Posted: Thursday January 27, 2011 11:01AM ; Updated: Thursday January 27, 2011 12:12PM
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Cal's Gutierrez shaped by life-changing voyage from Mexico (cont.)

By Jordan Conn, Special to SI.com

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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."

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