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Life Beyond the Hardwood

Former basketball star returns to studies at UB

Senior Sports Editor

Published: Thursday, December 8, 2011

Updated: Monday, November 5, 2012 19:11


Meg Kinsley /// The Spectrum

Former Bulls center Mark Bortz has a special place for UB and Buffalo in his heart - it's where he met his wife.

            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."

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