September 25, 2022
Anita Ortega: A Pioneer in more ways than one
From WBL star to the LAPD-Ortega blazed the trail on and off the court
Anita Ortega was a pioneer before and long after her time in the Women’s Professional Basketball League (WBL) as a San Francisco Pioneer.
She started playing basketball when she was around 14; it was the only sport available to her. Without an AAU team or league for girls, she started taking the 10-minute walk to Toberman Park.
“It’s a pretty rough area and I wanted to make sure I didn’t get myself involved in the wrong things, and it was a distraction from a lot of things that I saw happening in my community,” the south-central Los Angeles native told The Next.
Ortega wasn’t invited to play right away by the men at Toberman Park, so she waited and hoped she’d be asked to play.
“I’m shooting around, I’m making my baskets, I’m trying to do fancy stuff to convince them, ‘Hey, I know I’m a female … [but] I can play this game, I can play with you guys,’” Ortega said.
While it seemed like forever, within three or four months the men were one player short and allowed Ortega to play, something she believed was a turning point.
She grew up within a couple of miles of USC but wanted to leave the South Central Los Angeles neighborhood she grew up in. Instead, she decided to go to UCLA, approximately 25 minutes from where she grew up.
“Being a young, naïve girl at 17 years old, I told myself that I wanted to go far, far away; I wanted to leave the community that I lived in, see something different and ask myself, ‘Is it really something different?’” Ortega said. “Because I really never had the opportunity to be exposed to other areas outside of South Central LA because of how poor my family was. We didn’t have a car, we didn’t travel, we didn’t have vacations.”
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Ortega arrived at UCLA and saw a flyer about tryouts for the women’s basketball team. She decided to go, and made the team. “I don’t think there was any doubt that I could compete with the girls that were there,” she said.
She recalls many of the women on the team were recruited, but she wasn’t.
“No one would ever come to where I played basketball in South Central LA or in LA,” she said. “I never had anyone come out to LA High and approach me and say, ‘You know what, you would be a great fit at our university. Would you consider playing on the team?’”
At UCLA Ortega was a four-year starter, won a national championship as a junior and totaled 1,751 points in her career (currently 11th in program history).
“It was just an amazing experience and it becomes more amazing when I look back on it now,” she said. “I think when you’re in the present you’re just kind of like okay, it is what it is, it’s just basketball, no big deal. But as you reminisce on those monumental experiences in your life, it becomes more and more important.”
In 1979, Ortega went to play in the Pan-American Games for the Puerto Rican national team. The Games were held in Puerto Rico, and Ortega had the opportunity to visit with her grandmother and other members of her family living on the island.
Visiting her family was a highlight of her time in Puerto Rico and it was “a great experience to be a part of what I would call my community — or my culture — that I really knew nothing about growing up in LA,” she said.
Ortega later added, “It was a great experience. We had a horrible team. But it was still fun. We played against the US and got slammed. But it was a wonderful experience … I got a chance to meet some great people. And a lot of great people took care of me when I was there.”
After the Pan-American Games ended, Ortega was asked to stay in Puerto Rico and either play on the national team or be a player-coach. However, Ortega wanted to return to her life in California.
She soon would get the opportunity.
Start of the WBL
Ortega was drafted in the third round of the inaugural WBL draft by the San Francisco Pioneers, according to the Oakland Tribune, and in the summer of 1979 got in her car and headed north to join the team as the season approached.
Ortega did not accept a contract offered in late September by the Pioneers, according to a 1979 The Tribune (Oakland, CA) article. Ortega signed her contract in early October, about three weeks before the WBL’s second season began, according to an October 9, 1979 article in The Press Democrat. Though she did not think the $15,000 salary she was offered was enough she didn’t want to sit out the season.
“I didn’t have anyone to represent me,” Ortega said. “So I’m representing myself. No one had agents back then. I didn’t. I couldn’t afford an agent.”
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Ortega entered the league with a splash, earning player of the week honors in her first week “averaging almost 30 points a game” according to a 1979 Oakland Tribune article.
“I’ve always been — just intense,” she said. “I tried to play hard every time. I tried to hustle, I just tried to be the best athlete that I could. Had no idea it would lead to being player of the week. I just, that was just my ethics, my work ethics, [to] give it all I have every time I’m on that court.”
The work Ortega was putting in paid off; over the course of the season she led the team in scoring, averaging 24.1 points per game, while also adding 5.2 assists per game. She averaged 42.9 minutes per game (the WBL played 48-minute games) and was named an All-Star and to the All-Pro team, according to a June 10, 1980 Oakland Tribune article.
The Pioneers played in front of screaming fans at the San Francisco Civic Center where “the support was amazing,” Ortega recalled. In addition to the fan support, Ortega’s teammates made her first season in San Francisco “fun” and a “wonderful experience,” she noted.
After her first season in the league, there was a dispute between her and the management of the Pioneers. She was paid a $15,000 salary and a $400 bonus her first season. She believed her value was more than that based on her performance, so she asked for a raise.
She said, “And so there’s a controversy between management and probably Marshall Geller [and] Frank LaPorte. Marshall Geller was one of the owners … And I was — pretty much let them know, ‘Hey, I would like to earn more for what I’ve done. I know my worth, I know my value. So I should — just a one-year contract, renegotiate my contract. And let’s go with the second-year contract and give me a better salary.’”
Pioneers then head coach Frank LaPorte referred to Ortega as “one of the best female basketball players in the country” in a October 10, 1979 Merced Sun-Star article and a “thoroughbred,” according to Ortega. LaPorte was fired in early January 1981, however, and replaced by Dean Meminger.
Dean Meminger and Ortega did not see eye to eye.
“I’m the kind of person that always stood up for what was right because my ethics and my integrity outweigh anything else,” Ortega said. “If it’s wrong, it’s wrong and I’m going to let you know, and … sometimes it worked for me. And sometimes it didn’t, but I wasn’t the type that would just go along with the situation just because.”
On February 6, 1981, the Oakland Tribune reported that Meminger wanted to trade or waive Ortega, who at the time was averaging 14.3 points per game in the 14 games she had played that season. He got his wish and the following day the same paper reported the Pioneers would be trading Ortega to the Minnesota Fillies for future draft considerations.
After arriving in Minneapolis, Ortega was sent to live in a hotel for a week until the team could arrange a place for her to stay. She eventually ended up living with a couple of teammates in a small apartment.
On March 21, 1981, Ortega, seven other players and head coach Terry Kunze walked out of a game against the Chicago Hustle according to March 23, 1981 articles in the St. Cloud Times and the Star Tribune.
“We had a vote and decided that we were going to walk out … because it just wasn’t fair that we were playing and had not been paid and would not be paid,” Ortega said. “So we walked onto the court partially dressed, went through the national anthem, and as soon as it was time for the referee to toss up the ball, the players to come on the court, we all walked off. And we jumped in a little minivan that was our mode of transportation.”
Soon after that, Ortega was able to save up to get a one-way ticket back to California.
Life after basketball
Ortega could have pursued going overseas but after sitting down and thinking about it, she decided to move on from her playing career. Ortega served as an assistant coach at her alma mater UCLA from 1981-1983 before entering the police academy and serving in the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) from 1984 until her retirement in 2016.
For Ortega, the transition to police officer was a smooth one. Her interest in law enforcement was initially piqued in high school when an FBI agent came to speak to Los Angeles High School.
Her experience in basketball also helped her in the transition. She was in shape from continuing to play pickup games with men while she was working as an assistant coach. Also, growing up playing basketball with men, she was able to adjust easily to a male-dominated field.
“I played basketball with men; I wasn’t intimidated by men,” Ortega said. “I felt that, hey, whatever they did, I could do the same thing. So it was just that level of comfort when I first got into law enforcement, that I felt extremely comfortable. I felt that there’s — although I had a partner who didn’t believe that women should be in law enforcement, it didn’t deter me from being Anita, and just giving my best and carrying myself in a manner that was professional and just doing my job.”
When Ortega joined the department there weren’t many women and she felt behind the traditional timeline; she was 27, six years older than the minimum to join. She made every effort to take every promotional exam she could to advance as far up the ranks as possible, eventually reaching the rank of Captain in 2002.
Of her significant accomplishments, the one that stands out the most to her is being the first African American woman to be an Area Commanding Officer in the LAPD. She oversaw around 300 people, including a patrol captain that reported to her.
“I was the very first one because law enforcement is — especially in LA, they’re really reluctant to put women in high profile positions,” Ortega said. “I worked in a division that was very busy, gang-infested, shootings, it was East LA. And most of my subordinates, the guys that work with me … it was probably about 95% men, and of those men, maybe 93% Hispanics. And Hispanics are very strong-willed men and very macho-type. And I was very blessed to get that opportunity. And it was, it was a wonderful experience.”
Ortega has received numerous awards in recent years including being inducted into the UCLA Hall of Fame in 2002. In 2011 she was named the UCLA Latina Alumna of the Year, she was selected by the California State Assembly as the Woman of the Year for the 46th district in 2012 and was inducted to the Western States Police and Fire Games Hall of Fame in 2011. She also gave the commencement speech at UCLA in 2017.
“The recognition that I’ve received in my lifetime, I’m just, I’m always touched by it,” she said. “I’m simply just touched by it, never thinking that I would get this — any type of [recognition] for what I did and what I’ve done in my career as an athlete and as a police officer. I mean, one of the highlights for me, again, was being able to give the commencement speech at UCLA …. This stuff is just, it’s just incredible. It’s just overwhelming … I just never thought that any of this was going to happen I am just in awe of all my accomplishments.”
She has continued sharing her basketball stories and the story of the WBL to this day with everyone, including her friends, and is appreciative of those that are learning how much the WBL contributed to the history of women’s basketball.
“I think we just kind of got swept under the rug,” said Ortega. “It’s like we never existed, and we’re — I played with the San Francisco Pioneers. We in the WBL are pioneers.”
The impact on the league remains with Ortega today.
“It was huge … I couldn’t believe it. It was like it was a dream come true,” Ortega said. “Because I really wasn’t ready to stop playing basketball. It’s okay to go to the Rec Center or Toberman Park and play the guys, but it’s just, it’s just totally different. And to know that there was a professional league, it just really just blew me away.”
She added, “And even considering, yeah, honestly, I probably would have played for free, the $15,000, it was great for someone coming out of college, and not having to think about employment at the time — $15,000 was fine, although I deserved more. But I was able to live on $15,000. And man it was just, it was incredible. The timing could not have been better. The timing was just simply impeccable as I was not ready to give up my tennis shoes.”
Basketball didn’t end for Ortega when she stopped coaching. Several years into being a police officer, her friend suggested Ortega try officiating women’s basketball.
After first thinking “Are you kidding me? Who wants to be an official?”, Ortega went to a weekend officials clinic.
“I felt the same energy and nervousness from excitement in my stomach that I did when I was a player,” Ortega said. “So I got into officiating.”
Her experience playing and feel for the game helped her as an official and within four years she moved from working high school games to college basketball games. Within a couple more years, she was working Division I games. What started as a way to make a little extra money to pay for gas and lunches for her and her friends became a passion she continues today.
In addition to officiating, she remains busy traveling and running her business; in addition, she is in real estate and a self-described “cryptocurrency enthusiast.”
For her, officiating is her way to continue to repay the sport for all it has done for her.
“I feel like I owe women’s sports and basketball so much because it truly changed the trajectory of my life,” she said. “And with playing and then officiating. This is simply my way of giving back to something that played such a huge role in my world and in my life.”