Originally posted on Fox Sports West  |  Last updated 10/28/11
On a day when Cal head basketball coach Mike Montgomery told the world he's been battling cancer, he needn't look any further than his own team for an example of perseverance conquering daunting odds. During the Golden Bears' portion of Friday's Pac-12 Media Day at The Conga Room in Los Angeles, Montgomery started out his session by admitting he was diagnosed with a "high-grade" bladder cancer. He had surgery and says he's now totally cancer free "at this juncture." "You go from being on top of things to no longer being in control," said the 64-year old Montgomery, whose team begins the season ranked in the Top 25. "I'm lucky it went the way that it did. "It's scary." And if anyone knows scary, it's Cal's all-around star guard, 6'3" defensive wizard Jorge Gutierrez. At age 15, when many of us were organizing our record collections or trying to get a date with the hot girl on campus, Gutierrez was deciding whether or not to leave his country behind to continue pursuing his dream of playing big-time basketball. He and his family crossed the borderadmittedly illegallyin order to give Jorge a chance to follow in the footsteps of Mexican basketball hero Eduardo Najera. Currently with the Charlotte Bobcats, Najera has played 12 seasons in the NBA, becoming the first Mexican-born player to have a long career in the Association. Helike Gutierrezis a native of Chihuahua, Mexico. The Gutierrez family had a meeting and made a decision that was all about basketball. "I wanted to play against the best," said Jorge, who helped lead Cal to the 2010 Pac 10 Championshipits first conference title in 50 years. "And where else to play the best and get better myself, than in the United States? We talked it over and decided to take the chance." Gutierrez and his parents ended up in the Denver, Colorado area, where he starred at Lincoln High School, despite the fact that he was alone, and suffering from anemia at the time. (He later overcame the blood disorder and transferred to Findlay College Prep in Nevada for his senior year of high school.) Following the border crossing and his subsequent enrollment at Lincoln, his parents returned to Chihuahua. Gutierrez lived in a one-bedroom apartment with three other undocumented students. All of them were between 14-16 years of age. It's there, in snowy Denver, a hotbed of Mexican immigrants, that Jorge Gutierrez put his fears aside and became a leader. "I left my family at 15, and I had to grow up faster than most kids," said the All-Pac 10 performer, who turns 23 in December. "Also, I had to look out for my roommates, to take care of them. We were all young, and they kind of looked to me. We took care of each other, too, but it seemed like I was the one they depended on. I think it really helped me become a little bit more of a leader on the basketball team. "In my freshman and sophomore years, we had struggles with leadership on our team," he says candidly, "and I told everybody that I didn't want to be part of that kind of team. So, I had to step up and be more of a leader. I don't wait for someone to come to me with a problem or a question. If I see something (that needs to be addressed) with one of my teammates, I just go over and talk to them." In print, that may read as arrogant, but listening to Gutierrez say it, you realize it's more about concern and friendship than the desire to run people's lives. "Jorge's a different sort of a kid, obviously," said Montgomery, whose Golden Bears are ranked in the Top 25 and who expects to coach the entire season despite the cancer diagnosis. "He's had a tough background, having to get himself into this country and put himself in the position to earn a scholarship. The language was an issue for him early on, and he was uncomfortable sometimes because he was aware he wouldn't always say things the right way. But he's always been a leader by action. "It's almost like if I was playing with him, I'd be embarrassed if I didn't give a full effort on every single play, which is something Jorge does all the time. He's not afraid to tell a kid that he needs to do better or try harder. He very comfortable in that role, because for him team has always come first. "He's (talented) and he just plays so hard, that his teammates respect what he has to say. "He's one of a kind." UCLA was picked to win the first Pac 12 basketball championship, but when you have the talents and leadership qualities of Gutierrez, and the ability of Montgomery to apparently beat some long odds, it would be a mistake to count out Cal. They've already shown their up for the challengeany challenge.
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