After all had been said and done, Tamir Goodman felt that the University of Maryland basketball coaches weren't as high on him as they had been months ago.
He was right.
But that doesn't mean something unseemly or underhanded or offensive happened in this broken engagement between Goodman and Maryland basketball.
The essence of sports is evaluation. Will he be a superstar? If not, can he be a starter? If he can't start, can he be a key reserve player? If not, will he be happy with the minutes available for the ninth or 10th man, in other words, be grateful to get a little run during garbage time? Those are the kinds of questions that have to be asked a thousand times during the recruitment of about every single high school kid who figures on playing college basketball.
Unfortunately, a knee injury and a summer's worth of unimpressive play led the great majority of college basketball coaches in America to conclude Goodman isn't a phenom, that he's not a franchise player at the Division I level. I'm one of the people in the apparently dwindling number who still believes Goodman, a senior at Takoma Academy in Takoma Park, has special talents. But that's beside the point. Regardless of what you hear to the contrary, the University of Maryland did not renege on its scholarship offer to Goodman.
What happened is Coach Gary Williams warned Goodman that Goodman might be an eighth-man kind of player. And Goodman, figuring his skills will shine brightly again once his knee is well, said to himself: "You know what? I'm better than that. I don't need to sit on the bench at Maryland."
I don't blame Goodman for telling Maryland, thanks but no thanks. Probably, he did the right thing.
But I also don't blame Williams for taking a real close second look, and saying before the marriage was consummated, "Kid, you're welcome here, but we're not sure how good you'll be and there are no promises."
That's sports. Coaches evaluate. Players accept the evaluation, try to prove the coaches wrong, or leave. Sometimes coaches are right, sometimes they're wrong. Some kids are as good as they are ever going to be at 16; others are late bloomers who find stardom at 22, seemingly out of nowhere.
So who is to blame? Nobody. Is blame necessary? In Baltimore, they're seething because they see Maryland as an evil Washington school that dissed one of Baltimore's own. Fine. Whatever. It's amazing anybody over there looked away from an Orioles game for two minutes to notice anything else.
The mistake for which Williams has to be held accountable is offering a scholarship to Goodman without seeing him play more than a time or two. It seems Williams, like virtually everybody else, got caught up in the hype surrounding Goodman, and hastily offered him a spot on the team. Williams should have been more deliberate in the initial recruiting process. Also, he and his staff should have spelled out in very specific terms how the player, the team and the coaches would deal with an Orthodox Jew not playing on Saturday afternoons. That would have saved Goodman the embarrassment he surely feels now.
Still, it largely comes down to a simple evaluation of "Is he good enough?" It's one of the central conflicts in the day-to-day business of sports.
Look at what has happened in Denver with the Broncos. Bubby Brister, who in his backup quarterback role was instrumental in getting the Broncos to two consecutive Super Bowls, figured the starting job was his after John Elway's retirement. It's safe to assume that Coach Mike Shanahan agreed with Brister when training camp opened. But before camp was over, after evaluating every practice snap, every preseason throw and handoff, after trying to project how the personalities of Brister and Brian Griese would affect the team, and be affected, by starting, Shanahan changed his mind. Griese became the starter.
Should Brister be angry at Shanahan? Of course. He has every right to think that Shanahan was disloyal, that he was stabbed in the back. But do I blame Shanahan for starting Griese? Nope. I probably would have made the same decision. The Broncos need Brister to be just what he's been, the veteran who can pinch hit when his team needs him. It's a job not everybody can do, and that likely includes Griese.
The shame in Goodman's situation has nothing to do with what Williams did or what Goodman has decided, or what the coach might have said to the recruit's mother, blah, blah, blah.
The crime is in the unnecessary hyping of a high school athlete.
Some of you may have noticed that I've been obsessed lately with the circus that too often surrounds kids with athletic talent. A very successful Division I basketball coach for whom I have great respect told me this past week: "We [coaches] hype a guy because we want him to go to our school. So we'll say almost anything during the recruiting process."
Worse than the college recruiters are the newsletters that fawn all over a kid, the family members who keep telling him how good he is, the media people who make a 16-year-old high school junior seem as important to the future of basketball as the second coming of Wilt Chamberlain. "It used to be that there was a father, or somebody in the house, who would say to the kid, 'Hey, you just try to be a good player and forget all this stuff 'cause you're not that good anyway,' " the coach said.
Goodman was a sitting duck. Every magazine, newspaper and TV network of note came calling. CBS had a network crew at the Five-Star Camp to follow Goodman a few weeks ago. T-shirts with the kid's picture were being sold at one game I attended. In the camps this summer, Goodman found himself facing determined, and somewhat resentful, competitors. The Division I coach said: "He faced kids who said to themselves, 'That kid's going to Maryland on scholarship? They recruited him and not me?' And then those kids went after him. It happened all summer."
I feel for Goodman because he didn't deserve any of this. In the few times I've been around him, he's been nothing but a sweet, earnest, agreeable young man who loves to play basketball. He's like five million other kids his age, with one exception. He's an Orthodox Jew. That makes him a curiosity. We're at a fascinating point in the culture of sports. It's harder to find a great white basketball player now than a great black golfer or tennis player. Who would have thought?
My personal scouting report on Goodman is that he is better at passing a basketball than 99 percent of the high school kids I've ever seen. I know he's 6 feet 3 and weighs only 150 pounds. But if he has that one skill--passing instinctively--he will help somebody's college basketball team. If that winds up being Towson or Bowling Green or George Washington or American University, then great. They play basketball at a whole lot of schools in America. There's no doubt Goodman can find a school where the coaches are excited about his skills, where his game can develop, and if he's very lucky, a place where not nearly as many people will be watching his every move.