DENVER -- In the hallways of Abraham Lincoln High in southwest Denver, where Spanish is the language spoken by most of the school's 1,900 students, hope is delivered by one of its own.
By an alum who arrived from Mexico 61/2 years ago with no English speaking skills.
By Jorge Gutierrez, star senior of the Cal basketball team, soon to graduate and likely to be given a chance to play in the NBA.
"He's from Mexico, like me," said Gabriel Vazquez, a 6-foot-8 junior who came to Denver last year from Tijuana and plays center on the basketball team. "He's my role model. He went through hard stuff, like me. I'm very proud of him."
On Sunday afternoon, when Cal faces Colorado at the sold-out Coors
"That's great," Gutierrez said of the cheering section he will have Sunday. "I'm surprised."
Five years removed from his time at Lincoln, Gutierrez remains alive on campus. Newspaper clippings chronicling his achievements at Cal and the state championship trophy he helped Lincoln win in 2007 are on display in the hallways. His college statistics are scrolled on campus TV, and the walls of basketball coach Vince Valdez's
"He doesn't realize the impact he's had," Valdez said.
"What's exciting for these kids is he's exactly like them," said Leroy Lopez, Lincoln's athletic director. "Our kids struggle and they see someone like him, who did it on a high level, not just in basketball but in the classroom, and he's a great role model.
"Most of the kids here don't really know Jorge, but they still talk about him."
Lincoln is an inner-city school whose student body is 97 percent Hispanic. As the designated English Language Acquisition (ELA) campus in the district, students who cannot speak English are automatically funneled to Lincoln.
Many of them are from Mexico, and Lopez estimates that perhaps 80 percent are undocumented. No one really knows because the school is prohibited by law from asking students their origins, according to assistant principal Joe Seitz.
"We don't ask for any papers," he said. "We educate who comes in our doors."
Gutierrez was 16 when he came from Chihuahua, following a friend, Hector Hernandez, who used Lincoln as a steppingstone to a basketball scholarship to Fresno State.
Asked about his living arrangement in Denver, Gutierrez said, "We don't really talk about the way we lived or the way we (got) there. I don't want to have anybody in trouble."
Valdez said typically parents bring their kids from Mexico, but many return home themselves. The reality is Gutierrez and others often virtually raise themselves here.
"They're all chasing a dream," Valdez said. "There was always an adult, a guardian, who was supposedly there. I can assume they were probably from Mexico themselves, looking for work all the time, so probably hardly ever there."
The transition was difficult, said Gutierrez, who grew up in a middle-class setting in Mexico, the son of educated parents. He developed a love for basketball early in life but aspired to play against better competition in the U.S. and never questioned his move.
"I knew leaving home was my only option," he said. "It was just the beginning of something bigger."
The bumps along the way included controversy and ridicule that accompanied Lincoln's rise to winning its first state championship in any sport since the 1960s. Fans at other schools called the Lancers players "illegals" or mockingly wore sombreros to games. Some suggested Valdez was recruiting from south of the border. And one local sports talk radio host belittled a Lincoln player because he couldn't do an interview in English.
Andre Muniz, a sophomore point guard on Lincoln's current team, was a fifth-grader in the crowd when Gutierrez scored 18 points to help Lincoln beat Ralston Valley for the Colorado 5A large-school title.
"The crowd was saying racist things, trying to make fun of Jorge," Muniz said. "Jorge took that on the chin, and they won the state (title). I already knew Jorge was something special."
None of his success would have been possible, Gutierrez said, without the support he got from Lincoln and the Denver community, which he still regards as his home away from home. "The teachers, students, teammates, coaches ... we had people there who showed us how much they cared," Gutierrez said.
One of those was Don Scott, who had Gutierrez in his art class at Lincoln. Scott didn't even know for several months that Gutierrez played basketball. "He was so, so perfect," Scott said. "He'd just come in and get busy and work. He was a joy. Mr. Modesty."
Gutierrez -- a first-team All-Pac-10 guard and a second-team All-Pac-10 academic selection last season -- does appreciate that he can set an example for those who have followed him to pursue college themselves. "I feel very special that I can help people doing something else besides basketball," he said. "It's something that not everyone can do."
One of those paying attention is Vazquez, the budding big man who already is drawing attention from college recruiters. He said his coach often shows the team videotape of Cal, with Gutierrez hustling, playing defense, diving for loose balls.
"It's amazing," Vazquez said. "He's everywhere."
On the court and off.