By Liliana Marquez
Karina Ortiz stood with confidence facing the hoop as she prepared to take a shot during basketball practice. Ortiz arrived to this country afraid. She was without any goals in life and unaware that an opportunity of a lifetime was going to change her future.
Ortiz received an invitation from the East Los Angeles College women’s basketball team Head Coach Bruce Turner to play for the Huskies during a fundraising tournament at the men’s gym.
As soon as Turner saw her, he noticed her talents.“At six feet (tall) she was in an exceptional shape. She has a great attitude and she is very mature, so all this makes her a good player and a great team player,” Turner said.
As a result of that invitation, Ortiz is currently playing her first season with the women’s basketball team as a forward/center during her second semester at ELAC.
Even though this is her first semester playing at the college level, for Turner, Ortiz has become one of the team’s leaders.
Ortiz, 25, was born and raised in a small town in the state of Michoacán, located in the southwestern part of Mexico. She came to the United States less than a year ago, but never thought that she was going to get a chance at playing college basketball.
“I thought that I was never going to play basketball again. I said to myself, ‘No one will ever watch me play.’ I never imagined that I was going to meet a college basketball coach and that he was going to invite me to play for his team,” Ortiz said in Spanish.
Ortiz spent 23 years of her life in Michoacán where she lived with her father Margarito Ortiz, her mother Rosaura Garcia and her younger sister Nadia.
Her father, a high school teacher and her mother, a farmer were a great influence in Ortiz’s life. She grew up watching them playing basketball.
Ortiz studied the high school equivalent at the Colegio de Bachilleres del Estado de Michoacán (COBAEM) where she played basketball.
After finishing high school, she found herself not knowing what to do.
“I always wanted to keep studying, but I was in a place where I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t have any goals or aspirations. I felt frustrated because I wasn’t doing anything with my life. I wasn’t going anywhere,” Ortiz said.
A couple of years later, her boyfriend who had been living in Los Angeles for about six years, encouraged her to move in search for a better future.
“It was very difficult. My family didn’t stop me. They never said, no, but they asked me to carefully think about it. At the end they supported me and respected my decision,” Ortiz said.
Ortiz and her sister were always close, and for Nadia the departure of her sister was both sad and difficult.
“It was difficult and sad. We were always together. I don’t think I will ever get used to being apart from her. We supported her when she decided to leave Mexico. We always wanted the best for her,” Nadia Ortiz said.
Once Ortiz arrived, she felt terrified. She was accustomed to living in a small and peaceful town.
Suddenly, she was in one of the world’s biggest cities, facing not only a different language, but a variety of different cultures, and a different way of life.
“It was very difficult for me. Once I was here, I saw how different things were and realized that we live in a huge world.
“I lived in a small town, so when I got here I felt afraid. I thought no one spoke Spanish and the thought of not been able to communicate with other people was terrifying,” Ortiz said.
Ortiz thought of going back to Mexico, but then she decided to do some Internet research and found a local non-professional basketball league, which she joined and started playing again.
Later on, her team signed up for Turner’s fundraising tournament. That was the first time she stepped on campus.
After she got the invitation, her teammates encouraged her to try out and to enroll in school.
“They encouraged me to try and see what happened. I didn’t have anything to lose. When I started school and practicing I started to feel better and I began to set goals for my future, both as a student and as an athlete,” Ortiz said.
The opportunity Turner gave Ortiz changed her life completely. It gave her security and it made her feel comfortable.
“Joining the team has really helped me to feel good about myself and to enjoy life in this country. I would have returned to Mexico otherwise,” Ortiz said.
Someone who helped Ortiz overcome the language barrier was ELAC’s Assistant Coach Sarai Trinidad.
Trinidad, who speaks both English and Spanish, has helped Ortiz translating the coach’s instructions for her to facilitate Ortiz’s understanding and engagement with the team.
For Trinidad, Ortiz has been a good example for the rest of the team and is always working hard to to improve both individually and as part of the team.
“She is always working hard. Always the first to arrive, and the last one to leave. She plays everyday as if it’s going to be the last game she will ever play.
“She doesn’t think there’s a limit to her on getting better. This opportunity to play at this level is great for her and her confidence,” Trinidad said.
Perhaps, many people think that her accomplishments are not big, but Ortiz feels otherwise.
“It’s the best thing that has ever happened to me as an athlete. I never thought that something like this was going to happen. Maybe some people think that it’s is not a big deal, but for me it is. It never crossed my mind that I was going to end up playing for a school,” Ortiz said.
Her sister Nadia also believes that despite all the sacrifices that both Ortiz and her family made, joining the basketball team changed Ortiz’s life.
“It changed her life. She made a dream come true because she always wanted to play in the United States, but her goals go further than that. She always wanted to play for the WNBA (Women’s National Basketball Association), something difficult to achieve,” Ortiz’s sister said in Spanish.
Her confidence is reflected in every practice and game the Huskies have. The team’s unity is outstanding and for Ortiz they have become her second family.
Though she has been living in this country for only 11 months, Ortiz was able to overcome all of her fears. She has become an example not only for her teammates, but for other people who might also face changes as difficult as the ones she encountered.