- Associated Press - Thursday, November 3, 2011

BERKELEY, CALIF. (AP) - Jorge Gutierrez still remembers bits and pieces from the day he crossed the Mexican border at 15 to begin a new life in the United States.

His parents, Bertha and Fernando, dropped their son off in Denver and helped him sign up for school before returning to their hectic lives in Chihuahua, Mexico, to work and care for two older sons. It was an excruciating choice for the tight-knit family. Gutierrez, who recalls his sadness at the time, would have to get by speaking very limited English while living far from home with three other Mexican teens just as determined to build a future by making the same huge sacrifice.

“You always think about it. It’s something that marked my life forever,” said Gutierrez, now a star guard for No. 24 California. “It’s been a while, but I don’t forget about those things. I learned a lot of stuff.”

Gutierrez moved to Denver to play at Lincoln High, a school that is currently close to 97 percent Hispanic and enrolls the Spanish-speaking students who need a place to thrive _ and did Gutierrez ever do so. He led Lincoln to a state championship while facing constant scrutiny, racism and speculation that he and his countrymen were using false birth certificates or transcripts and shouldn’t get to play. Let alone trounce on all the teams with American-born players.

He was an illegal immigrant for a time before receiving a student visa, which was updated when he arrived at Cal. Gutierrez spent his final high school season at Findlay Prep in Henderson, Nev., after it was determined he needed more credits.

The fiery Gutierrez landed almost by accident in Berkeley as fourth-year Cal coach Mike Montgomery’s first recruit. The Golden Bears needed a fill-in guard at the last minute after another transferred, and Gutierrez was both available and on Montgomery’s list of recommended players.

Gutierrez has earned a reputation as one of the toughest, hardest-working players in the new Pac-12.

Some say Cal hasn’t had a player who hustles, hits the ground for loose balls and flies around the court with this kind of energy since the days of Jason Kidd.

“It’s an honor, but to be honest, I don’t like when they compare me to anybody,” Gutierrez said. “That’s who they are. I have my own ways. I work hard because I want to work hard and I want to be successful. I want to be the best I can be. This is me. This is who I am.”

By Gutierrez’s definition, he is a much more than just a basketball player.

“First of all, I like people to know I’m a son. I’m a pretty nice son. I can be a very good friend as well,” he said. “Pretty mellow guy, very quiet. Once I open up I can be a pretty nice person.”

And feisty once he hits the floor.

Some of that grit developed during those tough times in Denver.

He arrived as a frightened kid, forced to grow up in a hurry. In his case, crossing the border was the easy part.

“I can tell you about the little pictures that I have in my mind,” said Gutierrez, now 22, on a student visa and six months from earning a college degree. “It was nothing difficult because I had a tourist visa at the time. I was nervous, of course, because after I crossed the border I was going to be illegal because tourists can’t go to school, can’t work, can’t live by themselves. The experience of crossing the border wasn’t as hard as the experience of living in the United States. …

“I always think about my family, my mom. I cannot imagine how hard it was for her to let me go.”

While the young men had the support of their coaches, teachers and other parents, they sustained on “each other, really.”

Food often was scarce.

When Gutierrez struggled to get through games and bruised easily, it was determined he was anemic _ his iron deficiency perhaps caused from being undernourished.

“If we had food we would share with each other. That was just the way it was. We became a family,” he said, opening up to The Associated Press in a recent interview. “If it’s going to look like I’m crying about it, I wouldn’t talk about it, because it’s something personal. I’m very proud of what I went through. If it’s something that’s going to help people, then I’m totally open.”

There is no outward evidence of Gutierrez’s struggles. He has added strength each year through his rigorous routine in the weight room, and it shows.

He pulls his shoulder-length black hair back into a bun, which he plans as his signature ‘do for this season. He has a beard to match.

Gutierrez is an enigma of sorts in the college game _ from his style to his path. Though Montgomery would sign Gutierrez all over again if he could.

“One can only imagine what his background was and what he’s had to put up with to get here,” Montgomery said. “I would be real surprised if any of the coaches said anything different, he is just an unbelievable kid to coach. He can be stubborn and he has his little quirks, but you watch him now and he’s so much more confident. There are certain things he does as well as anybody. His midrange game, curling off screens, is really good. Finishing at the basket, defending, it’s great to see.”

Gutierrez was named Cal’s top defender last season, when he averaged a team-leading 14.6 points and also grabbed 3.8 rebounds per game.

It was fellow Chihuahuan and 11-year NBA veteran Eduardo Najera who helped set an example for basketball players in Mexico.

More than half of the players on Gutierrez’s state title Lincoln team were from Mexico.

“I’ve never seen a kid that will go to any lengths to win, whether it’s being here on his own or practicing three to four hours in a day,” Lincoln coach Vince Valdez said. “That’s just how Jorge is, he’s flat-out a winner and has been instrumental in every team winning wherever he has been.”

What Gutierrez missed most through his remarkable journey was being a typical teen.

He sees his parents about once a year, but traveled home twice this summer _ once to visit his family and then later to play with the national team.

“I got to play in front of them with the Mexican jersey on. That was special,” he said. “If you would ask me what I missed most about it? Just being a kid. I missed being a kid. I had to grow up faster than most kids had to. I missed my family, but I thank them at the same time. They let me go, even though it was hard, they let me go. Because I had a dream.”

His parents will come for the Bears’ season opener Nov. 13 and again for his May graduation.

Gutierrez faced scrutiny, protests and racism, but he insists he never felt that he or his friends were in danger. He deals with some of the same issues back home because “they don’t agree with me being here. It’s just politics.”

That’s a lot to endure for a teen, especially in a foreign place with no parental guidance.

“To the average adolescent it would be, but these young men were so resilient they turned it into a motivational piece,” Valdez said. “It was an us-against-them mentality. They were more calloused for what they had undergone. They learned to deal with the pressure. The pressure actually made us. That helped develop the chip on Jorge’s shoulder he plays with, that people didn’t want to see him succeed.”

Popular and controversial Denver talk radio host, Peter Boyles, called out the Mexican teens. They were ridiculed and stereotyped.

They stood their ground, on the court and off.

“We wanted to prove something. It was about basketball. It wasn’t about ethnicity or race,” Gutierrez recalled. “It was just kids playing basketball. That’s what it was. We wanted to teach people that we are all equal and we were all playing for a goal, which was winning.”

Gutierrez is now well-spoken in English after all the struggles to communicate when he first arrived.

His first two years in Berkeley were spent largely on the bench, though Gutierrez’s influence in practice forced Montgomery to take note.

“I could make something up and make it seem like we were clairvoyant and saw what he was going to be. We were stuck and needed somebody,” Montgomery said. “We took a gamble and obviously it’s paid off.”

Gutierrez is thankful Montgomery discovered him at the right time for both men.

Then, there was Gutierrez wearing blue and gold, diving for loose balls all over the floor in Haas Pavilion.

“He found out about me. He gave me a chance. That’s all I needed,” he said. “I’m big on saying, ‘I don’t need easy, I need possible.’ I proved to myself I could play at this level. I didn’t want to stop there. Every day I keep pushing myself to play with the best in the world.”

Montgomery believes that very well could happen. After Gutierrez produces a special senior season in Berkeley, that is.

“I don’t want to put the hex on him, but I think Jorge has a chance to play in the NBA,” said Montgomery, who spent two seasons coaching the Golden State Warriors. “People aren’t going to look at him at first blush and say that because he doesn’t do this or doesn’t do that. But when I put him on the team after all that, I said, ‘God, dang, he’s everywhere, he’s doing everything.’ He ties the whole thing together.”

Gutierrez never thought this far ahead back when he moved to the U.S.

Before an open gym session this fall, Gutierrez walked down the arena hallway with his arm around teammate Emerson Murray.

“Every day, every practice, every game, I think I live it to the max,” Gutierrez said. “I don’t regret anything I’ve done and I feel I live everything to the max. …

“I’m happy. I’m happy with what I have.”

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