Anita Ortega, who led UCLA in scoring in its 1978 national women’s basketball championship victory, is a captain in the LAPD. She says her experiences in athletics helped smooth her transition to police work.
Ortega, who led UCLA's scoring in the 1978 women's basketball national championship game, is now an LAPD captain. She says sports helped prepare her for police work.
Invaluable lessons can be learned on a basketball court.
So says LAPD Capt. Anita Ortega, a national championship-winning former UCLA point guard who believes that it was through basketball that she developed the leadership skills and self-assuredness needed to command the largest division in the nation's third-largest city police force.
"Athletics in general prepared me for this," Ortega, 50, says during an interview in her downtown office, an inviting space decorated with framed jerseys and trophies. "I didn't have many problems getting acclimated to law enforcement."
Women from backgrounds other than sports, the trailblazing Ortega says, sometimes struggle with the job's corporeal and emotional demands.
"What athletics did for me, it prepared me physically, because where I grew up, I played a lot of basketball with guys," she says. "It taught me about teamwork, confidence and all those things you need to be a police officer. All those things you see in athletics are very closely related to law enforcement."
Ortega oversees nearly 600 sworn and civilian employees as commanding officer of the Los Angeles Police Department's communications division, a lofty position that surely must have seemed well beyond the reach of a young girl from South Los Angeles.
The oldest of three children born to a Puerto Rican father and African American mother, Ortega says she grew up in trying circumstances near USC. Her family, including a brother and sister, lived in a two-bedroom apartment, Ortega says, and never owned a car, went out to dinner or took a vacation.
Sports provided an outlet -- though, as Ortega notes, "Where I grew up, we didn't have tennis courts, swimming pools or golf courses."
Instead, she found basketball at Toberman Park, playing with a group of guys that gave her a chance and, she says, still holds a special place in her heart. "Why I gave it a shot," she says of the game that changed her life, "I don't know."
Whatever the reason, she excelled at it, helping Los Angeles High reach the City final in 1975 before walking on at UCLA, where a year earlier Ann Meyers had become the first Bruins woman awarded a basketball scholarship.
Ortega was a four-year starter for the Bruins, who won a national title in her junior year and also reached the Final Four when she was a senior. In the 1978 victory over Maryland at Pauley Pavilion that gave UCLA the Assn. for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women championship, Ortega was the Bruins' leading scorer.
"She played a big role in the success of that team, and she embraced it," says former coach Billie Moore, whose arrival at UCLA in 1977 set the stage for the championship season. "When the pressure's highest, she's at her best."
Ortega's boss, Tim Riley, echoes Moore's comments.
Says Riley, the LAPD's information technology director, "She's got a low-key approach to things, and in communications, where it's 9-1-1 calls and radio calls and one call could be about a barking dog and the next about a person whose life is in jeopardy, her approach has a very calming effect."
Give credit, Ortega says, to her playground roots.
"Even when things appear to be chaotic," she says, "I stay calm and collected. That's the best way to de-escalate most situations."
Though her 17-year-old daughter, Mia, is a sprinter and aspiring singer, Ortega has never strayed far from basketball. She was an all-star in a fledgling women's professional league for a short time after leaving UCLA, later returning to assist Moore for two seasons and played in adult leagues for years.
Moore says her former point guard had the potential to be a great coach, but Ortega left coaching to join the LAPD in 1984, realizing a long-standing dream of a career in law enforcement and believing that police work would provide the same sense of fulfillment she'd experienced in basketball.
"It was very comparable," she says. "You were challenged, it was exciting. I didn't know what was going to happen from day to day."
She rose though the ranks, making captain in 2002.
Along the way, at the suggestion of a detective friend, she also took up officiating and, not surprisingly, quickly climbed the ladder there too.
"I thought it would be a hobby and I'd work with high school kids," Ortega says, "but before I knew it, I was working college games."
That led to NCAA tournament assignments, but as Ortega kept advancing within the LAPD hierarchy, her free time grew more limited. It's too bad, she says, because she enjoys keeping a hand in the game. Officiating, Ortega says, is a lot like police work.
"You have to be able to control an environment," she says. "You have to be able to maintain a demeanor and confidence about yourself. If officials aren't skilled in those areas, the game could really be a disaster, so this job does translate."
Jerry Crowei /Los Angeles Times firstname.lastname@example.org