Dad watching over Oklahoma recruit
There are a whole lot of variables during the course of a basketball game, but one thing is a constant for Gabbi Ortiz.
Wherever and whenever she plays, the Oklahoma recruit knows her dad, Shawn, is going to be there. She doesn't know where he is going to be, but she knows she needs to find him and make eye contact and everything will be OK.
Once the two lock eyes, she returns her focus to the game, whether she's playing for The Prairie School (Racine, Wis.) or with her AAU Midwest Elite (Ill.) team.
Shawn Ortiz, you see, can make a claim that not many parents can: He has never missed one of his daughter's games. Not one. Ever.
Whether it has been soccer or basketball, whether he has been a coach or a fan, Ortiz has been there. He has made that commitment even though, as a flight attendant for American Airlines, he doesn't have a 9-to-5 job. He has committed to being there for his daughter in part because she lost her mom -- and he his wife -- nearly 17 years ago to a heart attack. Gabbi was just 7 months old.
"I always used to tell [my son] Taylor and Gabbi that great things will happen to you," Shawn Ortiz said. "My neck gets sore when I look up at the good Lord and my late wife and I thank them. I can feel sorry for myself, but [Gabbi] is making me look like a prophet. Gabbi took what I used to say and bought into the fact great things were going to happen for her.
"Me believing it impressed it on them and made them believe it. Gabbi really took those words and ran with them and believed she could do what [she] wants."
Ortiz, a 5-foot-6 point guard, is an athletic floor general with a confident persona and a good handle. As a junior last season, she averaged 20.6 points, 6.0 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game in leading Prairie to the semifinals of the WIAA Division 4 state tournament, where it lost to Colfax 42-41. Ortiz, a first-team Associated Press all-stater, had 15 points on 6-of-23 shooting (2-for-12 from 3-point range) in the loss.
"She hates to lose. She puts it all out there," Prairie School coach Melody Owsley said. "She gives 110 percent every second she is on the court."
Owsley knew when she first saw Ortiz playing as a seventh-grader with the boys that she was going to be a special player. She has coached Ortiz since her freshman year and said her "perfectionist" ways come from her father, who spent many of her youth sports years as her coach. Owsley said those hours on the soccer field or on the basketball court ingrained in Ortiz an ability to lead and to make everyone around her better -- and to make everyone she meets off the court feel good.
Bonnie Benes, the head of the middle school at Prairie, was Ortiz's adviser when she was in seventh and eighth grade. She has watched Ortiz draw strength from an atypical family dynamic in which Gabbi stayed at the homes of grandparents, other family members and friends when her father was out of town. Gabbi admits there were plenty of times she didn't know where her father was, but she knew when he would return and that he would be there for her games.
"What I have learned from her and from her dad is they are not going to let anything get in their way," Benes said. "At the end of the day, they have done their best, and that is who Gabbi is. ... It is really impressive to watch young people through their role models in their lives, and Shawn and his extended family have been examples for her. He wouldn't accept anything less than the best, and he would push her without her knowing she was being pushed."
Ortiz's verbal commitment to play basketball for Sherri Coale at Oklahoma has added a wrinkle to Shawn Ortiz's itinerary. As an American flight attendant for 26 years, he has worked out of enough travel snafus to know that getting from Chicago's O'Hare International Airport to Norman, Okla., or Waco, Texas, to see one of his daughter's basketball games is going to take a lot of planning. And probably a little luck.
The fact that Gabbi is the first person from her family to go to college and that she will play for one of the nation's top programs will make juggling that schedule worth the hassle.
"He is going to put everything into it and be my No. 1 fan," Gabbi Ortiz said. "He flies for free, but it is not as easy as people think to fly stand-by. I know he is going to try to make every game he can. He is that crazy. I am excited to see if he could because I want him at every game, but I don't want him to break his neck."
Gabbi Ortiz hasn't told her father how much it has meant to her that he has attended all of her games. She said she thinks she might "freak out" if her father wasn't at one of her games. Truth be told, Ortiz freaking out is unlikely because she has learned so many lessons growing up that focus, leadership, intensity and dedication are things that come easily.
Sometimes, though, it takes a little dose of craziness to bring it all together.
"We always laugh like we're the same person," Gabbi said. "Being a single dad and raising me and my brother, we were extremely tight. We grew up doing everything with him. He is my main guy and my best friend. He is my father and mother figure and my coach. I learned a ton from him as a person and basketball-wise."
Adam Minichino is sports editor at The Commercial Dispatch in Columbus, Miss.