The Jose Ortiz World Tour is in St. George this week, making the Jazz training camp the latest stop on a wild basketball trip that started when Ortiz's senior season at Oregon State ended in March 1987. Who can keep up with this guy?
Let's see . . . A summer spent playing in the Puerto Rico Superior League, followed by the Pan American Games in Indianapolis. A season of pro ball in Zaragoza, Spain. Another Superior League summer in San Juan, then the Summer Olympics in Seoul.Two weeks later, Ortiz is in the NBA - in southern Utah. No wonder he says, "Right now, I'm kind of lost." Not to mention a little tired.
The 6-foot-10 forward's rookie indoctrination could have taken place last October. "We could have used him," Coach Frank Layden says now. He was drafted 15th in the first round by the Jazz, but signed and went to Zaragoza a week before the team could legally talk to him. While one of his former agents failed to explain that the NBA's 1987 summer moratorium prevented the Jazz from negotiating, another found him the deal in Zaragoza.
"The Spain business came up real quick," remembers Ortiz. "I just made a quick decision."
Ortiz stayed eligible for the Olympics by playing in Spain, which does not explain why he signed a four-year contract. For the moment, he was pushing aside the NBA. "I didn't know if the (Jazz) would come down again and try to get me, so I had to get a good contract for myself," he says.
Being an NBA first-round draft choice made Ortiz an instant hero in Zaragoza, but he was bothered by illness and struggled to meet the high expectations. He had to ask the team president not to count on a league championship. "They thought I was going to get 40 points a game," says Ortiz.
The local press was tough on him, teammates occasionally froze him out in an offense Ortiz describes as "no system at all" and he lost ground as a player. A wasted year? "I don't know if it was the wrong decision or not; it was a good experience," he said.
But by the end of the season, Ortiz was telling his new agent, Warren LeGarie, "Work hard to just get me out of Spain."
When the expansion Miami Heat showed interest in Ortiz, partly because of his Latin heritage, LeGarie urged the Jazz to make a deal. The Jazz talked with the Heat about various deals before the 1988 draft, but determined that Ortiz would have more value once he signed a contract.
The breakthrough came in July when Jazz officials David Checketts and Scott Layden, unable to reach Ortiz, tracked him down at a game in Puerto Rico and posed as players to gain access to the locker room. Ortiz shook and his head and smiled. "You find me in the strangest places," he told Checketts, who'd visited Ortiz in Spain in December.
Later, over dinner with Ortiz and his new wife, Checketts and Layden sold him on the Jazz: With his 25th birthday in late October, he had to come to the NBA as soon as possible; and with Karl Malone and Thurl Bailey, he could play in one of the league's best three-forward rotations.
Checketts and LeGarie agreed to a contract and worked on the unusual deal that sent center Mel Turpin to Zaragoza - where he's playing very well, by the way - and finally made Ortiz a Jazzman on Sept. 1. But first, the Olympics.
Ortiz and Puerto Rico had their moments in Seoul with a win over Yugoslavia and a near upset of the Soviet Union, but they lost 94-57 to the U.S. team. Having scored 31 points against the U.S. team in the '87 Pan Am Games in Indianapolis, Ortiz figures his teammates were less concerned about showcasing him in the Olympics.
"In the Pan Am Games, they wanted to show who I was, because I was picked by Utah," he noted. "I had my time. In Seoul, because I signed already, they didn't focus as much on me."
Ortiz will have to keep adjusting to a background role with the Jazz, but he's doing and saying all the right things. "I'm feeling a lot better about the system and everything," he said after Monday morning's practice. Wouldn't he be more comfortable culturally in Miami? "I can handle anywhere I go," he says. "It doesn't matter to me; right now, I'm in Utah."
And Puerto Rico is still keeping close watch on him. Reporter-photographer teams from two San Juan daily newspapers are in town this week, and Checketts had plans to broadcast 50 Jazz games via satellite to Puerto Rico - he even had a Spanish broadcaster lined up - but the NBA said no, citing territorial limits.
In any case, Ortiz is big news as Puerto Rico's first born-and-raised NBA player. "I would say I'm opening a door for some other guys," he said. The Jazz, meanwhile, can only hope he's worth the effort.