Vic Ortiz first held a basketball while shooting at a hoop attached to a neighbor’s garage in East Chicago, Ind.
“I was 6 years old and I couldn’t hit the rim; it was quite a challenge for me,’’ Ortiz recalled. “In the winter, rather than sand, the city dropped ashes on the street for traction. The ball and my hands got pretty dirty.’’
The varsity boys’ basketball coach at Brockton High from 1983-2007, where he guided the Boxers to 386 wins, five sectional titles, and a state title in 1985, Ortiz has overcome far greater challenges.
His presence at Holy Cross next Sunday for induction into the Massachusetts Basketball Coaches Hall of Fame will be testament to Ortiz’s fighting spirit, the love and support of his wife, JoAnn, and their many friends, and his desire to make every day a gift to be cherished.
Four years ago, Ortiz, 64, received kidney and liver transplants that saved his life. He had previously dealt with heart issues, major back surgery, and a serious blood infection. He has subsequently endured heart valve and hip replacements and a stroke.
“The doctors told me I was day-to-day. I couldn’t eat. I was visited by a priest and I knew why he was there. My memories were in fast forward.
“But a donor was found in time. I’m a lucky man,’’ said Ortiz, a 1975 Stonehill College graduate whose family lived for many years in Puerto Rico, where he played high school basketball and then in a semi-pro league.
Stonehill baseball coach Pat Boen, who captained Brockton’s state title squad in 1985, said Ortiz “was like a father figure to many of his players. He built character by giving tough love.
“He demanded your best effort, he was emotional, and he was always there to give you a hug,” added Boen. “He’s gone through so much, but he’s more concerned about you than about himself.’’
Ortiz is proud that he never coached a 1,000-point career scorer, because team always came first. He is also proud that his travels teaching the game have included jaunts to Bolivia, Guyana, and Colombia.
“I told my players that they represented their school, their family, and their city every time they put on the uniform, and I set that tone early on,’’ he said. “What they’ve accomplished in their lives has meant more to me than winning basketball games.’’
Boen’s brother Bob, who served as an assistant on Ortiz’s staff from 1983 until 2007, is now the Boxers’ head coach.
“I told Vic that as soon as he retired he’d become a legend,’’ said his brother. “Last year, even though he was ill, he called me before we played for the state championship to give me a rundown of the opposing team [Springfield Central]. All of my assistants played for him. Most of our plays are ones we ran together. So he’s still a big part of Brockton High basketball and always will be.’’
Ortiz, an adjustment counselor and teacher for 31 years in the Brockton system, works out with a personal trainer and hopes to play golf next spring. He also volunteers at the Manthala George Jr. Elementary School in Brockton in an English/Spanish bilingual class.
“Mr. George was the man who hired me in 1976 when he was human resources director,” said Ortiz. “He later became superintendent. I must have impressed him with the bright maroon polyester suit and maroon shoes I wore that day.
“I can tell you the three most important things that have happened to me,’’ said Ortiz, who was enshrined in the Brockton High Athletic Hall of Fame in 2008 and the New England Basketball Hall of Fame the following year.
“Marrying JoAnn, who I met when she taught at the Armone Elementary School, receiving the transplants, and my other love affair — with Brockton High basketball.’’
His arrival in Brockton, where he still resides, was purely by chance.
“I was in the Navy for four years and played service basketball and at one time was stationed on the USS Constitution in Boston. I used to play basketball at the Fargo Building with a Navy buddy from Brockton, Bobby Burke.’’
Burke introduced Ortiz to his brother-in-law, Fred Petty, a professor and later vice president at Stonehill. After his discharge, Ortiz was a 23-year-old college freshman. He earned a master’s degree at Boston College and was assistant coach to Jack Lehane and John Boutin on the Boxers’ bench.
“One of the greatest honors a coach can receive is following in the footsteps of people you respect, and that’s why going into the Hall of Fame this week means so much to me,’’ said Ortiz.
“As a school counselor, I met a lot of people who had to deal with sadness, so I try to help others and follow the saying, ‘Make every day your masterpiece.’
“That’s why I wake up every day with a smile.’’
Marvin Pave can be reached at marvin.pave@ rcn.com.