Cal's Jorge Gutierrez shaped by life-changing voyage from Mexico
Jorge Gutierrez wears bruises the way others wear tattoos, each one symbolic and decorative, visual revelations of the man whose body they adorn.
For Gutierrez -- Cal's floor-diving, ponytail-wearing and backcourt-terrorizing point guard -- the bruises tell stories of charges taken, loose balls corralled and elbows swung, the small on-court tussles he's sought on his way to becoming one of the toughest players in college basketball.
"He's a guy that will do anything you need him to do," Cal coach Mike Montgomery said of Gutierrez. "He's as tough a kid as there is. He's stubborn, and he's a hard worker, and you can't tell him that he can't do something, because he's going to do all he can to prove you wrong."
These days, each bruise is earned, the product of hustle and determination and a lust for on-court contact. But there was a time when Gutierrez was powerless to stop the bruises from covering his body, when the slightest bump would cause his joints to slip and his muscles to ache, his tanned skin turning various combinations of black and blue.
As a teenage boy who played for Lincoln High School in Denver, Gutierrez took the court for a summer league tournament. "We're playing and Jorge is just getting these enormous bruises all over him," recalled Ray Valdez, an assistant coach at Lincoln. "He's got circles around his eyes and everything, and it turns out he's anemic."
Anemia occurs when the red blood cells and hemoglobin have decreased in your blood, leaving you too tired and weak to endure normal activity. For Gutierrez, the cause was simple: iron deficiency. But it can be tough to get enough iron when the only food in your apartment is a head of wilted lettuce. And it can be tough to stock your refrigerator when you live 770 miles from home and don't know the language. And sure, plenty of immigrants from plenty of countries manage to go shopping all the time, but it can be tough when you're a 15-year-old kid, living in a one-bedroom apartment with three other teenagers -- all impoverished, all scared, all detached from their families and overwhelmed by their surroundings.
So when the anemia took hold of Gutierrez, bruising his body and dislodging his joints, it was natural, really. And when his right (shooting) hand turned blue, Gutierrez decided to play on.
Shooting left-handed, he scored 18 points.
Now the second-leading scorer and the leader in assists and steals for the defending Pac-10 champion Bears, Gutierrez no longer has to worry about malnutrition. But before he could begin his time in Berkeley, Gutierrez had to endure a different life in Colorado, where he lived as a basketball star, a frightened foreigner and a political lightning rod, but never, it seemed, as the teenage boy that he so longed to be.
It all started with Eduardo Najera.
The Charlotte Bobcats forward, now in his 12th NBA season, emerged from life in Chihuahua, Mexico, to become the first Mexican to enjoy sustained success in the NBA. Basketball and baseball had long been more popular in Chihuahua than the country's national pastime,
Another player from Chihuahua, Hector Hernandez, moved from Mexico to Denver with his family in search of a better life. Like most Denver students who speak Spanish as their first language, Hernandez was assigned to attend Abraham Lincoln High, where the 6-foot-9 forward arrived with good size but little skill. During his time in Denver, however, Hernandez improved under the Valdez brothers, Vince (the team's head coach) and Ray (his assistant). Soon Hernandez developed a soft shooting touch and good perimeter skills for his size, going on to a successful college career at Fresno State.
Back in Chihuahua, other kids took notice.
"It just so happened that around the same time Hector was making a name for himself coming out of our school, Eduardo was having success with the Nuggets," Ray Valdez said. "It was a coincidence really, but kids saw that and started to think that Denver must be a good place for Mexican basketball players."
Lincoln's student population is 92 percent Hispanic, with 96 percent of its students on free and reduced lunch, making it the poorest school in the district. Because it serves as Denver's magnet school for Spanish speakers, most of the city's Mexican immigrants are automatically assigned to Lincoln. So after ball-players from Chihuahua showed up in Denver, it didn't take long for them to find the Lancers' gymnasium.
But first, they had to cross the border.
Everyone who knows Gutierrez describes him as intensely private and reserved. If he's going to express himself, he does it on the basketball court or in a sketchbook, using his play and his drawings -- but rarely his words -- as an outlet. So when Gutierrez tells the story of how he came to the United States, it can be difficult to get details.
This much is known: At age 15, he came with his parents and, like millions of other Mexicans living in the United States, he entered the country illegally. From his perspective, it was purely a basketball decision. "I wanted to play against the best," he said. "Mexico's not exactly a basketball hotbed. I had to come here."
Gutierrez's parents had to be present for him to register for school. But sometime thereafter, they returned to their lives in Chihuahua, and Jorge resided in a one-bedroom apartment with three other high schoolers -- all Mexican, all undocumented, all between the ages of 14 and 16, and all basketball players. For many 15-year-olds, the possibility of living in an apartment with no parents, no rules, and three of your best friends may seem utopian.
Not for Gutierrez.
"I wish I could have stayed in Mexico longer," Gutierrez said. "I wish I could have been a kid longer. But I had to move on."
His immigration story is no tale of poverty escaped and opportunity seized. Quite the opposite, in fact. In Chihuahua, Gutierrez was middle class, the son of a math teacher and a nurse. "We struggled like anybody else," Gutierrez said. "But there was always food on the table."
Not in Denver.
There, the kids relied on money sent by their parents, but a few pesos never went very far. "We always looked forward to going to school," said Paco Cruz, Gutierrez's high school roommate and now a guard at the University of Wyoming. "Because at school, we knew we would get a free meal."
At home, they were left with whatever they could scrounge up enough money to buy. Some weeks, like the week Gutierrez was diagnosed with anemia, that meant eating only old and wilted heads of lettuce for days at a time. Once word spread about the kids' poverty -- among AAU teammates and opposing coaches, as well as the parents of players they'd competed with and against -- people started contributing cash and grocery cards, a little money here and there to chip in for their well-being.
One day, after the kids had received some grocery money, Ray Valdez showed up at their house to give Gutierrez and his roommate, Saul Torres, a ride. On his way to the car, Torres took a cup-full of raw egg, guzzled it down and let out a
Valdez watched, incredulous. "Why are you guys doing that?" he asked. "What are you thinking?"
"Coach," Gutierrez said, "they turned off our gas. We have groceries, but we can't cook."
They couldn't cook, and at times they couldn't even eat, but on the basketball court, it seemed, the Mexican kids could do whatever they damn well pleased.
"Other teams hated us," Gutierrez said. "We were out there beating everybody, talking Spanish to each other on the court. No one could believe that a bunch of Mexicans were as good as we were."
When Gutierrez was a junior, Lincoln started the season slowly, winning only six of its first 12 games. But in mid-January the team hit its stride, winning nine of 10 to finish the regular season. By playoff time, the Lancers had rounded into peak form.
But the winning brought scrutiny. With illegal immigration a constant topic of debate, with Gutierrez physically dominating all opposing guards, with parents whispering about falsified birth certificates and academically ineligible players, a firestorm soon erupted. One night, with Gutierrez on the bench nursing an injury, Cruz erupted for 30 points. When a television reporter approached him after the game, the Nogales, Mexico native stood by in silence, unable to conduct the interview in English.
Local shock-jock radio host Peter Boyles saw the interview and launched into a tirade on his morning show, bemoaning the fact that one of the best basketball teams in the state was filled with kids who spoke little to no English. Boyles assumed, correctly, that Cruz and his teammates had came to the U.S. illegally, and soon anti-illegal immigration activists had rallied to protest against Lincoln's success.
The protesters showed up outside of games, marching and carrying signs. They showed up in the stands, shouting anti-illegal immigration and, at times, racist chants. They showed up at the home of coaches Vince and Ray Valdez, finding any venue available to rail against Lincoln's team.
Gutierrez now has a student VISA that allows him to live in Berkeley and attend Cal legally, but as an undocumented high schooler, he and his teammates were thrust into the center of a debate that has gripped Colorado for years. In 2002, a student from the Denver suburb of Aurora made headlines when he publicly asked to be given in-state tuition at the University of Colorado. He'd been accepted to the university but denied the in-state rate because of his immigration status. Congressman Tom Tancredo, a Denver native, called for the boy and his family to be deported. When Tancredo ran for president in 2008, his primary platform was opposition to illegal immigration.
But the situation in Denver was complicated. Although the Lincoln players' most ardent supporters were
"They were yelling things like, 'You're taking my kid's scholarship!' and stuff like that," Ray Valdez recalled. "It was interesting to see."
Midway through the season, CHSAA, the state high school athletic association, began investigating Gutierrez. Lincoln noticed ambiguity in his transcript and self-reported the issue to the governing body. The confusion stemmed over the difference in grade classifications between Mexico and the United States. In Mexico, high school begins in 10th grade, but in Colorado, it begins in 9th. Gutierrez's birth certificate showed him to be 18, as old as most high school seniors, but the school had classified him as a junior. After investigating, CHSAA reclassified him as a senior.
Gutierrez remained eligible for the year, but the ruling was clear: that season would be his last. Still, some people maintained that he didn't belong in high school. "He was so dominant physically," said Mitch Conrad, coach at Ralston Valley High, "that yeah, people definitely questioned his age."
Did Conrad think Gutierrez was older than he claimed?
"Honestly," he said, "I wouldn't have been surprised."
Gutierrez felt shocked and hurt by the allegations, angry at those who questioned the legitimacy of his accomplishments. "They just didn't want to admit that I could do the things that I could do and still be in high school," he said. "They didn't want to admit that a Mexican kid was that good."
And in the state tournament he was dominant, hurling his body all over the court, skying for rebounds over post players and raising hell in the backcourt against opposing guards. He carried Lincoln to the title game, where the Lancers would face Conrad's Ralston Valley squad.
The game would be televised back in Mexico, but many of the players' parents had made the journey to Boulder so they could watch in person. Only Cruz's parents were unable to attend, and before the game, he sat on the floor, crying over the fact that he had no family in the stands. "You do have family here," Valdez later remembered Gutierrez saying. "We are your brothers. So if our parents are here, your parents are here."
Engulfed in controversy, mired in poverty and on the verge of the ultimate victory, Gutierrez and his teammates felt a range of warring emotions. Deeply homesick, they felt thrilled over all they'd accomplished in a foreign land. Wounded by racism, they felt grateful to the Americans who'd seen them not as political pawns, but as children to be helped. Just before tipoff, Valdez said, some teared up listening to the American national anthem, humbled to be playing for a championship in the land that had become home.
"Honestly, you could look at them on the court and sense it," Valdez said. "You could see they were the embodiment of the American dream."
Not everyone agreed. In the stands, some fans wore sombreros -- "You could tell what they meant by it," Gutierrez said -- and hurled scattered insults at the Lincoln players. But when the game tipped off, Gutierrez took the court with a purpose, scrapping and diving and bullying his way to the title. The game remained close throughout the first half, and the score was tied with about a minute remaining in the second quarter. The ball came loose near the sideline, and Gutierrez raced against a Ralston Valley player to gain possession. Gutierrez dove face-first toward the ball, smacking it with his hand to a teammate, who raced down the court for a layup.
"It was one of those moments you'll never forget," Ray Valdez recalled. "He's got his eyes wide open, his long hair flying around, his arms all tangled up with the other kid, and he just gets it done."
Lincoln never trailed again.
Gutierrez finished the night with 18 points and 12 rebounds, leading his team to a 63-52 win. In the aftermath, Valdez recalled a range of emotions among the team. The players high-fived. They smiled. They laughed. And all together -- feeling, Valdez said, "joy and excitement but also catharsis and even a little anger" -- they screamed.
Then they turned to their fans -- including those who'd traveled from Mexico just to see the game -- and joined them in a chant, boasting to all who'd listen of the land from which they'd come.
"Viva Chihuahua!" they cried. "Viva Chihuahua!"
And Gutierrez reveled with his teammates, celebrating the win -- acting, for a moment, like just any other kid.
His season-long performance earned Gutierrez the title of Colorado's Class 4A Mr. Basketball. He left Lincoln the next fall to attend Findlay Prep in Nevada, and although his age and grade level had been questioned in Colorado, there were no such problems in Nevada. Alongside future Kentucky Wildcat DeAndre Liggins, Gutierrez led the Pilots to a 32-1 record.
Three years later, Findlay Prep coach Michael Peck would say of Gutierrez, "As a player and a student and as an embodiment of what we want to be as a program, Jorge was the best we've ever had."
Gutierrez signed with Cal, becoming Montgomery's first recruit as the Bears' coach. He spent his first two seasons in Berkeley as the team's consummate role player, dominating for stretches of the game without ever touching the ball. But this year, Gutierrez has taken a new role. Having lost the top four scorers from last year's team to graduation, the Bears have slipped in the Pac-10 pecking order, currently sitting 10-9 and 3-4 in league play. But with all-conference guards Patrick Christopher and Jerome Randle now gone, Gutierrez has emerged as the team's top backcourt scorer, averaging 11.9 points per game.
"I've seen him progress a lot on the offensive side," Bears forward Markhuri Sanders-Frison said. "He's always been a good scorer, but he just has more confidence in himself now."
And while Gutierrez was once typically deployed as the ultimate help-side defender, he now draws the opponents' top offensive player.
"He's a key for us in every part of the game," Montgomery said. "Shooting, going to the basket, on the boards and obviously, on defense."
Gutierrez takes the court with a certain rage, mostly harnessed but sometimes unhinged. His freshman year against Stanford, Gutierrez's defensive effort sparked Cal to a 22-point comeback win. Afterwards, Montgomery described his play by saying Gutierrez "guards like eight guys. He runs around and finds the ball." But Gutierrez has also never been shy about engaging in a scuffle. "He takes things personally; he competes out there," Montgomery said after Gutierrez tried to tussle with Kansas' Thomas Robinson in a loss to the Jayhawks in December. "It's not a bad thing, but there are times and circumstances."
Valdez said Gutierrez still plays and lives as if the world has conspired against him, as if any misstep -- on or off the court -- may rob him of the game he loves and the opportunities he's fought to attain. But for Gutierrez, the philosophy is simple.
"I play every game like it's my last," he said. "Because you never when it will all be taken away."