If you want to know what it's like to be famous at 15, don't ask Chaz Ortiz.
For all the accomplishments already behind him, all the hype that currently surrounds him and all the expectations before him, the 5-foot-2-on-his-tippy-toes, buck-nothing-when-soaking-wet skateboarding phenom just doesn't see
himself that way.
This seems hard to fathom considering all that's happened to Ortiz in the past year alone.
Last June, he joined the Am Team at Zoo York, a skateboard and apparel company that was his biggest sponsor -- that is until Gatorade signed him in January. Not that this was completely uncharted territory. Ortiz has been getting hooked up by Zoo York and companies like DC Shoes since legendary skaters Jefferson Pang and the late Harold Hunter spotted him at a contest in Philly when he was 9.
"I never went out and chased a sponsor," says Ortiz, who turned 15 on May 4. "They came to me."
Ortiz is the lone skater in Gatorade's new "What is G?" commercials -- directed by none other than Spike Lee -- appearing alongside sports legends like Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, Derek Jeter and Michael Jordan, the last of whom was at his shoot in Chicago.
"That dude, he's a legend," Ortiz says of His Airness. "Just to meet him was so amazing."
This winter, Ortiz joined DC's team and was
featured in the NEXT issue of ESPN The Magazine. Much of the attention and sponsorships stemmed from his performance in the AST Dew Tour. He had won the amateur division of the tour in 2007, but last summer he went head to head with superstars like Paul Rodriguez and Ryan Sheckler.
It wasn't enough just to qualify -- Ortiz won the Dew Cup, securing the victory with a huge
performance at the PlayStation Pro in Orlando, Fla.
"That was insane," Ortiz says. "I never thought that would happen, but it happened so early. I was hyped."
By all accounts, Ortiz hasn't let the hype go to his head. Eschewing the home-school route, Ortiz attends a public high school, Dundee-Crown (Carpentersville, Ill.). And he finds the celebrity talk kind of silly.
But with all that's happened, how does he stay humble?
"I don't know, dude," he says. "I grew up skating with all my friends. You're supposed to be skating for fun."
That's what Ortiz has been doing since he was first introduced to the sport by his cousin at age 6. From the jump, it was clear he had the talent. He just seemed to learn tricks faster than anyone else.
Ortiz began ripping it up at skateparks around his home in Carpentersville, which is about 45 minutes northwest of Chicago, a straight shot up Interstate 90. Before long, Ortiz was entering -- and winning -- local skating contests in and around Chicago.
Chaz Ortiz Favorites
TV Show: "That '70s Show"
- Movie: "A Bronx Tale"
Musical Artist: Lil Wayne
- Athlete: Michael Jordan
It didn't take long for Ortiz to get hooked, and in 2003, Chaz and his parents, Mark and Natalia, drove out to California -- the mecca of skating -- stopping at skateparks all along the way.
And while he used to divide his time between skating and several other sports, a few years ago it just kind of clicked: This was it. His passion shines through when he rides.
"I just love the kid," says Rob Dyrdek, a
professional skateboarder who became known to the masses as the star of the MTV show "Rob & Big." "He's got such swagger for a little kid. He's got it, you know what I mean?"
Dyrdek certainly knows. He was signed at age 11, and as he was overseeing the completion of his first skatepark in his native Ohio, it was a 10-year-old Chaz Ortiz who "kick-flipped the 12-stair before it was even finished."
Now they're both with DC. Dyrdek's father became friends with Ortiz's parents. The parallels are almost eerie. But Ortiz has come up in a different era, when contests like the X Games or Dew Tour can vault a skater to instant prominence.
That's only one measure of success for a skateboarder; winning contests is great, but it's not the be-all, end-all of the sport. This is one of the things that makes action sports, and skating in particular, very different from conventional sports.
To really show your worth, Dyrdek says, you need to prove yourself by "throwing down in the streets." That means skate videos showing off your gnarly street tricks. It means skate magazine
covers, spreads in publications like Thrasher and Skateboarder. It means going head to head with top skaters in S.K.A.T.E. -- the skateboarding equivalent of H.O.R.S.E.
Coming up in contests like Ortiz did -- call it the Sheckler model -- is not the route the world's best professional skateboarders have traditionally taken. Outside of Rodriguez (aka P-Rod), most of the greats skip contests altogether. But Ortiz has been throwing down for a long time, and pretty soon people are going to see that.
On May 1, P-Rod released "Proof," which features a handful of the country's best skaters, including Ortiz. Then in June, Ortiz will be featured in the Zoo York crew video "State of Mind."
"When you ride away from that trick (on the street), it's different than winning a contest," Ortiz says. "I'm just trying to learn new tricks every day. You want to be your own person."
Which isn't to say Ortiz is abandoning the contests that made him famous. He loves it all.
"I skate everything," he says. "I'll skate a vert ramp, I'll skate street, I'll skate anything."
As far as proving himself beyond the contest circuit, there's certainly no rush. He's a freshman in high school, after all. The future can wait. But chances are, it won't wait for very long.
"Chaz is so gifted it's not even a question of whether or not he'll do it, it's just the process of what he needs to do," says Dyrdek, who plans to have Ortiz on his new MTV show, "Fantasy Factory." "You knew LeBron James was going to be LeBron James when he was a sophomore."
The LeBron James of skating -- that has a nice ring to it. Just don't expect Ortiz to start calling himself that.
Lucas O'Neill covers high school sports for ESPN RISE Magazine.