Wagner’s perpetual-motion point guard Kenny Ortiz is listed on the team roster at 6-feet tall.
In the pages of the Advance, he is usually referred to as 5-foot-11, which is really still a bit generous. The senior with the scruffy beard and non-stop motor is probably more like 5-10 with his high-tops off.
But size really is irrelevant when you’re talking the centerpiece of the Seahawk team, a cracked-concrete and bent-rim type from the streets of Newark’s Central Ward who has started in 76 of 77 games since transferring from Southern Mississippi following his freshman season.
However large the challenge, that’s how big Ortiz seems to stand.
He’s a proven all-conference performer and crunch-time savior, first for Danny Hurley, and now Bashir Mason, as Wagner has gone 52-25 overall and 29-9 in Northeast Conference play since Ortiz took the on-court reins.
Velocity more than mass forms the core of his game, and that goes back to his being an undersized, underaged participant in the pick-up wars of the Baxter Terrace apartments in Newark, a square of three-story brick buildings constructed in the pre-war days of the FDR administration, and characterized, accurately if not tenderly, as a “blighted eyesore” by one New Jersey politician before they finally bulldozed the project to urban renewal a few years back.
Ortiz is the consummate grinder, and with a reason.
“I was ‘the hope,’ ” Ortiz explained of growing up in the concrete playgrounds and down-at-the-heels gyms in the heart of one of the most troubled cities in America. “The older guys in the neighborhood saw I had some potential. They looked out for me and made sure I didn’t get into trouble.”
No easy task at Baxter Terrace, where poverty and despair made drugs and crime one of the mainstream career choices. Ortiz’s mom, Yolanda Ortiz, raised two sons on public assistance while Kenny Ortiz’s father spent his days on the prison-to-street-to-prison conveyor belt.
“She was hard, but she had to be,” the Wagner senior point guard says now as he works on his second undergraduate degree, this one in psychology (his brother, Dwayne, is an accountant with a masters’ degree). “I learned early that it’s toughness that’s more important than anything else.”
That proved true in basketball as well as life, it would turn out.
Attitude carried Ortiz to a high school career that became legend on the streets of Newark.
He was a two-time state champion at Science Park High School, where he started for four years, going 105-13. He scored 1,450 points there, and as a senior averaged 6.8 steals, and, despite his size, 9.0 rebounds per game.
Back then, Ortiz had not only Southern Miss, but the likes of VCU, Drexel and San Diego State all making the trip to the Newark school.
When asked why a kid from urban New Jersey would choose Southern Miss in Hattiesburg, a sleepy Mississippi town 100 miles north of New Orleans, he just smiles.
“I felt like I needed to get away from the ‘hood,” said Ortiz, who lives with his 2-year-old daughter and long-time girlfriend. “And it was good for me. I got to see something outside Newark. I don’t regret going.”
When he arrived on campus, however, Ortiz was confronted by a situation where sophomore Southern Cal transfer Angelo Johnson was already the designated starting point guard.
Johnson was only a sophomore, and Ortiz, who had been scrapping his whole life to get what he wanted, didn’t think he could wait behind a player just one year his senior.
“I just thought that I could find a better position for myself than what I had there,” he admits of transferring.
Mason, then a Hurley assistant, was contacted. When Ortiz came for a visit to Grymes Hill, the pitch was direct.
“They said they wanted to build Wagner into a winning program and that they wanted me to be point guard to help them do it,” he said this week following a morning practice session at Spiro Center. “I believed that they meant what they said.”
Wagner, on its way to a Thursday conference game at Mount St. Mary’s, is currently first in the NEC in both field goal percentage and three-point percentage defense.
Ortiz, a two-time NEC Defensive Player of the Year, is a big factor in those figures.
“He really guards the ball and can take a team out of its comfort zone,” says St. Francis, N.Y., coach Glenn Braica. “He’s a pest, and if you don’t have a good, tough, smart point guard, he’ll make you change what you want to do.”
And at the other end of the floor?
“He’s very, very quick off the dribble, and can really get in the lane,” said Braica of Ortiz, who is on a pace that will get him to 1,000 career points by season’s end.
But it’s not just what Ortiz does — it’s when he does it — that makes the Wagner co-captain so valuable.
The hard-driving point man has become noted for late-game takeovers like in the game against the Mount late last season, when Ortiz slashed in front of an offensive player on a MSM inbound play underneath its own basket.
He snatched the ball out of the air at full throttle, wheeled up-court from the 3-point arc, and out-raced five furiously trailing defenders for the deciding lay-in in a 52-50 Wagner victory.
At Penn last season, Ortiz scored eight consecutive points to close-out an overtime victory. This season, he victimized the Quakers again in overtime. An almost shockingly adept rebounder for his size, Ortiz grabbed a key late Penn miss, then made a game-ending steal; that after scoring the three final baskets during the white-knuckle ending to the second half.
Then there is the most renowned play of Ortiz’s career, a barely buzzer-beating from-behind-the-backboard toss that defeated host Santa Clara 64-62 in the Cable Car Classic in Ortiz’s first year in Grymes Hill.
The dramatic heave from an unorthodox position garnered well over a million viewer hits on YouTube.
“He always just got it,” Mason says of his tougher-than-tough leader, who has averaged more than 30 minutes per game over the course of his Seahawk career to go along with a 10.5 point and almost five assist per game average. “Kenny understood winning was everything; all that mattered.”
And as for Ortiz’s legacy on Grymes Hill, Mason is emphatic about the transfer, who is on pace to finish among the school’s top seven all-time in steals, and eighth in total assists.
“Overall, you have to be surprised,” the Wagner coach said. “You expect when you bring in a kid like that from a place like Southern Miss, that he’ll be good. But for someone to have the level of impact that Kenny has, you couldn’t predict that.”
Unless you knew where Kenny Ortiz was coming from and what he was playing for, that is.