Jaime Echenique walked to the press conference podium in a gray Wizards t-shirt and beamed with pride after perhaps the most impactful moment of his life. Until this point, publicly, he’d held his emotions in check.
He then sat down and remarked he was out of words to describe his day. He looked away for a brief moment, closed his eyes and began to cry.
The 6-foot-11 center played just 3 minute, 4 seconds in a 110-93 Wizards win over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Thursday night, but it was the culmination of years of hard work by Echenique and a celebration for those in his home country of Colombia.
With the Wizards in COVID-19 trouble and six players in health and safety protocol, Echenique, 24, signed a 10-day contract via the NBA Hardship Exception provisions Thursday. And in making his debut, he became the first Colombian to ever play in an NBA game.
“It just means so much at this point in my life that it doesn’t matter all the obstacles I had to climb in life, all those things came to this moment,” Echenique said. “Those are the things that you really appreciate in life and make you just keep going and keep being hungry.”
An emotional Echenique paused multiple times during his interview to collect himself, wiping his eyes with a towel that a Wizards staff member tossed his way. But it was far from the only time Echenique became overwhelmed with the scope of his call-up to the NBA.
He awoke Thursday morning, the day he admittedly decided to sleep an extra 15 minutes, to what he said were 20 missed calls from various members of the Wizards organization. Once he got the news, he joined up with the team for a morning walkthrough.
Echenique cracked that his drive to the arena typically took him 15 minutes to make, but on this day, he made it in seven. Before practice began, called his family to let them know of the news as he raced down a dream, this time literally, that was now hours away from happening.
Once he arrived in the parking lot, the gravity of the situation hit him and he began to cry.
“It’s been just an amazing day,” Echenique said. “It’s a 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 and happy for the people that believed in me.”
He remembered the people that believed in him on the podium, and he remembered his journey from Barranquilla, Colombia, to Trinity Valley Community College in Athens, Texas, to Wichita State in Wichita, Kansas, to San Sebastian in Gipuzkoa, Spain. Along the way, he recalled the adversity that he’d fought through to reach the NBA.
In particular, he recalled when he tore the patellar tendon in his right knee on Jan. 4 while playing for Acunsa GBC in Spain. He had to undergo months of rehab as the 2021 calendar year began about as badly as could be.
“I always say, ‘Don’t let nobody tell you no,’” Echenique said. “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 I was lazy, how many people told me I was just tall, just a tall guy, that I was unathletic. ... I just put the work in. I never let those comments get up in my head and stop me. I appreciate those people, because I know they are swallowing their words right now.”
When he fully recovered from his injury, he earned a spot on the Wizards’ Summer League team and averaged 7.5 points and 2.5 rebounds in just 9.3 minutes on the floor. His play in Las Vegas earned him a spot in training camp with the Wizards, where the man who had only begun playing basketball at the age of 13 found himself closing in on his dream of making the NBA.
He didn't make the roster out of training camp, but had latched on with the G-League affiliate Capital City Go-Go. He’d played 14 games there this season and averaged 12.6 points per game with 9.2 rebounds in 25.7 minutes on the floor.
His play, combined with the Wizards’ COVID issues, left a roster spot open for him for the game against the Cavaliers. And with the right circumstances in a 17-point Wizards win, he hit the floor for the first time, making history for himself, and his country, in the process.
“We’ve had him since Summer League and he’s another one of those kids where, from day one, you saw him get better every day,” coach Wes Unseld Jr. said. “His effort, attention to detail, he brings a smile every day. I think it’s great for him, it’s good for our locker room and it’s been terrific for the Go-Go. To be rewarded in this sense, that’s part of the process. That’s why you go through some of the tough and uncertain times. To see that play out for him is terrific.”
Two of his newest teammates, Bradley Beal and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, had no idea that Echenique was the first-ever Colombian to play in the NBA. But they both echoed how excited, and proud, they were of him as he accomplished his dream.
“That’s my guy, man,” Caldwell-Pope said. “He’s always (got) great energy, always with a smile on his face. When I see him he’s always dapping me up, giving me a hug. I even got a hug today when I’d seen him. That’s a great dude, man.”
It was hard over the 12-plus hours where Echenique’s life went wild to pause and collect, but he did his best to capture every single moment he could on his first day in the NBA.
Echenique appreciated everything he could, from the frantic morning wakeup, to the time he spent on the floor at Capital One Arena and to the Zoom questions he fielded in both English and Spanish. It was a day he won’t ever forget, and a day he’d be OK with letting last as long as possible.
“If I’m dreaming at this point,” Echenique began, “Please don’t wake me up.”