Miles from home, angels on his shoulder, Wichita State's Cleanthony Early is ready for the bright lights of the big dance
By SEAN KEELERFS Kansas City
WICHITA, Kan. — Jamel would've turned 35 on Wednesday. Sandra Glover worries, as she does every time March 20 rolls around, what this will do to Cleanthony, how much it chews him up from the inside, little piece by little piece.
"He said, one time that, ‘It's the one thing I wish I could do: I want to continue to play, but I wish I could bring you back, my brother, to witness this,'" Glover says of Cleanthony Early, her youngest son and the star forward at Wichita State. "When I (heard) that, I called him and said, ‘He's with you, don't worry. He sees what you're doing.' So he just keeps it in. And I'm glad that he's opening up now, that he can talk about it, because they were very close. They were close."
Sandra tells this story, from last summer. Cleanthony happened to be back home in Middletown, N.Y., last June 27, the second anniversary of the death of his brother, Jamel Glover. Sandra was going to the gravesite to pay her respects.
She asked, gently, if Cleanthony — ‘Cle' for short — would like to come. He declined.
"No, Mom," Early said. "I can't."
Later, at the cemetery, her cellphone rang. Cle.
"Mom," Early asked, in a tone barely above a whisper. "How are you feeling?"
Her voice broke. She wasn't.
"I'll talk to you later," Cleanthony said, still whispering, and hung up.
"So I don't tell him when I'm going," Sandra says now. "I just think — he's not ready. When he's ready, I think he'll go."
She worries, especially today, especially on the eve of the biggest game of Cle's basketball life. Early's
Shockers (26-8) are ensconced in Salt Lake City, getting ready for a showdown with the University of Pittsburgh (24-8), one of the more intriguing mid-day matchups on tap Thursday in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Wichita is a 9 seed, visitors to Bracketville in consecutive seasons for the first time in 25 years. Pitt's an 8, owns four wins over teams in the RPI Top 50 (The Shockers had three), and was 9-7 versus the RPI Top 100 (Wichita: 8-5). According to stat guru Ken Pomeroy, the Panthers are the 17th most efficient defensive team in the country; the Shockers rank 31st. On paper, it's a lunch-pail special at lunchtime, a grinder's delight. In layman's terms, the first team to 60 probably wins.
"They think it's a rebuilding year, but we reloaded, and we got extra clips. We're a team that should be watched," says the 6-foot-8 Early, one of the reasons for watching after averaging 13.6 points and 5.1 rebounds in his first season at Wichita. "And we're a force to be reckoned with."
Especially when the New York native is feeling frisky. During tilts in which Anthony has scored a dozen points or more, the Shox are a staggering 17-2. Eleven points or fewer: 9-6. From his game-winner to complete a huge comeback victory at Illinois State to his 39 points at home against Southern Illinois — the most by a Shox player since Xavier McDaniel's 44 in 1985 — whenever Anthony was making it rain, defensive-minded Wichita took on a different dimension offensively. Rival coaches and writers noticed it, too, making Early just the ninth player in Valley history to be named MVC Newcomer Of The Year and MVC First-Team All-Conference in the same season.
"Definitely cool," Early allows. "It's definitely a great experience, which everything is. But that's something that, (as an) individual, I would much rather win a championship with my team."
And yet a stomach virus during the MVC tournament in St. Louis got Early's March to the Arch off — and that's putting it mildly — on the wrong foot. He couldn't keep food down, looking weary and dehydrated during the Shox's rout of Illinois State in the semifinals, and was a non-factor in the rubber match with rival Creighton the Arch Madness title game, netting just two points in 23 minutes. For the weekend, Early scored just 15 points over three games — after averaging 14 over the previous five contests — and shot 5-for-21 from the field.
"Well, you've just got to play basketball and focus yourself," Early says. "And that helps, however you can get it, whether it's tournaments or other coaches are starting to pick you up. You're going to make mistakes, you're going to think about things. You might think about something too much. And you've got to make sure you don't overthink the situation. You just play."
Cle has always been a Charles Bronson sort of player: Shoot first, ask questions later. A natural, graceful scorer, Early has a guard's range and a big's reach, the type of gifts that makes a difficult game look ridiculously easy.
He grew up balling on the playgrounds of New York City, then went to high school a bit further upstate, averaging 20 points a game as a senior at Pine Bush (N.Y.) High School. When grades sent Early to Mount Zion Christian Academy in North Carolina, he netted 24 per tilt there, then dropped 20.4 and 24.2, on average, during two seasons at SUNY-Sullivan, a Division III junior college nestled in the Catskils, roughly 40 miles northwest of Middletown.
"I saw Cleanthony Early when he was a junior in high school, before he went to prep school," Sullivan coach Kevin DeVantier chuckles proudly. "And I knew that if he could get himself motivated, that he was going to be an extra-special kid."
As a kid, Early was thoughtful. Thoughtful and, at times, more than a little headstrong. Sandra remembers thinking her youngest was going to be a lawyer someday, because he a) loved to debate; b) once engaged, rarely lost an argument.
"He always used to say, ‘Mom, you work so hard,'" recalls Glover, who takes a two-hour commute to and from her office job down in New York City. "I'd get up early and I cooked for him every day, because it was him and my mother (living with us) … and he would sit there and say, ‘Boy, Mom, you work so hard.' And I'd say, ‘Well, I have to, I'm a single parent and I'm working, and I have to make sure that I provide.'
"And I remember him saying to me, ‘One day, I'm going to have a maid.' And he told this to me and his brother, and we used to crack up. He said, ‘I'm going to have a maid, I'm going to have the things I want.' He said, ‘She how you work hard? I'm going to work hard. I'm going to reach my goals.'"
But that strong will also could rub some coaches the wrong way. Early was even kicked off Pine Bush's varsity team for a time as a junior after butting heads with authority.
"I think people automatically assumed and said he was a bad kid," DeVantier explains. "It was never that. It was more him learning how to be coached, and accepting the criticism and controlling himself on the floor. He's so competitive that, early on in his career, when things weren't going the right way … he was extremely emotional in high school, and I think he learned to channel it, and use his competitiveness in a positive way."
Cle wasn't disrespectful. He wasn't a troublemaker. He was young. He was maturing. And he was distracted.
His relationship with his biological father, Cleveanthony, was uneven, at best and strained, at worst. Just when things started to improve, Cleveanthony got sick; Early's father is still wrestling with diabetes and lung cancer.
So young Cle leaned hard on Jamel. Always.
They were inseparable, as close as brothers can be who're born nearly 10 years apart.
Jamel was the first one to put a basketball in Cleanthony's hands, the first to show him the game. He was the mentor. The protector. The rock.
And then, one day, he was gone.
Drowned. June 2010. Schoharie Creek, near Charleston, N.Y. Jamel had been swimming with friends, tried to get out of the water and slipped. He'd left behind a wife and two children, with a third on the way.
A close family was gutted, but Cle, most of all. He'd lost his moral compass, his chauffeur and his sounding board.
At the funeral, Sandra says, "(Cle) had to leave. He said, ‘Momma, can I just got outside?' And he just started breaking down. He'd held it in, and I told him he had to let it go. ‘You have to just cry it out.' He really took that hard. He really did."
Despite the heartache, Early took stock of the situation. He not only wanted to be an example to his brother's children, but wanted to help provide for them. Cle re-doubled his efforts in the classroom, and on the court.
"I think that was a changing moment for him," DeVantier says. "He knew he wasn't going to waste time. He wasn't going to waste his own talent, and waste the opportunity that he had. Like anybody, when something like that happens, it makes you look at how you're handling things.
"From Day 1, when he first walked in our gym, until now, it's been a complete 180. It's unbelievable. He's grown up 10 times from where he was."
The big boys were late to the party on Early, but they tried like hell to make up for it. DeVantier figures took anywhere from five to 10 calls a week from Division I programs trying to get a piece of his stud forward, especially after that first season at Sullivan.
But Shox assistant Greg Heier, who'd spotted him at a camp in St. Louis, was the first in the door, and first in Early's heart. As Sullivan plays at the Division III JUCO level, Anthony flew under most radars, even after several passes.
Alabama, Baylor and Washington State came hard, along with San Diego State. Wichita coach Gregg Marshall closed the deal, DeVantier says, by promising Early that he'd have a shot at playing right away — the Shockers were saying good-bye to four starters after the 2011-12 season — and that he would be playing meaningful games in March.
As it turns out, Marshall kept his word. On both counts.
"I just felt like, sometimes, you've got to go with your gut feeling," Early says. "You get vibes, and you've got to make a decision."
Or something else makes it for you. Hurricane Irene hit New York City while Anthony was on his official visit to Wichita in the fall of 2011, preventing the forward from getting back east as soon as he'd planned. A few days in southern Kansas turned into a week.
"I felt like it was a sign," he says. "Wichita, man."
Miles from home, angels on his shoulder, Cleanthony Early is ready. As ready as he'll ever be.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org