Life Beyond the Hardwood
Former basketball star returns to studies at UB
Former Bulls center Mark Bortz has a special place for UB and Buffalo in his heart - it's where he met his wife. Meg Kinsley /// The Spectrum
Mark Bortz is nearly seven feet tall. Bald head. No eyebrows. Big biceps.
Students see the peculiar looking giant and think "monster," but their opinions might change if they met the charismatic graduate student.
If only they knew he was a star on one of the best teams – and biggest disappointments – in UB sports history. They probably wouldn't judge his odd look if they knew he suffered from a rare disease. Imagine if those onlookers knew Mark's dream led him to a continent far away from his new wife and two loving parents – who were both diagnosed with cancer.
His playing career was exceptional. His story? Unforgettable.
The journey back to Buffalo
Seven years ago, heads would turn as Bortz passed by. He was one of the most recognizable people on campus. As he walks the same steps he did then, he still gets the stares. But students these days only see the off-the-court version of Bortz. They don't see the gritted teeth, furrowed brow, and signature wristband which always accompanied him on the court at Alumni Arena. Rather they see an infectious smile, subdued demeanor, and argyle sweater.
He used to own an unmatched level of ferocity, a level so intense that he was considered a demon on the basketball court. Students in 2011 see the laid-back, easygoing scholar. He's back in the same place, but his priorities are different.
The former standout athlete – who is most recognized for his all-conference play on the 2005 men's basketball team that lost to Ohio in the Mid-American Conference championship game – is back at UB to earn his Master's degree in business administration after overcoming copious challenges in his basketball career.
The amiable center starred on arguably UB's best basketball team of all-time, and returned to his studies this year following seven years of professional basketball in seven different countries.
Honestly, he loved his life.
He was a local celebrity – known as "The White Ghost" – who won two championships in Uruguay (but his wife was at home).
He was getting paid to play the game he loved 24/7 (but his family was devastated by cancer).
He was seeing the world and living his dream life (but he decided there were more important things in life than basketball).
At first, everything was going according to plan overseas for Bortz, but troublesome times soon followed. Bortz was a rookie in Turkey in 2006, but he was cut from his first professional team. Then he developed alopecia – a medical condition in which hair is lost from some or all areas of the body, often called "spot baldness."
Then disaster struck. His mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and she needed surgery right away.
Outside of his mother's predicament, nothing fazed Bortz. He was cut from his team, but he responded with a firm: "it's just basketball." His hair loss? He's able to laugh at himself, shaving his head completely and even describing his look as "Mr. Clean." But his mom's cancer really got to him.
"I felt helpless," Bortz said. "There was nothing I could do."
His mother meekly said she didn't want to be a distraction. She didn't want Mark to be hindered by anything going on in her life.
She survived the surgery, but Mark's family would soon face more trials. In 2009, Mark's great uncle, Eugene, was diagnosed with lung cancer and consequently passed away. Then in 2010, doctors removed a tumor from the left cheek of Mark's father, Alan, and discovered it was cancerous.
Mark couldn't sit back any longer.
"I don't want to lose my parents – I got a little bit selfish," Bortz said. "I started thinking about what I could do to help them. I couldn't care less what happens to me down the road, but I want to keep them around as long as possible."
He didn't just think about helping his parents; he took action. In the summer of 2010, Mark worked incessantly to raise money for The Ride for Roswell – an annual bike ride fundraiser put on by the Roswell Park Cancer Institute, which raises money to aide in preventing and curing cancer.
His team raised over $2,000 dollars, with Mark raising more than half of it and being named to Roswell's "Extra-Mile Club." Mark hates talking about himself, and said he doesn't want to be considered "somebody special," because thousands of people raise money for Roswell Park.
His parents both described themselves as blessed, as Mary has not had a recurrence and Alan is in high-quality condition in his clash with cancer. Still, the family has been completely wrecked by the second-largest killer in the U.S. (according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention).
"It's an ongoing battle," Mary Bortz cleared her throat and paused for a few moments, noticeably struggling with the words. "Because just when you think you're safe…" she paused again. "Something else comes up. It's something I can't really talk about."
He said he came home because of his family, but his parents live in Michigan – about a six hour drive from Buffalo.
So why did he come home? Well, that's simple. "I understand Buffalo is his new home," Mary said. "Because he has the love of his life there."
That's Erin Bortz, Bortz's wife and significant other ever since he met her at UB. They took a class together and one day she approached him in the Student Union. Eventually they sat next to each other in class and Mark took her on a few dates. Erin brought her best friend along on the first three dates because she was afraid he'd turn out to be "a typical athlete," but once she trusted him, she fell in love with his comedic personality, colossal frame, and charming nature.
They were married in August 2009. Erin stayed home for her high school teaching job and Mark had to spend the first two years of their marriage away, playing basketball.
"I don't think too many of us can do that," Alan said.
Everything compounded. Bortz didn't want to be out of the country if his family had another run-in with cancer. He wanted to be with his wife. He wanted his family.
Bortz always decided year-by-year if he'd play basketball again; he never knew how many years he wanted to play. Erin was ecstatic when he finally decided to retire after last season.
"It's surreal," she said. "I knew I wanted him home and I knew I wanted to be with him forever, but I wasn't sure if it was ever going to happen."
Just don't get one thing twisted: Bortz could still play if he wanted to. His parents watched all his games, and they said they'd never seen him perform at a higher level than he did in his last season.
Mark didn't want to retire. In fact, he said he wanted to play until "the wheels fall off." But his family was just more important.
"Basketball is a part of me, but it doesn't make me who I am," Mark said. "It's just one piece of the puzzle."
2005: the tip-in
He has never watched the replay. He never will.
One of the most well-known moments in UB sports history is one of the most devastating moments in UB sports history. That instant – they call it "the tip-in" – lives in infamy.
The year was 2005. Bortz was a senior, an all-conference performer on the men's basketball team. The senior class – guys like Bortz, Turner Battle, and Danny Gilbert – had played with each other for four years, and they'd improved every year.
After a 23-10 regular season, the Bulls marched through the conference tournament en route to the championship game. The squad had set Buffalo abuzz with hope that the Bulls might have enough talent to secure the school's first-ever trip to the NCAA Tournament.
For the vast majority of the MAC championship game, that prophecy was fulfilled in storybook fashion. The Bulls led a young Ohio squad by 19 in the second half and Bortz and his comrades appeared well on their way to the tournament. However, that youthful Bobcats squad fought all the way back to force overtime.
Battle, who is currently an assistant coach on the men's basketball team and was the 2005 team's defined leader (Batman to Bortz's Robin), hit a go-ahead shot with 11 seconds remaining. UB fans will never forget what happened next.
"Before the [Ohio] shot even went up, I thought for sure we were going to win," Bortz said. "Okay, we've got this."
As former Ohio guard Jeremy Fears came up the sideline and shot the ball, Bortz leapt in an attempt to reject the shot. He was thinking: "This is it. I'm going to block the shot." It floated just over his fingers and bounced off the rim.
"I turn around and see [former Ohio forward Leon Williams] tip the ball in and I hear the buzzer," Bortz said. "It was the most gut-wrenching feeling. We felt like it was our time. It was heartbreaking."
Though the team fell short of the NCAA Tournament, the Bulls did clinch the university's first-ever birth in the NIT, college basketball's secondary postseason tournament. The men's basketball team has only been to one conference championship game since then, losing to Akron in 2009. The players that were freshmen on that team are now seniors.
Bortz is still hurting and he hates knowing that play is the most memorable of his Buffalo career, but in the end, it just motivated him. He said the two championships he won in Uruguay were unbelievably sweeter and meant so much more to him because of "the tip-in." The Bulls' fairytale season fell just short, but there was redemption for Bortz.
The man behind the image
That very same argyle sweater-wearing giant is quite the character.
His siblings call him "Tiny." He's the third of five children, and his family adores him. The kids always fought over who got to sit next to "Tiny." He began playing basketball when he was in fifth grade, because his sister started playing and his family went to all her games. That older sister, Michelle Bortz (30), played college basketball, and so did Bortz's younger brother, Nicholas Bortz (24).
They are simply a basketball family. Many schools were recruiting Mark throughout high school, but his parents knew UB was the right one right away.
"When we met [men's basketball head coach Reggie Witherspoon], the whole family took to him," Alan said. "We just fell in love with him right from the start. We knew that was where Mark was going to end up going."
The relationship didn't end there – the coach and player developed a special bond throughout their four years together.
That team was something special. Now that Mark is back in Buffalo, he often spends time with his former teammates and keeps in regular contact with Witherspoon.
Though Battle was the hero of that 2005 team, he said he looks up to Bortz (and not just literally). And although Witherspoon was Mark's coach, he even learned a few things from the towering 28 year old.
"Mark is an amazing person," Witherspoon said. "On top of his ability as an athlete, he's an extremely caring, thoughtful person. He puts a lot into everything he does – especially into trying to be helpful. He's someone we're privileged to have in our community. We're thrilled."
One of Witherspoon's words – caring – is a word that succinctly describes Bortz. His mother recalls his high school days when he was the star of the team. Mark would always give the ball to the lesser-skilled players so they could score when his coach would bring in the benchwarmers late in games. He refused to shoot.
He's also a captivating joker. Mark's dad said: "I think there might be a place for him in life someday for stand-up comedy." That entertaining attitude – he doesn't believe in taking himself too seriously – is one that helped him handle his alopecia.
He wasn't too worried initially. He just thought his hairdresser nicked him with the clippers. Then he started noticing more hair falling off, until he realized it was a serious problem.
"It was difficult for him at first, and then he really embraced it," Erin said. "He shaved his head and almost developed this character when he was playing overseas. The fans loved his whole character – slapping the floor, the dunks, the sweatband."
Hence, the 6-foot-10 bald Caucasian received the nickname: "The White Ghost." He adored it.
Mark is currently working on his degree in business administration, but he's not entirely sure what he wants to do with it. He worked with an agency named Pro Partner Sports Management when he was a professional athlete. He'd like to be involved in some capacity with that organization, or become an agent, or do something along those lines. He wants to be involved with basketball; he still loves the game.
But in actuality, he doesn't really know what he's going to do. All he knows is he has his family. As far as Mark Bortz is concerned, that's all he needs.
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