Colombia’s first NBA player, Jaime Echenique, brings some joy to bleak covid month

A report by Ava Wallace for The Washington Post.

On Thursday morning, the day he would make history, Jaime Echenique allowed himself a rare extra 15 minutes of sleep.

It had been a long few weeks at the end of a long year. The center from Barranquilla, Colombia, tore his patellar tendon while playing in Spain in January, went through training camp with the Wizards in October and had recently participated in the G League showcase in Las Vegas, showing off for scouts and front-office members while the NBA grappled with a coronavirus outbreak that had already sidelined scores of players. G League players were getting called up and given 10-day contracts in droves — from the Wizards’ Capital City Go-Go, Jordan Goodwin, Jordan Schakel and Craig Sword had already been signed.

While every 10-day contract, no matter how bleak the circumstance in which it is signed, is a chance for a player to prove himself, Echenique knew if his moment came, there would be added meaning. Before Thursday, no Colombian player had ever appeared in an NBA game.

He was sleeping when he got the call.

“If I tell you that this morning when I wake up I had 20 missed calls and everybody was trying to reach out to me …,” Echenique said after logging three minutes against the Cavaliers, in a dual-language news conference during which he stopped multiple times to cry.

“I had to make it to the arena; it normally takes me 15 minutes. It took me seven to get there. So it’s been just an amazing day, man. Hell of a year. Best way to close the year. I’m just happy. Happy for me, happy for my family. Happy for my country. Happy for the people that believe in me. And happy for myself.”

The black mask Echenique wore Thursday at his news conference hid his most defining characteristic — at least in a space where being 6-foot-11 isn’t extraordinary — his smile. The 24-year-old has a mop of curly hair, a penchant for doling out either friendly waves (for reporters) or hugs (for teammates) after practice and braces you can’t help but notice because of the near-permanent grin on his face.

Bradley Beal and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope weren’t aware that Echenique had made history during the game Thursday. When they were told, they broke out in a chorus of “wow” and “that’s my guy.”

“This kid is always great energy, always with a smile on his face when I see him,” Caldwell-Pope said. “… Always dapping me up, always giving me a hug; I even got a hug today when I saw him. That’s a great dude, man.”

Said Beal: “That’s amazing. I say that for all guys who have an opportunity to achieve their dreams, and this year is the year for a lot of guys. We understand how hard it is to get here; it’s hard. I think a lot of people have it misconstrued; they think we have it easy. It is not, man. Then you have so many guys in the [G League] who are deserving of being up here, who deserve spots. And a lot of them just don’t have the opportunity.”

Echenique is part of a record-setting wave of players making their NBA debuts in December as teams frantically sign them to short-term contracts to fill in rosters that have been affected by covid-19-related absences. Veteran big man Greg Monroe, a Georgetown graduate, earlier this week became the 541st player used in the NBA this season, a new league record. More than 500 players took the floor in December alone, according to the Associated Press.

Echenique’s news conference lasted longer than his stint on court Thursday. But, as Coach Wes Unseld Jr. told him during the team’s walk-through before the game, even a few minutes spent guarding Tacko Fall at the end of a game has impact.

The center tried to explain how his appearance felt like both the culmination of a lifetime of work and a beginning.

“If I tell you how many people closed the doors on me, how many people told me I wasn’t good enough, how many people told me that I was lazy, how many people told me that I was just tall … and I just put the work in,” Echenique said. “I never let those comments get over my head and stop me. I appreciate those people who at some moments were haters, because I know they are swallowing their words right now.”

Echenique’s first big cry of the day came in the parking lot of the Wizards’ practice facility. After he spoke to Unseld, his teammates, the Capital City Go-Go’s general manager and its coach, he called his father. Then he got to his car and wept.

“Being honest at this point,” Echenique said, smiling through more tears, “if I’m dreaming, please don’t wake me up.”

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