Jorge Gutierrez, All Grown Up

We watched him grow up.

There he was against Oregon, struggling to find his shot or his range. It was perhaps nerves with his family in the crowd, or those Pac-12 refs whistling the slightest of contact that took him out of it. Whatever it was, the team was not quite right. Jorge couldn't find his rhythm, drifted around for much of the game, and the Ducks seemed to pour every type of exasperating basket they could find. We could still score, but with Jorge taken out of his game, it seemed like the rest of the defense sagged, and we weren't going to do enough to stay in it.

So Jorge had to throw himself back into the past to make himself effective.

Down to his last foul and Oregon pulling away, Jorge came into the game with 6:11 left with Cal down six, and dug in on D. All the other exhausted but determined Cal starters followed suit. After a last-second shot clock jumper put the Ducks up eight, the Bears only allowed one more Oregon field goal the next five minutes and forced six turnovers, with perhaps the biggest momentum shift coming with Jorge forcing an over-and-back. He scored only seven points on the night, but it was his two free throws that put Cal on top for the first time in the second half and gave everyone else confidence that we could pull this losable game out.

That was the old Jorge we saw against the Ducks, the guy who would give you five-ten good minutes every game or so as a freshman, but those few minutes were so intense and physical that it changed the entire complexion of the game. And just like on those occasions, all the time Jorge didn't stop being Jorge, refusing to back down from who he was. He played with a controlled aggression that kept him on the floor and brought Cal back, kept Cal in first place.

It was a wonderful win. And with regards to Jorge, it made Saturday against the Beavers that much more special, because Senior Night reminded us of how far he's come.

When we first watched Gutierrez, it was hard not to love him. Jorge was just a high energy bundle that wasn't terribly focused, but it always seemed to spark the team when he was really able to get into it. Here was a guy who struggled to dribble, struggled to pass, struggled to shoot, and there he was locking down James Harden, spearheading a double digit comeback against the Furd, dunking and throwing an and-one layup high in the air to clinch a Pac-10 title.

Love does funny things to you. It makes you forget about turnover rates and field goal percentage and free throw rate because numbers be damned, watching Jorge was a joy. You discard those things because you like to imagine you can play with that sort of wild desperation, put that much effort into something you love that much. With that type of effort, that type of confidence, and just enough skill, anything is possible.

Today, watching Jorge is still a joy. But it's different now. He's not just a boy following the ball anymore. He's a man controlling it. He's become a basketball player, a legit Pac-12 player of the year candidate.

The Jorge that we long feared handling the ball for 30 minutes a game is long gone. Jorge can hold the rock for as long as he wants and do whatever he wants with it; I'm usually pleased with the result. Jorge has left Cobbs to do most of the passing, but he runs within the offense and does whatever the defense dictates. For a team featuring a sharpshooter like Crabbe, it's Jorge who's emerged as one of our most consistent mid-range shooters, someone who can run off curls and pull up, or catch the ball and keep on going inside to dish it to his big man or the outside shooter. And Jorge proves he can play as well off the ball as he does on it offensively, cutting baseline or down the middle of the paint, then finishing on either side of the basket.

Jorge has dialed back his individual defense just a bit, but his constant presence on the floor helps dictate the strength of the team defense. This is by far the best defensive team Monty has ever sported (Cal is currently ranked 16th in defensive efficiency by Pomeroy ($); they haven't been ranked higher than 73rd in the three previous seasons). Jorge's off-the ball defense still remains outstanding, and he's able to ease off his pressure with the knowledge he works with a solid starting five that knows its assignments and its roles.

Senior Night, we got glimpses of both the man we once knew and the man we know now.

There was Jorge chasing balls out of bounds and finding a teammate to save possessions that could've gone the other way. There was Jorge driving the lane and getting to the basket. There was Jorge, cutting down the baseline off the ball, grabbing basketballs that might have once upon a time flown out of bounds and going up and under the basket to get the lay-in. There was Jorge, lasering passes inside to his big men which notched them more crucial free throws. There was Jorge hauling in eight rebounds (most of them early) to set the pace. There was Jorge taking the ball when Oregon State trapped Cobbs and keeping things running when that pesky 1-3-1 threatened to derail Cal once again.

And there was Jorge standing and strutting with his quiet Jorge confidence at the end, acknowledging the Haas faithful one last time, high-fiving his teammates, giving props to the Bench and Rally Comm well after it was over, then walking off the court at home one last time victorious. Jorge doesn't just give us any moments anymore, like the Oregon game. He's become a practitioner, one of college basketball's most unique.

I've watched Cal basketball seriously for four years, and having Jorge be part of those experiences made it not just worthwhile, but meaningful. Watching almost every big momentum-changing steal, every forced turnover; every grimace; every sell of a call, every race he made toward a basketball regardless of what might be in the way, every time he went to the ground and we held our breath, until we realized it was Jorge and he'd be up in thirty seconds because that's who he was, every little inch he refused to give to his opponent, every chestbump from an inspired teammate, every spontaneous standing ovation we gave him for some random Jorge thing he'd do, every little thing he did do that we thought he couldn't do--those moments added up.

We all shared and cheered on the personal growth of an athlete to be one of the most unique and most successful players in all of college sports. We watched him evolve from a bench-breaker to become one of the top players in the conference in the span of four years. It's one of the most remarkable things I've ever seen as a college sports fan, and we're not even getting into the Denver stories.

It'll be very tough to let him go. We can count the games we have left with him on our two hands before he gets turned over to the world, and there's so much more evolving and developing he'll be doing outside our confines. Like proud parents, we'd all love to see him get the global spotlight and we can share him with the entire world on the biggest stage--wouldn't it be great to share Jorge with the world? To have Jorge inspire Mexico the way Jeremy Lin inspires Asia and Dirk Nowitzki inspires Germany? That's the dream that basketball brings, the ultimate melting pot where sport moves cultures and people.

I wouldn't put it past Jorge to make the next leap in his evolution. He's made of a similar cloth as both those guys, and has that same indefatigable work ethic to make it happen.

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."

Of course, if we're realistic, I just hope when this ride ends with the Bears, we get a chance to see him play basketball again the way he played it here. If it's not possible, I hope Jorge ends up bonding with the fans of whoever he plays for in the same way he bonded with us. Those type of bonds make sports special, and give it the meaning that often gets lost when we chase for superstars. Basketball fans deserve to have more of those memories with a man the likes of Jorge. Faith needs to be rewarded at some point with something so great.

And if things do turn up Jorge, it'll be nice to remember that the rise to stardom all started with a little known kid out of Chihuahua, Mexico with flowing locks of black hair hustling for a bouncing basketball down the corner of Pete Newell Court. Don't forget us Jorge, because we won't forget you.

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