The Oklahoma women's basketball team has been a pleasant surprise this season, rolling up a16-9 record and a 10-4 record in the Big 12, good for second place in the conference by a full three games. While no one really saw the Sooners experiencing this kind of success this season, the same cannot be said of their true freshman point guard, Gabbi Ortiz.
“I can honestly say that as well as she has played, and she's been fantastic, it has not surprised me one bit,” OU coach Sherri Coale said.
It's after practice and Coale and I are leaning up against the scorer's table at Lloyd Noble Center, talking about the OU point guard while watching her put up shots long after her teammates have left the court.
“I told her, you don't get to be a freshman,” Coale said. “What does that even mean? You're a player, you're my point guard, you need to do these things for us to be successful. I knew we were getting something special and we have.”
Ortiz doesn't play like a freshman. This season, she's averaging 8.3 points, 3.4 rebounds and 3.5 assists while shooting 35 percent from 3-point range. On multiple occasions, she has taken it upon herself to hit the big shot when Oklahoma has needed it most. Coale said her demeanor on the court is one that drives opponents crazy, not because she's a nuisance, but because of how likable she is.
“That makes her the quintessential point guard,” Coale said. “Your team has to want to hear what you have to say and she has the ability to make them listen to what she has to say.”
Ortiz has lifted the Sooners—picked fifth in the preseason Big 12 poll—to the upper crust of the conference this year, but it's her father who lifted her, well before she could lift anyone herself.
Shawn Ortiz is in the airport, Chicago's O'Hare International Airport to be precise. He's literally at the airport every single day during basketball season, thanks to his job as a flight attendant for American Airlines and his commitment to traveling to all of Gabbi's games. Today, he's waiting on a flight to Des Moines, Iowa, after which he will travel to Ames to see the Sooners take on Iowa State. He hasn't missed a game yet this year, including the Sooners' Thanksgiving tournament in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
In fact, Shawn has never missed one of Gabbi's games. In any sport. Ever.
“It's just how important Gabbi is to me,” Shawn said. “We have this very special bond and she's been through a lot. We're creatures of habit and I think it just evolved and I said well maybe I'll just try to keep it going.”
Gabbi says plenty of people think her father is crazy for making every effort to get to all her games. As she says this, Coale walks by and comments, “He is crazy!” Even though Coale has known the Ortiz family for just a few years, that's apparently plenty of time to discern Shawn's passion.
It was easy for Shawn to make all Gabbi's games prior to her arrival in Norman, nearly 900 miles from their hometown of Racine, Wisconsin. He was her coach for every sport she played as a kid and helped in any way he could with her high school and AAU basketball teams. But following a Division I women's basketball team across the country is much more difficult than driving across the county. Luckily, Shawn's job as a flight attendant makes all of this possible.
“If I wasn't a flight attendant, I wouldn't be able to do this,” Shawn admitted. “I can look back in hindsight and see how blessed I am. It's allowed me the opportunity to jump on a plane if there's a seat available to go watch her play.”
That's not to say there haven't been close calls this year. Quite a few in fact, including one time when Shawn got to the gate after the doors were already closed. Fortunately, his streak didn't die that day, as he was able to flash his ID and get on the plane.
“That was only a couple weeks ago, but he's done some crazy stuff,” Gabbi said. “He's had to sleep in airports. He got off work and he stayed at the airport because if he'd have gone home, he'd have only gotten two hours of sleep so he just stayed at the airport, woke up early and got on the morning flight.”
“It's not been easy, actually kind of stressful,” Shawn said with a laugh.
So why go through all the stress just to watch his daughter play basketball? After all, if she plays in every OU game over her four-year career, Gabbi will play over 100 games as a Sooner. The reason is Shawn and Gabbi have a special relationship that goes beyond a typical father-daughter relationship. It's a relationship that became more precious than anything else because of an unthinkable tragedy.
When Gabbi was just seven months old, her mom, Lorie, collapsed and died. Shawn was left a single father with Gabbi and Taylor, who was 9 at the time. Many parents would have had to face their fears of trying to do everything on their own, but Shawn says his hands-on approach as a parent kept the fear away.
“I went more into protective mode than fear mode and how can I help them get through this tragic thing that just went on in their lives,” Shawn said. “I just tried to play both roles and that's where all my energy went; 110 percent went into those two kids and just making sure I was always present.”
While Gabbi has never had a mother, she was so young when the tragedy happened that she has never known anything else. That doesn't mean it hasn't been easy for her.
“You always have that feeling of, ‘I wish I had a mom,' and I had those moments,” Gabbi said. “I always tried to look on the bright side and take the positive out of everything. My dad was able to play both roles really well and I was able to feel like I wasn't missing out on anything.”
Gabbi and Shawn certainly didn't lack for a support system, either. Both sets of grandparents helped take care of Gabbi and Taylor whenever Shawn was off at work and the moms of Gabbi's teammates were a big influence in her life as a child.
Shawn was able to move on from his wife's death and now lives with his girlfriend, Carmen (another big influence on Gabbi), and her two children. As enjoyable as following Gabbi around the country is, it's difficult to be away from his family so much.
“It's a bit much and it's puts a bit of stress on the family life with me trying to make this happen all the time,” Shawn said.
On the court, Gabbi is a very mature player, more so than most thanks in large part to her life experiences. Nothing about her life has been easy, so playing a game is a piece of cake compared to the things she has gone through. Coale says her mental toughness and the ability to control her emotions and how she thinks on the court is something many adults don't know how to do.
“She has, out of necessity I think, had to make wise decisions and I think understands—in a way others of us can't—the gifts of life every day, how much we have to be thankful for,” Coale said. “She understands that at a level that most of us can't comprehend.”
It seems impossible Shawn's streak of never missing a game can continue for the next four years, but so far, he's batting 1.000. Plus, Gabbi is always thinking positive.
“In my head, I don't think he's ever going to miss one,” Gabbi said. “I'm more optimistic about it than he is because sometimes he's missed the flight and he's waiting at the airport and he's saying I'm going to try to get on this one and he always has so far. I'm always like you're going to make it; it's going to be fine.”
Gabbi knows the first time Shawn misses a game will be more difficult for him than her. She'll have a game to focus on and teammates that are depending on her to not worry about who is or isn't in the stands. But Shawn just wants to be there to support his daughter and says there's nothing like seeing her play in person.
Shawn is realistic and understands the day will come where he will miss a game.
“On the day a snowstorm moves in or there's a mechanical issue or there's not a seat on the plane and I don't make it, the world will stop spinning for a split second,” Shawn said. “I'll cry for a minute, get over myself and realize that's the first time you didn't make it and I'll make it next week.”
Gabbi has the Sooners comfortably in position for another trip to the NCAA tournament. And no matter where the Sooners end up this season, Gabbi's No. 1 supporter, her best friend, her dad, will do whatever he can to get there.
Shawn has to run and see if he has a seat on the flight to Des Moines. He's meeting 20 other family members in Ames for the game, but the most important family member he'll see will be on the court.
“There's nothing I'd rather be doing than watching No. 21, Gabrielle Ortiz play basketball live,” Shawn said. “It doesn't get any better than that for me.”