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

Story Highlights

Jorge Gutierrez entered the country illegally at 15 to pursue his basketball dreams

Gutierrez became a prep star in Colorado, but also a political lightning rod

The tough, hard-working guard is in the midst of a breakout junior season at Cal

By Jordan Conn, Special to SI.com

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Jorge Gutierrez
Jorge Gutierrez is Cal's second-leading scorer (11.9 ppg) while pacing the Golden Bears in assists (4.1) and steals (1.5).
Ray Carlin/Icon SMI

BERKELEY, Calif. -- 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, futbol, but Najera's success inspired even more Chihuahuans to leave the soccer pitch for the blacktop.

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."

 
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