Jose Ortiz and Nick Chambers get up in the morning and go to Lehighton High School just like every other athlete who plays basketball for the Indians. After practice or a game, however, while their teammates return to more traditional homes where parents and guardians have been raising them for years, Ortiz and Chambers arrive at a residence known to them as their foster home.
Both Ortiz, a junior, and Chambers, a sophomore, were removed from their biological families by a state foster child agency and then were placed under the care of Mrs. Pamela Gross and her husband, Kevin.
"And just recently," says Pamela. "My husband and I asked Jose if he would like us to become his legal guardians so he could be removed from the foster system. It's not an easy decision for any of these kids because they feel like they are abandoning their family if they choose to stay in one home with people who have not raised them. But Jose agreed that we become his guardians and that means he will be living with us for good."
Gross explains that in addition to the unsettling move from one home to another for teenage boys like Ortiz and Chambers, foster care can be a difficult experience.
"These boys can't just go to their friend's house unless I sit in my car on the street and watch them," she said. "And they can't get a driver's permit like other kids their age. There are rigid rules for foster kids that might be considered restrictive. Guardianship provides more freedom and that's what Jose ultimately wanted."
Both boys are evaluated by county and township caseworkers every month and all is going well in the Gross home.
Ortiz, whose mother lives in Philadelphia and father lives Puerto Rico, has six siblings, three who are currently in the foster care system.
"I get to see them once a month," he says.
Lehighton head coach Rich Oertner claims that Ortiz is quite a story.
"We cut Jose at the tryouts last year because he was having behavioral issues in the school," Oertner said. "This year he came out again after coming to all of our off- season workouts and he made our team. And most importantly, now Jose is self-disciplined and respectful. And, he smiles a lot more too."
"I wanted to play basketball so I got my act together in school," says Ortiz.
Oertner also says that although Ortiz is very athletic, this is the first time he has played organized basketball.
"We have him on the JV team so that he can become more court savvy and understand his role as a guard in our offense," says Oertner. "The team and coaches have so much fun with him, too. At some point in every practice, a teammate will yell this variation of an old English cheer: 'Hip hip Jose!' It's become quite a team-building experience."
Chambers took a different road on his way to Lehighton. Two years ago he met with his father who lives in Jamaica, but he does not know where his mother is currently residing. Last year he lived with his grandmother in Allentown and played freshmen basketball at Bethlehem Catholic.
"Nick is also on the JV team and he really improving his basketball game," says Oertner, who also likes the junior's size at 6-3. "I can see him playing at the varsity level at some point this year and definitely next year. He is an excellent rebounder as well."
"I love playing basketball and living with the Grosses," says Chambers.
Ortiz and Chambers have aspirations to go to college, but for different reasons. Ortiz wants a career in law enforcement while Chambers desires to be a gym teacher. But when asked how often they think about what life would be like living with their biological family, they have the same answer.
Chambers says there is one more wish he holds deep in his heart.
"I would love to have my mother and my grandmother come together to watch me play basketball."
Two teenage boys, involuntarily separated from their families, are finding a mutual purpose within the rhythmic sounds of bouncing basketballs and the comforting stability of a loving couple.
It would be an ideal show of support by the fans of Lehighton basketball to cheer as loud as they can for Jose Ortiz and Nick Chambers whenever these two players score baskets for their new hometown team.
WRECKERS WORKING OVERTIME ... The week leading up to Christmas wasn't kind to the Weatherly boys basketball team. In a span of four days, the Wreckers suffered two overtime losses to Schuylkill League Division III rivals Nativity (73-70) and Shenandoah Valley (46-44). Sandwiched between those two overtime setbacks was a 63-44 victory over Columbia Country Christian School (Weatherly's lone win of the season). The last time Weatherly played multiple overtime games during the same season was the 2005-2006 campaign. That year, the Wreckers played in five overtime games, including three in the span of four games. Weatherly suffered overtime losses to Jim Thorpe (40-39) and Shenandoah Valley (54-48 in double overtime), while gaining overtime wins against Mahanoy Area (48-44), Marian (53-42) and Pius X (62-60) in the District 11 Class A semifinals.
A HISTORY LESSON ... On Thursday, Dec. 26, Panther Valley defeated Northwestern Lehigh, 55-46. The win was noteworthy since it was the Panthers' first boys basketball victory over the Tigers in school history. Prior to last week's big win, Panther Valley had been 0-11 lifetime against Northwestern.
LEAVING HER MARK(OVICH) ... On Friday, Panther Valley's Macey Markovich buried five three-pointers in a 52-51 come-from-behind victory over Mahanoy Area in the opening round of the Senator James J. Rhoades Memorial Tournament. Down by two points (51-49) in the waning seconds, Markovich sank her fifth trey of the game to give her team the victory. Markovich currently has 20 three-point field goals on the year and is the top girls three-point shooter in the TIMES NEWS area.
TOURNAMENT TIDINGS ... Last weekend, the Lehighton boys basketball team captured the 33rd Annual Slatington Rotary Tournament Championship with a 52-32 victory over Palmerton. Lehighton's Tyler Crum was named Tournament MVP by averaging 17.0 points per game. All-Tournament team members included: Crum, Mark Quinn (Palmerton), Spencer Hay (Palmerton), Shane Snisky (Jim Thorpe), Matt Egan (Northern Lehigh) and Tyler DiBilio (Northern Lehigh). The Tournament championship was extra-special for Indians' head coach Rich Oertner, who won the title in his former home. In 10 seasons (2000-2010) as Northern Lehigh's head coach, Oertner won 161 games.
TOURNAMENT TIDINGS (PART II) ... The Palmerton girls basketball team also claimed a championship last weekend by winning the Lady Indians Holiday Classic with a 50-27 victory over host Lehighton. Palmerton's Jade Farquhar averaged 15.5 points per game (12 points against Lehighton and 19 points in a 59-24 semifinal victory over Jim Thorpe) and was crowned Tournament MVP. Rounding out the All-Tournament team include: Farquhar, Janelle Tracy (Palmerton), Madison Mummey (Palmerton), Allie Rossino (Lehighton), Jess Olewine (Northern Lehigh) and Nikki Ennis (Jim Thorpe).