Paid to play
Former athletes make an impact in professional leagues
Almost every young athlete dreams of becoming a professional sports star. Four ex-Mavericks are making these dreams come true.
Former basketball standout Steven Barber, baseball All-American Daniel Ortmeier, all-Southland Conference golfer Anthony Estorga and the darling of last year’s Southland Conference champion women’s basketball team, Rola Ogunoye, have traded their school books for playbooks and a shot at the pros.
“When opportunities like these arise, it is because of how hard you work, not where you are,” Ogunoye said from her apartment in Cossonay, a sleepy hamlet nestled near Lake Geneva in southwest Switzerland where the lights go out at 10 p.m. “If you work hard, people will notice you.”
They’re noticing Ogunoye, all right. She’s the star of a Swiss team in the BBC Cossonay, a European club league. Several teams wanted her, including Finland, Holland, Germany and Luxembourg.
“It has been a big transition (from college),” she said. “At UTA I had a full schedule with practice, weights, classes, study hall. Now I have lots of free time—three scheduled practices a week, and we play on Saturdays.
“Playing in Europe has been a great experience for me. It has given me a chance to see a part of the world I may never have had the opportunity to see.”
Before heading to Europe, Ogunoye was one of the final players cut from the Los Angeles Sparks of the Women’s National Basketball Association. “Ultimately, I would love to play in the WNBA, but this has been fun to try. I have a five-year program in mind, and (playing in Europe) is part of that program.”
At 6-feet, Ogunoye is short for a low-post player, but foreign coaches have played her at center. She dominated the league through the first seven games of the season, averaging 28 points and 13 rebounds.
UT Arlington women’s basketball coach Donna Capps “really helped me be a better player against bigger people,” she said.
Big people are on Steven Barber’s radar, too. Barber scored 1,229 points in three seasons at UT Arlington—43 in a game at UT San Antonio in 2002—after transferring from South Plains College in 1999. Like a little brother eyeing the main court at the neighborhood park, he has his bags packed and is ready to play anywhere he can—summer leagues, mini-camps, tryouts.
His talent has earned Barber looks at Orlando, Phoenix, Boston and this fall with the New York Knicks. He made a preseason start for the Knicks on Oct. 22 against his hometown team, the San Antonio Spurs, scoring seven points in 19 minutes as New York beat the defending NBA champions, 96-90.
“Every stop is a learning experience,” he said at the time. “I just keep working hard and let what happens happen. This team has a lot of veterans that I’m learning from every day. (New York head coach Larry) Brown is a proven coach in the league. The coaches have a lot of knowledge about the game, and I’m just trying to pick up as much as I can.”
The Knicks cut Barber less than a week after the San Antonio game. Now he waits for his next opportunity with another NBA team or a contract with a team in the NBA’s developmental league.
UT Arlington men’s basketball coach Eddie McCarter always talked to Barber about work ethic. “He said there are a lot of guys with the talent, but your work ethic separates you from the others. The game is not like college where I could go out and score 30 points a night. Everyone in this league can score. My job now is to be able to distribute the ball and make people around me better.”
Getting better is exactly what former baseball standout Daniel Ortmeier has been doing since he was drafted following his junior season at UT Arlington.
After four years in the San Francisco Giants organization, he earned a shot at the majors in September after a stellar season at double-A Norwich, where he hit .274 with 85 runs, 20 home runs, 79 runs batted in and 35 stolen bases. He became the third player in Eastern League history to post 20 home runs and 20 steals in a season.
He collected his first major league hit Sept. 5 in Los Angeles, beating out an infield single. A third-round selection in 2002, the switch-hitting outfielder was tabbed the organization’s fourth-best prospect by Baseball America following the 2003 season.
For Anthony Estorga, the prospects are bright for a prosperous 2006 on the golf course. He made the most of his first professional tournament with a 20th-place finish in October at the 2005 Permian Basin Open in Midland. That earned him an exemption into the first Nationwide Tour event of the 2006 season, the BellSouth Panama Championship in January.
“A tournament like that keeps you coming back,” he said following his final-round 67 at Permian Basin. “It gave me a lot of confidence going into this season. A lot of people say it takes two or three years on the tour to make it consistently. You just have to ride it out, believe in what you’re doing and stay patient.
“But this definitely gave me motivation into this season.”
Motivation to be a Maverick on sports’ biggest stage.
— Bill Petitt