Heart and bones

Pac-12 Player of the Year Jorge Gutierrez is the rare star who excels not just because of talent but through will, resolve and heart. Not yet graduated, the senior guard has already become a legend at Cal.

Brenna Alexander/Staff
Jorge Gutierrez is the first player in Pac-12 history to win Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year honors. The senior guard has cemented his legacy on the Cal program in his four years in Berkeley.

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Most kids dream about hitting game-winning shots. As the clock ticks down in their imaginary NBA Finals or NCAA Tournament, they step back and release. Swish.

Not Jorge Gutierrez. His dream scenario: diving for a steal and hurling the ball down court for a transition dunk.

“I just want the steal and the assist,” says Cal’s senior guard.

Being on the court is enough for Gutierrez. His lifelong goal is to play the game he loves at the highest level, and he is living proof to the unlikely combination of perseverance, ambition and just enough talent.

Gutierrez is the rare college athlete who is a mythic figure before even leaving school. His grueling journey has him rebelling against his legend yet shying away from reality. His legacy, through four years at Cal, is his heart.

Gutierrez avoids attention. Admittedly shy, Gutierrez rarely comes out for interviews after games even though he is perfectly fluent in English. Off the court, he defers to his teammates. “I give them the attention,” he says. If only Gutierrez didn’t warrant so much of it himself.

Last week, Gutierrez was named Pac-12 Player of the Year, just the sixth Bear to ever win the award. He won it despite averaging only 12.9 points per game, which is not even the highest mark on his own team. Gutierrez was also voted Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year. He is the first player in Pac-12 history to win both.

“(The coaches) I think voted for Jorge based on what he has meant to our program,” said Cal head coach Mike Montgomery. “I think more than just this year — but over a four-year period. I think every coach in the league would love to have Jorge on their team for all the intrinsic things that he does for you.”

Gutierrez established himself through toughness and grit — the so-called intangibles. Compare that to Jerome Randle, Cal’s conference Player of the Year in 2010. Randle was flashy. He launched 30-foot threes. He did not play defense. Gutierrez locks down the opposing teams’ top scorers on a weekly basis. He shoots only when he needs to. He wears his heart on his sleeve.

“You feel bad if you’re not putting out the effort he does,” said point guard Justin Cobbs.

That drive and determination guided him through his perilous journey to Cal.

Gutierrez grew up in a middle-class family in Chihuahua, Mexico, about three hours from the U.S. border. One summer, a friend of his returned from Denver and invited Gutierrez back up with him. It was the chance to play better basketball, so he seized the opportunity.

“My parents and I thought about it,” Gutierrez says. “Of course they didn’t think it was a great idea, but that’s what I wanted to do, so they supported me.”

So at 16 years old, not knowing any English, Gutierrez and three friends packed up and moved to Colorado. “I couldn’t communicate,” says Gutierrez, who reached the States via a tourist visa, meaning he couldn’t technically go to school or work. He did anyway. While attending Denver’s Lincoln High School, Gutierrez lived with his three friends and teammates. The teenagers were on their own. They cooked, did laundry, worked.

Some of the stories of his high school days in Denver —  namely, a profile in Sports Illustrated — have been aggrandized, glorifying Gutierrez as a player and a person. He prefers the truth to the sensationally positive press.

Tales of him starving and living off only lettuce are exaggerated. But Gutierrez was malnourished. He never went to a doctor for a diagnosis, but he was anemic.

“It was probably because we weren’t eating well,” he says. “It happens. You don’t have food, you don’t have money to buy as much food as you want. We didn’t eat that well.”

No, it doesn’t just happen. Gutierrez’s modesty can get in the way of the extraordinary, his humility playing down what is by any standards incredible. His health didn’t get in the way of basketball, though. The basketball court provided Gutierrez a respite 864 miles away from home.

Even an injury to his dominant hand couldn’t keep Gutierrez off the court. “I hurt my right hand,” Gutierrez says, “so I had to play with my left. It happens. Everybody does that.”

No, just Kobe Bryant. But then again, most people don’t have either guard’s will and determination. Gutierrez traveled all that way to play basketball; having the full use of only one arm was not going to stop him.

“If you really wanna play, you’re gonna play no matter what.”

And that’s what Gutierrez did. At Lincoln, he played against the best players in Colorado and led the Lancers to a state championship.

He eventually moved on to Findlay Prep, a private school in Las Vegas that gave Gutierrez a scholarship. He was able to focus on basketball. Now playing against the best players in the nation, Gutierrez continued to excel on a team stacked with major Division I talent.

Yet by May of 2008, Gutierrez still did not have any favorable offers to play college ball. Until Montgomery, the Bears’ new head coach, came out of the blue.

“I didn’t have any idea what he would become,” Montgomery said. “We were over a barrel, and we didn’t have a lot of choices. We were in late, and we went after what people were saying were the best players available.”

All Montgomery knew about Gutierrez, through friends, was that he was a “tough kid” and a “tremendous competitor.”

That was good enough for Montgomery. Gutierrez was flown out to Berkeley. At the end of the visit, Montgomery put the scholarship papers on the table. Gutierrez never hesitated.

Four years later, Gutierrez has made a lasting impression at Cal — flying across the court for loose balls, contorting his body in the paint for three-point plays.

But ask him what his legacy is, and Gutierrez does not know.

He admits he is a “different player. ” He sets an example that scoring is not always necessary for success. He acknowledges that he does whatever it takes to win. (“Some nights I need to just rebound the ball or stop the best player,” he says.)

What will people remember about him? “That he’s a kid who plays hard every night,” he finally says of himself. “A kid who always did the little things to win the game and played hard all the time and pushed his teammates to the max to be the best they can be.

“I’m OK with that.”

He’s not done, though. He has led the Bears to their second NCAA Tournament bid in three years, at times on his back. He’s been recognized as the best player in his conference — even in a conference drained of top-tier NBA talent. He worked hard, he persevered. When an opportunity presented itself, he pounced.

“It’s not good enough yet,” he says. “I feel like I have accomplished something already, but I think I can do more.”

Where does he go from here, once Cal’s NCAA Tournament run ends? Like all those dreamers on inner-city blacktops and high school gymnasiums and dimly lit backyards, Gutierrez wants to make it to the NBA. He has the talent, track record and determination. As long as he is playing basketball, Jorge Gutierrez will take it.

“Wherever I go,” he says, “I’ll be happy with it.”