Coming to America: Cortijo brings savvy point guard skills to Longhorns hoops
Pursuing a college basketball scholarship involves a tremendous amount of sacrifice. For Carla Cortijo, her sacrifice didn’t involve just waking up at 5 a.m. to train, travel all summer to basketball tournaments, eating healthy, or giving up all semblance of a social life. It meant she had to leave her home country of Puerto Rico and move to the United States.
“In Puerto Rico, there wasn’t much basketball potential to play past high school, and I was playing against the same people all the time,” Cortijo said. “I knew I’d have to come to the U.S. if I wanted to play college basketball.”
Cortijo’s road to Texas began when she was five and started learning the game from her older brother, Alex, a talented musician in Puerto Rico. Cortijo’s passion for basketball trumped any other sport she played, and it helped her earn 2002 Puerto Rico National Player of the Year honors as a high school sophomore. As she was helping Maria Auxiliadora High School to three straight state championships and a cumulative 72-0 mark over three seasons, a great opportunity arose.
“My high school team came to a tournament in Houston, and a coach saw me playing and said he wanted me to move to the United States to play,” Cortijo said. “I knew I had to do it, because I’ve wanted to play college basketball for almost as long as I can remember.”
Cortijo departed Puerto Rico for Bellaire High School -- outside of Houston -- after her sophomore year with one goal in mind: play well enough to earn a college scholarship. The transition to life in the U.S. was made easier by the presence of her parents, both educators who moved with her; yet, Carla was still in culture shock.
“I didn’t know anything about Texas when I got here,” Carla said. “The first year I was in Houston, I didn’t know any English, I didn’t have any friends, and I didn’t know anything about U.S. culture. In a year, I learned English, made friends, and now I love it here.”
Carla’s play was noticed nationally, and the Parade All-American talents were in high demand. Soon after moving to Texas, she made a visit to the Forty Acres and knew immediately where she wanted to attend college.
“My first basketball camp in the U.S. was here at Texas, and I just fell in love with the school,” Cortijo said. “The coaches, the atmosphere, the school -- everything was perfect. I knew right away I didn’t want to go anywhere else.”
Despite missing her entire Bellaire HS senior year due to an ACL left knee injury, Cortijo started off strong for the Longhorns, averaging 7.5 points, 3.0 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game in UT’s first six games. She had 12 points against No. 2 Tennessee, and six points and a career-best six rebounds against No. 1 Duke. Yet, she re-aggravated her left knee in the Duke game, and has been sidelined since, undergoing arthroscopic surgery on January 6. She returned to practice a week ago, and is working herself back into playing form.
Her departure left the squad with little depth at point guard, which has the Texas coaching eagerly anticipating her return to the hardwood.
“Carla is one of the players that brings so much energy to our team,” assistant coach Kathy Harston stated. “What we’ve missed the most from her since she’s been gone is her ability to guard the basketball and her passing skills. Our assists have dropped off considerably since she’s been out. She’s just a great creator on the floor. It’s going to stretch defenses a little bit when we get her back.”
Although Cortijo has benefited from watching from the sidelines, she is counting the days until she can get on the court again.
“I’ve learned a lot from all these games by watching, such as how to be a leader, staying positive and competing,” said Cortijo, a true playmaker who lists Steve Nash, Jason Kidd, Dwayne Wade and Swin Cash as her favorite pro players. “I can’t wait to come back, because it’s very very hard for me to just sit and watch.”
When not studying or rehabbing her knee, Carla has stayed busy with her three favorite hobbies -- playing guitar, writing songs, and designing clothes. She hopes to parlay her talent for designing clothes -- and her great, unique flair for putting together stylish outfits -- into a successful fashion design career.
“I love to draw clothes, shop, and dress people,” Cortijo said. “Now that everyone on the team knows that I want to be a fashion designer, they’re always asking me what they should wear.”
Right now, bouncing back from her January surgery, she is taking her own advice, advice that she wrote about in this year’s basketball media guide when asked what words of wisdom she would pass on to young athletes: Always work hard and make yourself better every time you step onto the court.
“I know that I can’t be complacent and I have to compete every day,” Cortijo said. “I came to Texas to compete, to win, and I want to help us win a National Championship.”