Jorge Gutierrez is not big for a basketball player; 6 foot 3, 195 pounds. But you can always spot him on the court by his shoulder-length curls, which he ties into a pony-tail. We’re standing in the University of California at Berkeley’s Haas Pavilion, a place that’s become a second home for Gutierrez. I ask him to teach me a crossover dribble, but he wants to start with the basics. “A free throw is one of the easiest shots in the game, so I have a kind of routine for myself,” Gutierrez says, holding the ball in the palm of his hand. “I try to place my hands in the right position, and I just dribble twice, counting one dribble, two dribbles.” He bounces the ball, almost meditating on his shot. “And then after that it’s just relax and shoot.” The ball swishes through the net. The free thrown line though, seems to be the only place on the court Gutierrez relaxes. He’s regularly called one of the hardest working players in college basketball.
“He’s stubborn. He’s ornery,” explains Cal Bears head coach Mike Montgomery. “He plays kind of with a chip on his shoulder.” Montgomery made Gutierrez his first recruit four years ago, and he says it was a great decision. “He’s just a wonderful kid. He’s been kind of the straw that stirs the drink if you will, and he’s had an awful lot to do with us winning, Ill tell you that.”
Gutierrez is a team leader, a fan favorite, and on Monday, he was named Pac-12 conference player of the year. But it’s who he is off the court that brings his story to life. “I don’t ever regret what I did,” says Gutierrez. “I don't know what would have happened if I would have stayed down in Mexico.”
Jorge Gutierrez was born and raised in Chihuahua, Mexico. It’s a border state more infamously known for its violent cartels and abundant sweatshops. But Gutierrez says Chihuahua meant something much different to him. It’s where he found his passion for basketball. “Most people think that soccer is the dominant sport in Mexico,” he says, “but in Chihuahua, it's basketball first.” For Gutierrez, it was a family affair. “My dad got me into basketball. He used to take me and my two brothers with him to see him play all of the time. So I think that allowed me to see the beauty of the sport.”
It wasn’t long before Gutierrez hit the blacktop himself. He played on a club team as an adolescent, but that didn’t satisfy him. A friend of his had left Chihuahua to go play basketball in Denver, and at 16 Gutierrez decided to follow along. He illegally hopped the U.S. border to join him. “I made the decision to leave home because I wanted to play better basketball,” he says. “I felt like being in the United States, I could play with the best basketball players. And I had a dream to accomplish something in life that nobody in my family really has.”
Gutierrez connected with his friend and moved into a one-bedroom apartment with two other teenagers. Gutierrez didn’t speak English. He had no family in Denver. His parents sent some money every month, but it didn’t go far. He says his transition was difficult. “One of the most difficult things I faced was the culture. It was a totally different culture from what I was used to.” But Gutierrez was not alone.
He attended Lincoln High, Denver’s magnet school for Spanish speakers. Around 50% of its students are undocumented and 90% are Latino, according to an administrator. (The school, though, is legally prohibited from asking students where they come from.) When Gutierrez played for the Lancers basketball team, the players were mostly Latino – and they were good. With their success though, came scrutiny.
Colorado was in a political frenzy, at the time, around the issue of immigration. Congressman Tom Tancredo regularly accused “illegal aliens” of “invading our country,” “burdening our schools and hospitals,” and “turning our country into a bilingual nation.” He enlisted a strong following, and many of his supporters would go to Lancer’s basketball games and taunt players.
“It was hard. It was something that no one really wants to hear from people around you,” remembers Gutierrez. “I don’t really know how to explain it, I just felt that we tried to understand their point of view, and we just kept playing because we had to get used to those kinds of things.”
Despite the adversity, the Lincoln High Lancers went on to win the Colorado state basketball championship in 2007. Representative Tancredo did not win the Republican presidential nomination, nor did he succeed in a run for governor in 2010. While he no longer serves in the House, his politics still resonate. Colorado lawmakers are considering a bill to provide undocumented students with in-state tuition rates for state colleges and universities. While nearly every institution for higher education supports the bill, the state has failed to implement it for several years. It’s currently on the Senate calendar.
Jorge Gutierrez doesn’t have to worry about Colorado immigration politics anymore. He has a student visa, and he plays in front of tens of thousands of fans for the Cal Bears every week. In February he played his last home game, and it was especially memorable. His family came up from Chihuahua to watch. “It was a great weekend for me,” he says, “having my whole family, senior night. It was just an unbelievable weekend that I really don’t have words to explain how happy I was. And [my family] probably doesn’t have the words to explain it either.”
Gutierrez’ story doesn’t end there. He expects to graduate in May with a degree in Interdisciplinary Studies. Right now, he’s in L.A. competing in the Pac-12 tournament as the conference player of the year. His team has a good chance to make the big dance – the NCAA Tournament. And then after that, he says, “I don’t know. But like anyone else I have a dream of becoming a pro. It doesn’t really matter where, but that’s a dream.”
It’s a hoop dram, and If he doesn't make it, without a student visa, his future in this country is uncertain. But Jorge Gutierrez has already accomplished one American dream by taking his shot.