Luis Ortiz Sr. and Family With Jean Marquart

Last Thursday I had to laugh when I asked 17-year-old Luis Ortiz Jr., of Spain, what his biggest surprise was about America.

“The humidity,” he replied.

Luis arrived in the States to play basketball June 23 and learn more about the game his father, Luis Ortiz Sr., played at Union High School as a foreign exchange student 30 years ago.

Back then, Luis Sr. didn’t speak much English and was “completely lost.” But round ball gave him a place to fit in, thanks to Union High’s Coach, Steve Neier, who saw something in Luis and urged him to get in the game.

Luis Sr.’s success on the court led to East Central College, where he was on the basketball team for two years. He then transferred to Central Methodist University on a basketball scholarship and graduated with a business degree.

Luis Sr. works at Merisant, an American company headquartered in Chicago that manufactures artificial sweeteners. He and his wife Caridad, oldest son Jose Antonia, and Luis Jr. reside in Madrid.

A Heartfelt Get-Together

The family was in Union last week at a gathering held in their honor at Jean Marquart’s, the table laid with snacks and finger food. Jean said when Luis Sr. walked through the door “it was like yesterday,” the years just slipped away. Old friends dropped by the house that Luis Sr. called home as an exchange student, a boy who wanted to come to America to improve his English.

Jean and her late husband, Glennon “Glen” Marquart, had six children of their own, and hosted nine foreign students. They enjoyed them all, but were very close to their first student from Japan, and their last, Luis Sr.

As Jean shared this information, she recalled the introductory letter she got from Luis Sr. offering info and stating his height in metrics, which she had to call on “Glen” to convert. It turned out the teen was 6 feet, 5 inches tall and a year and a day older than the Marquarts’ son, Phil.

The boys became fast friends, despite the fact that Phil went to St. Francis Regional Borgia High School and Luis was at Union High, pals until the teams went up against one another, Luis Sr. said.

Connections Made

With Facebook, Luis Sr. was able to connect with the Marquarts and other people, including Billy Jeffries, a friend he’d known from Central Methodist who wondered if Luis Sr. knew any students who’d like to come here to play basketball.

Luis Sr. did — his son — and the teen and a friend traveled to the Midwest to play ball last summer at a location that “wasn’t the East Coast or the West Coast,” a locale Luis Sr. embraced because there wouldn’t be as much Spanish spoken in Missouri and his son would be immersed in English.

Luis Jr.’s debut on the courts was fulfilling and Luis Sr. and Jeffries, who lives in Jefferson City, arranged for Luis Jr.’s club team of 12 and two coaches to come to America.

The Spanish team stayed in a rental house at Lake of the Ozarks, a spot Luis Sr. and Jeffries thought the boys would enjoy. But they didn’t put a foot in the lake, were just too tired, Luis Jr. said. Five hours of practice daily and 25 games would wear anyone out. But the kids all loved basketball, Luis Sr., said, and strong friendships were formed.

Home With Memories Galore

The Luis family returned to Spain on Monday with memories of their good time. Luis Jr. picked up skills and initially found basketball in the States much “faster and more physical” than in Spain. He also was shocked at the number of kids who could dunk the ball, which “no one does in Spain,” he said. But Luis Sr. did when he played, so that’s a move Luis Jr. will have to perfect before he returns to America.

The Marquart family certainly hopes that will happen — as do old friends of Luis Sr.’s who dropped by to see him — including Ed Strubberg who was Luis Sr.’s teammate at Union High and was overhead saying, “You were pretty smooth for a big guy.”

Luis Sr. said his family enjoyed meeting all the people who meant so much to him.

“The United States changed my life in all senses,” and he’s thankful for the years he spent here. Luis Sr. said he finds the people in Missouri very “easygoing,” and it’s not “at all hard for Spaniards to fit in!”

It’s a sure bet some of the Marquarts will be going to Spain; they’re already talking about it, Jean said, reiterating what a “blast” it was to reunite last week and to attend Luis Jr.’s game over the weekend.

Humidity and all, the Luis family’s trip to Union was nothing short of a slam-dunk.