BERKELEY, Calif. Jorge Gutierrez dreams in English and Spanish these days. In either language, he doesn't need to sleep to dream. All he has to do is open his eyes.
There in front of him is a degree from one of the most prestigious universities in the world and the possibility of getting an NBA contract — only six years after living a nightmare when he arrived in Denver. That's when he could only dream in Spanish, write in Spanish and speak in Spanish.
Back at Denver's Abraham Lincoln High School, one of the first things he learned was every conjugation of the verb "to eat." Less than a year after a long car ride from his native Chihuahua, Mexico, he found himself entering his junior year of high school and rooming with three other Spanish-speaking schoolmates in Denver. The 15- and 16-year-olds cooked, cleaned, paid bills and fended for themselves with little supervision against a backdrop of controversy from a community wringing its hands over the immigration issue.
"It's just a dream," Gutierrez said, sitting in the media room of California's Haas Pavilion. "I started with nothing. We started with nothing."
Today the 6-foot-3 shooting guard has almost everything. He's the Pac-12's preseason player of the year after earning first-team honors and all-academic all-league last season. He's the spiritual and emotional leader of a Cal team that was 14-4 overall and 4-1 in league play entering Saturday night's game against Utah. And he's projected as a second-round NBA draft pick this summer.
"It all kind of seems surreal," Lincoln coach Vince Valdez said. "When you see the life that this young man led — all these kids lived — he was on the brink of poverty. If they're willing to make that sacrifice and that commitment, the fact that he has a chance to play in the NBA now, if you look at it in those terms, it's not surprising."
Gutierrez didn't "escape" Mexico. His father is a middle school teacher and his mom a retired nurse. His life in Chihuahua, an industrialized city of 825,000 in northern Mexico, was fine.
Basketball is Chihuahua's sport of choice, but the quality was nearly as poor as the facilities. Gutierrez tired of playing with rips in the nets, and his club team's travels across Mexico had him dreaming of playing against the best. Hector Hernandez had come from Chihuahua to Lincoln and went on to earn a scholarship to Fresno State. Another Chihuahua product, Saul Torres, was already at Lincoln. When Torres told him to come up, Gutierrez piled in a car headed north with nothing but good grades and a scrappy, defensive persona from playing against two older brothers.
His parents came with him, but how long they stayed is a mystery that all involved refuse to discuss. Immigration remains a sensitive issue and was then. Gutierrez's teammate Francisco Cruz, now starring at Wyoming, was called out on a local radio show for his inability to do a postgame interview in English after scoring 28 points against Montbello. Lincoln, 97 percent Hispanic, wasn't becoming just a growing state power but a touchstone for a national issue.
Fans heckled Lincoln players coming off the bus. One school's students sat in the stands wearing sombreros.
"Everybody has different opinions," said Gutierrez , with only a slight accent. "I'm nobody to judge how someone thinks. We just wanted to prove that we could play."
"We were doing our laundry"
Not that Gutierrez understood all the criticism. Lincoln is Denver Public Schools' official English Language Acquisition school, and Coach Valdez estimates 35 percent to 50 percent of Lincoln's 1,900 students are second-language learners.
Gutierrez, who lived on a tourist visa in Colorado and later on a student visa, took nearly all his junior-year classes in Spanish and nearly all his senior-year classes in English. He had good practice trying to buy groceries with some money his parents sent him.
"We were 15, 16 years old," he recalled. "We're cooking for ourselves. We were doing our laundry. We were doing things that most 15-, 16-year-old kids don't do."
Some 16-year-olds seeking early manhood would see their own apartment as one endless loop of living "Risky Business." Gutierrez laughed and said, "Oh, I wish I was at home when I was 16 years old."
He graduated from Lincoln with a state championship and 3.5 grade-point average, but the transfer of credits from Mexico left him short of college qualification. Then Northern Colorado coach Tad Boyle was among those who had shown interest. Gutierrez headed to prestigious Findlay Prep, near Las Vegas, where he played basketball and achieved his necessary credits and something even more valuable: English fluency.
"There was nobody else there who spoke Spanish," Gutierrez said. "I was forced to speak English."
His timing couldn't have been better. Cal hired Mike Montgomery after the 2007-08 season, and the former Colorado State assistant received a call from ex-Ram Gary Rhoades about Gutierrez.
So, two years after not being able to speak English, Gutierrez found himself enrolling at the No. 2-ranked public undergraduate school in the world and No. 1 in the U.S. Cal does admit a small percentage of students, normally athletes, who don't meet its standard requirements for the student body. But, according to Derek Van Rheenen, director of Cal's Athletic Student Center, Gutierrez was not one of them.
"His English was much stronger than many of our international students from Europe," he said.
Challenging the status quo
For Gutierrez, Berkeley is a perfect fit. It's a community and student body that prides itself in challenging the status quo, from leading the national student protest against the Vietnam War in the 1960s to hunger strikes to the current Occupy Berkeley movement.
At Cal, theory overrides multiple choice. The school forces students to think outside their comfort zone, and Gutierrez, Van Rheenen said, "likes to buck the trend." Take his senior thesis on public school teaching. He pointed out flaws in the education system with its overemphasis on test scores measuring teacher quality.
"The kid has the perfect attitude for a student," said Vincent Minjares, director of academic development for men's basketball. "The way he processes information, his desire to seek out trusted sources. The guy is a model student."
Ask anyone. He's a model basketball player. Last season, his highest-scoring games were against the best three teams in the league: 24 points against Washington, 25 against Arizona and 34 against UCLA.
This season he was averaging 14.3 points and 5.1 rebounds per game and had a team-leading 23 steals entering the weekend, but defensively his contributions are immeasurable.
"A lot of guys will play defense until it becomes hard or it becomes painful or you get tired or a guy starts beating you," Montgomery said. "Jorge, he just stays after it. He'll fight through pain. He'll fight through fatigue."
Adds Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins: "We talk a lot about what guys can do offensively, but his impact defensively and his impact as far as leadership, the things that go unseen, all that culminates into wins. He does whatever it takes."
NBA scouts refer to him as a small Joakim Noah — and not just for a ponytail as long as a horse's mane. Said one NBA scout: "He's one of the elite perimeter defenders in college basketball, and nobody's motor runs higher. ... He wills his team to win just as he wills his jump shot in. I bet he makes more jump shots in the clutch than in warm-ups."
Whether Cal makes it to the NCAAs or Gutierrez makes it in the NBA won't be his biggest accomplishment. That's already in the bag. For hundreds of students at Lincoln, kids trying to get educated in a second language and wondering whether they'll get an opportunity in the Land of Opportunity, they finally have a hero.
From Lincoln to Berkeley. If he can do it, who else can?
"I'm not aware of how big of a role model I am for the community," he said. "If it's going to help young people, it's an honor to be used as a role model."