are signed up for this summer, in which the camp will expand to 1st through 12th grade.
The goal of the five-day camps is to “try to get each kid to reach their potential” both on and off the court, Goodman said. Each day starts with a theme—such as humility or friendship—that is taught through a personal narrative, and then through actual basketball drills.
“They’ll get a lot out of those five days, a lot physically, emotionally, spiritually,” Goodman said of prospective camps.
Giving an example of how the camp can relate Jewish tradition to basketball, Goodman recalled that a camper once asked Casspi if he has superstitions. Casspi responded that he makes sure to always put on his shoes “the proper way,” referring to the halakhic concept of tying one’s left shoe first and removing the left shoe first (which is based on the belief that one’s right foot should never remain uncovered while the left is covered, because the right is more important than the left in Jewish law).
“For a kid maybe struggling with Jewish identity and Jewish pride, to hear an NBA player say they put on shoes that way, it’s an unforgettable experience,” Goodman said.
Aaron Waxman of Cleveland, 13, who attended the basketball camp last year, told JNS.org, “It was inspiring to see how [Casspi and Goodman] were able to be successful in high-pressure situations like the professional basketball leagues in both Israel and the United States. It was amazing to see how Tamir was able to stay true to his goals and remain a balanced Jew in spite of all the pressure to conform.”
Waxman’s father, Larry, told JNS.org that he sent his sons to the camp because he wanted them “to be in an environment where the objective was focused on inspiring the kids to be more than just good basketball players.”
But basketball itself is certainly not overlooked at the camps, which focus on strength and conditioning, skills training, and league play. Participants are also treated to motivational speakers and significant question-and-answer time with Casspi, Goodman said.
Goodman remembers the first time he played against Casspi in Israel. Casspi, playing for Maccabi Tel Aviv at the time, “caught the ball on the right wing, made one quick move and attacked the basket and ended up doing a reverse dunk on the other side of the rim,” Goodman said.
During the 2008 season, Goodman’s last in Israel, it was “more than a rumor that Omri was going to be the first Israeli to make it to the NBA, and sure enough, he did, he made history,” Goodman said.
Now, Casspi is committing a significant chunk of his time in the NBA offseason to running the summer camps with Goodman.
“He loves working with the kids,” Goodman said.
Many observant young Jews are not able to benefit from top-level summer basketball experiences such as the Michael Jordan Basketball Camp, which may not accommodate the schedule of a Sabbath observer. But Goodman said his camps with Casspi ensure that participants can hone their skills “without having to sacrifice their Judaism in any way,” and better yet, they can do so under the tutelage of a current NBA player.
“We know what it’s like to be coached by the best, to play against the best,” Goodman said of himself and Casspi, counting work ethic, a feeling of accomplishment, and tolerance among the lessons learned at basketball camp that he feels can last a lifetime.
“From a basketball standpoint, Omri and I are very energetic about that, and we want the kids to experience that,” he said.
To learn more about the camps offered by Casspi and Goodman, check out this link.