Were it not for a basketball-obsessed uncle, Shawmut Avenue’s Johnnie Ortiz – the captain of the state champion Brighton High School basketball team – the young man might have continued in South End Baseball and never picked up a basketball.
But as fate and tremendous focus would have it, Ortiz, 19, started dribbling a basketball on the courts of the South End in seventh grade and has looked nowhere but the rim every since.
“My first sport was baseball and I had a lot of friends into it and I played for the Angels in South End Baseball,” he said recently during an interview at Morse Fish on Washington Street. “However, my uncle, Moises Calderon, was obsessed with basketball. He was always telling me to forget about baseball and start playing basketball. He put a lot of stuff in my head and I decided to go towards basketball.”
But it didn’t come easy for him.
In fact, Ortiz said his basketball skills and leadership on the court are things he worked really hard for. As opposed to some young players who skate simply on natural ability, Ortiz said he took his ability and focused on getting better every day.
“It wasn’t easy at all,” he said. “I felt like I had to really work hard at it. I had to watch a lot of videos and mimic what the players were doing and practice that over and over. I had to work for it.”
Ortiz said he spent up to three or four hours a day practicing the fundamentals such as dribbling, shooting, footwork and basketball IQ. Glitzy moves and dazzling passes are great, he said, but he said he often focused on teamwork and fundamentals.
Ortiz grew up in the neighborhood on Shawmut Avenue and attended the Hurley School – where he said a lot of great people helped him as a student. He then attended the Edwards Middle School in Charlestown, and had hoped to attend Charlestown High School. However, after visiting a game between Charlestown and Brighton High, he decided that Brighton might be a better fit.
Ortiz said his big break was getting into the AAU summer basketball circuit with the highly competitive MABC team. He said he also enjoys playing at Vine Street and his home court, the Blackstone. That, he said, was one of the first courts he learned to play basketball on, and it’s also the place he can be found working out when not in practice with his Brighton High teammates. In the summer, he can also be found there playing in the popular One Hood basketball league.
Last year, Brighton won the state championship in Springfield, but only after having the privilege of playing their semi-final game at the TD Garden. Ortiz said he has learned that being a floor leader is very important for the team, and was elected a captain in his sophomore year.
“I’m always the one that’s calm out there and keeping everyone calm,” he said. “If we lose the ball, I don’t get made or anything. I just reassure everyone that we’ll get it back.”
This year, the team had a bit of a slow start compared to last year’s championship season, but an impressive victory over a state-ranked Everett High team during a tournament at Cathedral High in the South End in December opened eyes. Now, Ortiz said, the team is really gelling and he has high hopes for another playoff run.
Beyond that, he said he wants to eventually go to the NBA or to play professionally in Europe. He also hopes to go to college for business or mechanical engineering, but first, he said he’s likely going to take a prep year at Phillips Andover Academy.
“I do want to go pro, whether the NBA or another professional league,” he said. “I don’t want to work all the time for this and not do anything with it. That’s why I am so focused…Right now, I’m looking at a post-graduate year at Phillips Andover Academy. A lot of people do that because of grades, but for me it’s because of basketball. It will be better for me to go there last and to graduate from there rather than from Brighton. Brighton just became a Level 4 school and that may not look so good. Plus, I think I’ll make a lot of good connections there.”
No matter what he or any other young person does in the neighborhood, Ortiz said the key to navigating to success is focus, focus, focus.
“I feel like there are a lot of opportunities for people in Boston if they want to take them and work hard for them,” he said. “If you lose your focus, you’re going to be playing from behind and always having to play catch up.”