Orlando Echevarria made up his mind early.
“I wasn’t a school person,’’ he said.
Books? Homework? An education to frame a future? That wasn’t his real world.
Life was only giving Echevarria scraps. He spit them out, angrily. He got trapped on the streets of Chelsea. He decided he needed to build his own life. He’d carve out an identity, gaining a respect he couldn’t find anywhere else.
He joined a street gang, the Bloods. “I got arrested for being in gang fights,’’ recalled Echevarria.
“I was smoking weed, drinking alcohol.’’
Ridicule, not respect, is what a kid gets when he’s 5 feet 11 and 290 pounds - in the eighth grade. He heard the insults, then starting punching back.
“I was embarrassed,’’ said Echevarria, now 22, and a senior thriving at Keene State College.
“The streets made me tough.’’ He was too big to play youth football, but he liked basketball more anyway.
“It was pickup basketball. I wasn’t playing to get to the next level,’’ he said. “I didn’t want to impress anybody. I didn’t want to go to college.’’
Considered an underachiever, he was placed into special ed classes at Chelsea High. All he cared about was playing basketball. He helped the Red Devils advance to the second round of the Division 2 North tournament his senior year, in 2007.
When school and hoops were over, including the three summers of AAU ball, Echevarria planned on getting a job. And if he couldn’t land one, well, something would turn up. If not, the streets were always lurking. The Bloods would always be there.
Chris Jones, the men’s basketball coach at Bunker Hill Community College, soon learned of Echevarria from another student.
“He was hard-nosed, very competitive, unselfish and skilled. I saw a will, a desire in him to win,’’ recalled the coach.
“He was a presence on the floor. His temper was a bit of a drawback.’’
“A very bad temper,’’ confirmed Echevarria. “I’d fight anybody in school, and I’d fight them right there. I didn’t know how to keep my mouth shut, and keep walking.’’
Jones asked Echevarria to enroll at Bunker Hill. “I thought if we could corral this kid, we’d have a gem,’’ he said.
Echevarria, by then a trimmed down 6-foot-5, 220 pounds, had lost the weight playing ball. He enrolled, but didn’t play basketball. Instead, he soon headed to Georgia with his girlfriend.
Echevarria appreciated Jones’s intentions.
“I told him, ‘Thanks for pushing me.’ He said, ‘But what about school?’ And I said, ‘They have schools in Georgia.’ ’’
But Georgia was not the answer. He didn’t go to school. The relationship ended, though the two now have a 2-year-old son, Adrian.
“That’s when he decided to continue with his education,’’ said Jones. “He called me from Georgia.’’
In 2008, Echevarria returned to Bunker Hill, as a full-time student, and basketball was back in his life.
He worried about academics. Could he do the work, and stay eligible for basketball?
“It was good to be at Bunker Hill, but I was nervous,’’ he said. “The main thing was I made it out of the ’hood.’’
His grades picked up, “and he was great on the floor,’’ said Jones.
In two seasons, Echevarria was a force in the paint, earning a spot on the Division 3 junior college all-regional team his second season, averaging 15 points and 10 rebounds per game.
Echevarria began to look in the mirror, long and hard, sparing himself nothing. He had made the decisions in his life, and many of them were lousy ones.
“I was 16 when I became a Blood,’’ he said. “I lost a lot of friends by the choices I made. When my mother found out I was in a gang, she was scared for me.’’
Echevarria had to believe in himself before others could reach out to him. He had to pull away from the Bloods.
“We’re not that close anymore,’’ he said. “We’ve pretty much lost our connection.’’
The cleansing had a lot to do with basketball. His success at Bunker Hill didn’t go unnoticed.
“Late in his second year at Bunker Hill, he came on our radar,’’ said Rob Colbert, the men’s basketball coach at Keene State.
“I saw him play a couple of times. I loved his toughness. He was a little undersized to play the post, but he really banged’’ under the boards.
Echevarria didn’t exactly leap at the opportunity to enroll at Keene, situated in the southwest corner of New Hampshire.
But he made a visit, and thought, “This might work out. I have no car . . . I can stay out of trouble.’’ He breathed the clear air, and knew it could be a fresh start.
His days as a star are over. He comes off the bench for the 9-4 Owls, averaging 10 to 15 minutes per game.
“He’s realistic about his career,’’ said Colbert. “He knows he’s not the best post player in the league. He’s great at the nonstatistical things. His physical toughness is his specialty.’’
Steve Boudreau, a senior point guard from North Andover, said that when he first met Echevarria, “I knew that he was a tough kid, but he doesn’t talk much about the past or his roots. I have tremendous respect for him, the way he competes against bigger guys. He works so hard; he’s so strong.’’
Echevarria has a sense of urgency to graduate on time, in May, with a degree in safety and occupational health applied sciences. His minor is in criminal justice. Who would have guessed that, not so long ago?
“My goal is to be a police officer, back in Chelsea,’’ he said. “I’m close to the chief. I know a lot of the cops. They know I’ve changed.’’
He scored a 96 recently in a police exam.
He doesn’t see much that has changed when he returns home. “I see friends doing the same things, or they’re locked up, doing time,’’ he said. “When I’m home I don’t go out.’’
His mother, Rosame Dejesus, has been rock solid.
“We’re real close,’’ he said. “She’s my best friend, through hard times and good times. She’s real proud of me.’’
His relationship with his father has required healing. “We used to be on bad terms,’’ said Echevarria. “He’s a little more in my life now.’’
To his coaches, he wasn’t just a basketball player. Jones and Colbert reached out to the complete person. Echevarria appreciated it. Colbert “taught me to be strong and never give up,’’ he said. Jones “shut my temper down. He didn’t take any bull.’’
So the street kid who used to walk on the edge has a future. The heartache comes from being so far away from his son, who lives with his mother.
“It’s very stressful. I see pictures of him, videos, and I can’t be there. I want to see him grow.’’
Maybe some day Orlando Echevarria can tell his son a thing or two about growing.