Wizards' Jaime Echenique was treated to hero's welcome in his native Colombia

·4 min read

Echenique was treated to hero's welcome in Colombia originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

LAS VEGAS -- Jaime Echenique thought he could go unnoticed. Even though he is 6-foot-11 and 260 pounds, he could wear a COVID mask. At least they wouldn't be able to see his face.

But it was a futile effort, as the Wizards big man estimates 25 reporters were waiting for his arrival. Once they spotted him, his cover was blown.

"It was impossible. As soon as I landed, everybody knew and the whole airport was stopped for a second because they knew I was there," Echenique told NBC Sports Washington.

Echenique had returned to Colombia, the country he made history for just a few months earlier as its first NBA player. That memorable December night, which was highlighted by a teary postgame press conference, was fresh on the minds of those back home.

Echenique had done his best to move past it, instead focusing on his ultimate goal of finding longevity in the NBA. He said before his NBA debut and after that it was just one step along the way towards what he hopes is a long and successful career at basketball's highest level.

But that moment in the airport helped remind him to stop and soak it all in.

"I have the bad habit of maybe I don't appreciate what is happening. I have this vision like this is nothing for me. But I [also] see it as my reality and all the people seeing it as their dream," he said.

Echenique, 25, was able to return to his hometown of Barranquilla for only the first time in five years due to his hectic basketball schedule and the coronavirus pandemic. He spent nearly a month there with friends and family.

Echenique says the city was tuned into everything he did, everywhere he went. He is now a celebrity back home, in the same town that can claim the pop star Shakira, who is enshrined there with a 15-foot statue.

While going back helped Echenique appreciate his success in hindsight, so did a conversation with a friend after his debut.

"He said you have to take this as big as it is. Out of the 75 years of the NBA, out of 50 million Colombians, you are the first one. I was like 'yeah, that's a big deal.' Whether it was a 10-day [contract] or three minutes or whatever people want to call it, I did it," he said.

Echenique played one game for the Wizards this past season and, as he noted, he was on the floor for three minutes. He spent the majority of his time with Washington's G-League affiliate, the Capital City Go-Go. Echenique was a key contributor for their first playoff run, averaging 12.5 points, 9.0 rebounds and 2.0 blocks as the starting center.

Echenique then played for the Wizards' Summer League team in Las Vegas, where he was a standout for the second straight year. He has committed this summer to take zero days off in preparation for what he hopes is more time on the NBA roster.

"Now I know I belong there," he said.

Regardless of how the rest of his basketball career unfolds, Echenique has already distinguished his place in the sport. No one has ever done what he has, and so it stands as a singular accomplishment. Whether it is enough for him to hang his hat on at this moment, he will always have that to look back on.

Part of the story is that emotional press conference with the indelible sight of a 6-foot-10 giant bawling his eyes out. Echenique cried in his car when he first got the news of his call-up that morning, then he cried at the podium in front of reporters after the game. Then, he cried at the Colombian Embassy in D.C. when he was honored weeks later.

So, that leads to a natural question. Did he cry at the airport when he arrived in Colombia?

"No, no, no," Echenique said. "Well -- when I saw my family, yes."