Little man? Hardly!

Originally printed in Silent News, October 2001.

Man Works for LA Lakers

John Cortez, Jr., 5’1″ and 160 pounds, doesn’t quite measure up to Los Angeles Lakers Shaquille O’Neal’s 7’1″ and 315-pound frame. Their friendship, though, is something unique.

Cortez, 36, was a maintenance worker at the former arena of the Lakers, the Forum, when he got laid off. He was resigned to the fact that he wouldn’t come back to the Forum. “Shaq asked my boss where the ‘little deaf dude’ was. The boss told him that there wasn’t enough room for me to be employed with them,” Cortez said. “But Shaq wanted to see me work with the players and others, so he arranged to have me hired back.”

With this began the special connection Cortez has with Shaq. “In four years of working there, I had never visited the locker room. Finally, with Shaq, I was able to work in the locker room,” he said. “This was good, because players didn’t realize I was deaf and couldn’t hear what they were saying. I could be more focused and work on my duties.”

With the job comes some perks, like meeting famous people. “One time Michael Jordan walked into the locker room. I met him, and he tried to talk to me, but I told him I was deaf,” Cortez recalled. “He was very cool, which surprised me, about my deafness.”

“I also met Phil Jackson. His daughter knows sign language. He didn’t bother me, and I didn’t bother him. But we always say hello to each other at every game, just like I say hello to the players.”

Cortez has also worked as a water boy of sorts, giving players towels and water when they want it. “It’s an easy job,” he said. An easy job, perhaps, but one that is certainly coveted by many sports fans.

Another perk of the job is having access to game seats. Cortez attended the National Basketball Association finals game in Philadelphia. “I went there on June 11 until the 16th, and stayed at the hotel with the Lakers team. The team was glad to see me, because I am full of Laker spirit!” The Lakers went on to win the series and the world championship over the Philadelphia 76ers, 4-1. Cortez will receive a championship ring this fall.

Cortez, who currently lives in Fontana, Calif., graduated from the Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind in 1984. In addition to working for the Lakers, Cortez also is president of the Santa Ana basketball club, part of the FarWest Athletic Association of the Deaf. The club will host the Santa Ana tournament on March 8-10, 2002.

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