Press Room Banter

with Katie Dowd


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Some stories are so moving that they leave you empty inside, because your own softly beating heart doesn't seem capable of feeling the same emotions as the people you've read about.

Over the past few years, Cal basketball players Bak Bak and Jorge Gutierrez have revealed two such stories. It seems, though, that they've been told in whispers. Some of that is because laws were broken along the way, and some of that is because articulation is complicated when English is your second, or your seventh, language.

But these stories should be shouted, because they are important. Their stories both begin with despair but also with hope. And, somewhere along the way, they become stories about a deeper truth.

Bak was born into war. By the time he was six months old, the civil war raging in Sudan had taken the lives of his sister and three uncles. With death closing in around them, Bak's father helped him and his mother, Elizabeth, flee. They made it to Kenya.

As a young man, Bak was poached by an agent, one of those many shadowy figures who "manage" the careers of potential basketball talents in Africa. The man took Bak all the way to America, only to disappear with Bak's passport.

Bak had to fly to Sudan to get his papers reissued. Alone, the airport officials detained him for two terrifying days. He lost everything - suitcases, clothes, family photos - but left Sudan with his identity in hand. He returned to America where he enrolled at Village Christian High in California. There, he started anew.

On the other side of the world, Gutierrez was born into a dead end. As the boy grew into a basketball player, his parents saw no future for him in Chihuahua, Mexico. So they made the decision Bak's father had made years before: They sent their son away.

Gutierrez crossed the border with his parents - illegally - and they enrolled him at Lincoln High in Denver. Then, they left. They sent money from their jobs back in Mexico so Gutierrez could survive.

In the dark of their cheap apartment, Gutierrez and two other boys from Mexico ate soft lettuce for dinner and fell asleep cold. When bruises bloomed all over Gutierrez's body, he ignored them. Once, he played a game left-handed because his right arm turned blue. A trip to the doctor revealed what must now seem obvious: The growing teenager subsisting off school lunches and lettuce was horribly anemic.

Coaches and teammates' families pitched in, but Gutierrez's home was turning into a prison. At games, there were protestors, calling Gutierrez and his teammates names. Legally, he could not stay. Gutierrez moved again, this time to Nevada to attend Findlay Prep.

There, Mike Montgomery found and signed him. And a year later, Montgomery signed Bak.

Today, Gutierrez is the heart and soul of Cal. The junior scored 34 in its overtime win over UCLA last weekend. He is the Bears' figurehead and their sparkplug. Bak is a sophomore, and he plays here and there. There will be more of that in the future. He has time.

Each time they lace up, a small miracle is at work. Each time Gutierrez and Bak tread the court, something greater, much more meaningful than sport alone, comes to life. They are the embodiment of the power of sacrifice, struggle and, more than anything, love.

They remind us that there are sports. And then there is life.


Take in the small miracles with Katie at [email protected]

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