WICHITA, Kan. — Once Bruno, a bomb-sniffing Belgian Malinois, and his handler, a Kansas state trooper, perform their security sweep of Koch Arena on March 1, elderly ladies wearing black-and-yellow leis file into the Roundhouse alongside students in face paint. It is 90 minutes to tipoff. Some rush; others relish the final moments of an undefeated regular season. Trailing them, Sandra Glover, daughter of the Bronx and mother of Cleanthony Early, a loud, lean Wichita State forward with an open face and gap-tooth smile, negotiates her way through the crowd. She is in no hurry, settling into her fourth-row seat on the aisle behind the Wichita State bench. She wears a yellow Shockers T-shirt and starts shuddering when the school band plays the alma mater.
“Jesus!” she says, staring up at the scoreboard. “Jesus! They’re coming out!”
Anxiety overwhelms her. She grows hysterical, yelling with a revivalist’s fervor. She reaches into her pocketbook and retrieves a pack of Kleenex. She clears tears from her eyes with tissues as her son and the rest of the Shockers run onto the court. She shakes her head.
“Oh, my God,” she says. “I can’t handle it. I gotta go.”
She stays standing for the contest’s first two minutes; fans clap rhythmically on Senior Day, her son’s unofficial sendoff. Early is fouled as he cuts to the basket; he takes a deep breath and knocks down a free throw, then misses his second. It is all too much for Glover, though. She sprints back up the cement steps, running away from the courtside action to the quieter concourse area and a familiar usher. She looks on from her removed position as her son converts two catch-and-pop three-pointers. She exhales slowly.
“I’ve tried to nail her butt down,” says Early’s aunt, Dorinda, as she looks back at Glover. “It doesn’t work.”
Glover’s son, meanwhile, appears unflappable. He plays with aplomb, distributing the ball with a touch pass and defending with elbows-out aggressiveness. Coach Gregg Marshall monitors Early, his leading scorer, knowing the slightest slip can derail the Shockers’ 30-game win streak. Marshall likes to refer to Early as “an interesting bird,” easily capable of having his feathers ruffled. He knows better than to look away.
“It’s a constant thing we have to be cognizant of. When he’s focused all his energy, passion and emotion in the right direction, woo, it’s really, really good,” says Marshall. “Every once in a while, he can kind of teeter, like the train’s teetering a little, but you just can’t let it get off the track.”
Early’s whistle-stop in Wichita will soon be over. He’s moved on before, from 188th St. in the Bronx, where he watched his cousin, riddled with bullets, die outside a pharmacy, to a rural upstate town to a prep school to a junior college. He lost his brother, Jamel, felled by a heart attack as he drowned in Schoharie Creek outside Schenectady, then shot the moon, scoring a thousand points at Sullivan County Community College, and another thousand at Wichita State. In four collegiate seasons, he has won 30 or more games each year, proving his mettle from the Missouri Valley Conference to the Atlanta Final Four. Through it all, the bus rides and the flights, the losses and the 34 consecutive wins, Early, always on edge, considered his mother “my motor, my love, my everything.
COURTESY OF SANDRA GLOVER
Wichita State star Cleanthony Early sporting a tux and tail, ponytail that is.
“I was born on the bottom,” Early says. “I wasn’t bad, just mischievous, lacked guidance. I had to overcome those adversities, understand the world is a certain type of way. I’m not gonna cry about it or dwell. I have an opportunity to improve by rational decisions.”
Mother wondered whether Wichita was an irrational choice, at first. Marshall promised her that Early would be under his thumb, living with fellow transfers in a modest house across the parking lot from Koch Arena. Still, she worried about such a remote locale. Early insisted that he understood the need to eliminate distractions and employ tunnel vision. Marshall’s plan is evident on the court in the early minutes of the second half on Senior Day. Early, already in the book for 11 points, fails to defend a pick-and-roll properly. Marshall, a balled fist of a coach on the sideline, calls Early back to the bench for a lecture. Early comes over as teammates make way for him to find a seat.
“Now sit your a-- down!” Marshall says.
* * *
To get to Sullivan County (N.Y.) Community College, you drive north on Route 103 to Loch Sheldrake, a Catskills town best known for its heyday featuring Jerry Lewis as the headliner in a Borscht Belt hotel. Signs hint toward a destination for teenagers looking to get away. “Miami Beach Cottages” are advertised on the first billboard, but that’s really an illusion. Breezeway Farms and a hut for ice fishers follow. Continue past the Sullivan County Museum and the college is on the left. One dormitory dots the campus, and inside the fieldhouse, down in the basement, four words painted in green above the doorway to the basketball court greet all who enter: “Welcome to the Bunker.”
Kevin DeVantier, then coach of the Sullivan County Generals, lured Early to campus. DeVantier observed Early as a high school senior while at a previous junior college job, and liked his lively body on the boards, as well as his athleticism. He reviewed his transcript from Pine Bush (N.Y.) High and admits, “It was scary.” There was, after all, a reason that the 6-foot-8 Early was available. At Pine Bush High, he entered school around 5-foot-4; he was awkward, wore his long hair in a ponytail and drifted in and out of class, retreating to the gym during class time. There was an in-school suspension, countless detentions and meetings with principal Aaron Hopmayer. He matured, both physically and emotionally, but fell short of Division I requirements.
“He was so busy trying to be the macho man of Pine Bush,” his mother says. “The ponytail? He was trying to be Steven Seagal.”
He wasted three years of eligibility before playing a full season as a senior. That brief display bought him an opportunity. Bobby Rahn, an assistant dean at nearby Burke Catholic High, watched Early pick up a technical foul 15 seconds into a game. What some saw as petulant behavior, Rahn called passionate. He offered Early a spot on his traveling AAU team, and assisted in enrolling Early at Mount Zion Academy, a prep school in Durham, N.C. When Donald Q. Fozard Sr., the school’s pastor, was introduced to Early, he flashed back to Mount Zion’s first great player, a similarly sized swingman.
“Who is this, the next Tracy McGrady?” Fozard Sr. said.
KEVIN ARMSTRONG/NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
The wall above the entrence to the Sullivan County (N.Y.) Community College gym, where Early honed his skills says it all.
Discipline that Early typically rebelled against was introduced at the door. He had to cut his cornrows, wear a shirt and tie and attend church services every Wednesday and Sunday. During one long session on a Sunday, Early phoned his mother from the church.
“Ma, we’re still in church!” he said. “It’s 1 p.m. We’ve been here since morning.”
“Then get off the phone!” she said.
Recruiters began to dial his number more often. He did not commit anywhere immediately and returned home after the school year. On the evening of June 27, 2010, Early’s mother received a phone call from the New York state police. Her older son, Jamel Glover, had drowned after a day of swimming with his pregnant wife in Schoharie Creek. Early and his mother drove up to the hospital to identify the body, and Early, crying uncontrollably, could not handle the funeral. He left his mother’s side to settle himself, but would not go far in the days following the burial. A month later, he decided to attend Sullivan, a junior college with a proud basketball tradition. DeVantier welcomed his raw potential. “Probably spent more time talking to him than anyone in my life,” says DeVantier. “He was very emotional. I don’t think he realized how far he could go.”
There was plenty to improve. Early’s hips were tight; he always stood upright. He did not jump while shooting. Every time he lifted himself for a layup or dunk, he did so with his left foot and right hand. He was “a relentless complainer,” prone to whining about fouls in every setting, whether pick-up games or practices, and couldn’t understand why his teammates did not play to his level. DeVantier attempted to toughen up Early, and he did. Early led the Mid Hudson Conference in points, rebounds and gripes about being bored. He had no car, and spent most of his time in the gymnasium. His father, also Cleanthony, purchased a set of hair clippers for him. Early’s mom watched him set up his barbershop in the hallway. She asked who his clientele was on campus.
“Anyone who will pay,” he said.
It was far afield where Early finally distinguished himself. Steve Gosar, then the coach at the College of Southern Idaho, invited the Generals to Twin Falls, Idaho, for a tournament in Early’s freshman year. Southern Idaho paid for their travel with a guarantee. Early played three games, and blew away the competition. Soon after, Gosar mentioned to Jerry Mullen, a connoisseur of all things junior college, that Early was legit despite playing for a nonscholarship junior college. Mullen then invited Early to his JuCo Top 100 camp, a window-shopping showcase for coaches to evaluate potential Division I players. Wichita State assistant coach Greg Heiar, a former junior college player in Iowa and junior college coach in Florida, caught wind of the names on the list a month ahead of its public release. Heiar started sending Early and other players messages on Facebook and via email. The head start helped in gaining Early’s attention.
Wichita State would also benefit from an extended stay. When Early made his official visit to campus, Hurricane Irene ravaged the East Coast. Early’s flights were delayed time and again. He wound up staying five days total, and eventually returned to Sullivan. He previously had visited San Diego State and Washington State, but committed to the Shockers. It was one less carrot that DeVantier had in motivating Early for his second season at Sullivan, and opponents did all they could to stop the Generals’ best player. There were box-and-one schemes, and triangle-and-twos. Opposing coaches sent in brash defenders to talk to Early and try to intimidate him. He could be his own worst enemy.
“He could be the best player on the court and then 10 minutes later the worst player,” says DeVantier. “We needed to constantly re-adjust his goals with ridiculous numbers.”
DILIP VISHWANAT/GETTY IMAGES
Cleanthony Early is a loud, lean Wichita State forward with an open face and gap-tooth smile.
Talent-wise, Early is the best to ever come through Sullivan. His legacy is evident inside “the Bunker.” By the American flag hangs a glossy banner emblazoned with his 2011 national player of the year honor. His 2012 banner for the same award hangs from an adjacent wall. The schedule from the 2011 campaign is encased in glass, but DeVantier is no longer on campus. He took a job at Norfolk State last summer, and considered his experience with Early to be “a career changer.” He keeps game videos of Early’s efforts on his computer’s hard drive; Early’s random thoughts echo in his ears.
“I can still hear him arguing in the locker room,” says DeVantier. “I can still see the image of guys just walking away from him after a while.”
* * *
“Marshallville,” an assemblage of tents and sleeping bags outside the student entrance to Koch Arena, was bracing for winds off the prairie on Feb. 28. It was 36 degrees out nearing midnight; propane gas heaters provided warmth for one group. More than 80 students camped out for prime seating; two wrapped themselves in blankets emblazoned with last year’s Final Four logo. They wore yellow wristbands, checked in with an organizer and made pancake runs to the Delta Gamma Sorority house. In between sessions of “Never Have I Ever,” they discussed all things Shockers, ranging from the amount of cologne Marshall wears (too much, they say) to the emergence of sophomore guard Fred VanVleet to Early’s adjustments from last season for the current campaign.
“Last year, in March Madness, we needed a scorer to step up, and Clee stepped up, did he not?” says freshman James Hamilton. “This year, we have more talent, more scorers, do we not? You have to understand that what he’s doing is for the best of the team.”
“If he was on any other team in the Missouri Valley Conference, he’d be dropping at least 25 per game!” another student asserts.
“What about the four points he scored last game?” a third student says.
Early has endured ebbs and flows within Marshall’s system. The point guard is the show in an offense that runs plays called “Bounce” and “Big City,” “Punch” and “Bulldog.” VanVleet, averaging 12.1 points per game and 5.3 assists, emerged during the Final Four run, and drew national interest as this season went on. He claimed the Larry Bird Trophy as the conference’s top player even though Early was the preseason choice. Coaches were concerned how Early would take that, but Early shared in the accolades, earning All-American honors as a stretch-four forward. The balance between their contributions has evened out since they first arrived on campus two summers ago. VanVleet did not foresee Early’s star turn after watching his initial runs on court.
“I was kinda skeptical at first, having heard all the hype,” says Van Vleet. “But then we saw how dangerous he could be. He frees up the game for all of us. He’s allowed me to be the leader that I am. He’s not fighting me as he could or should, being the star. He lets me run the show. He knows how to take leadership now.”
KEVIN ARMSTRONG/NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
Pictures of Cleanthony Early and family.
Early and VanVleet are most effective on pick-and-pop plays at the top of the key. Early’s ability to set screens, then gain separation from defenders frees both of them up often, as it did for a game-winner against Illinois State last season and on countless possessions this year. His most eye-opening plays, though, come on alley-oops off back screens and the fast break. No run-out better displayed his two-way potential than last year’s national semifinal when he finished a break with an emphatic one-handed dunk. Broadcaster Clark Kellogg exclaimed, “Cle-Anthony! Bouncing to ecstasy!”
Early’s celebrity translates off screen, as well. T-shirts with his No. 11 emblazoned on them are on sale next to blue examination books and yellow foam fingers in the school bookstore. Mike Ross, Early’s instructor in a sports management course, was scheduled to hold class the Monday after Senior Day. Snow fell the night before, and the National Weather Service issued a hazardous weather outlook for Kansas due to bitter cold and wind chills ranging from minus 10 to minus 20. Ross’ son, Trent, had his school canceled that day and asked to join his dad since Wichita State stayed open. Ross was somewhat surprised by the request, but brought his son along. During the commute over, son asked father if he was teaching Early that morning.
“No, I just canceled the class,” Ross said.
“Oh,” he said.
Ross, sitting in his office, looked at his son, wearing headphones and typing on his laptop.
“I promised him that if they reach the Final Four we’ll go for that,” Ross said.
* * *
Kerry Rosenboom, a former college pitcher, keeps an office in the bowels of Koch Arena’s weight room. He’s been a strength and conditioning coach at Wichita State for 27 years. His office walls are decorated with major league baseball players, and he was on the job for the only national championship in school history, the 1989 baseball squad. On the gray double doors that lead into the weight room, he posts 11 declarations for all athletes to adhere to during lifting sessions. They include, “Lactic acid is my friend;” “I fear no man but I fear my workout;” “I may puke. I may cry, however, I will not quit. Ever;” and “I will bite off challenges. Spit Out Results. And beg for more.”
Rosenboom found a willing worker in Early when he arrived on campus standing upright and weighing 200 pounds. Some days that year, Early dipped below the 200 mark, and Rosenboom recognized a weakness. Early was fatigued when he stood in a defensive stance for extended amounts of time. Post players pushed him out of the lane. Early wanted the flexibility to defend perimeter players, and tightened his technique, ranging from leg whips to lunges. It was all about leverage. On his first day in Wichita, Early took a selfie and posted it on Instagram, but he’s bulked up over time, now tipping the scales at 219 pounds. He will add more weight to his narrow-waist, wide-shoulder frame as he prepares for the NBA draft, and notes, “I need to get some thighs and a butt on me.” Heiar likes to remind Early of his progress, texting him archive photos from Sullivan and Mount Zion, the bony frame staring back. He adds: #OneDayAtATime.
COURTESY OF SANDRA GLOVER
A young Cleanthony with an older cousin.
Early’s growth is measurable in multiple ways. When he was home last spring, following the Final Four, he stopped by Pine Bush High and spoke with principal Hopmayer. Once the undisciplined student cutting class, Early quoted Socrates in their conversation. Hopmayer then had Early address a group of at-risk students in the school. “When he brought up Socrates I almost fell out of my chair,” Hopmayer said. “I didn’t know who I was talking to.”
His mother notes changes, as well. Early first got a tattoo during an AAU trip to Las Vegas. It was his initials “A.E.” by his left wrist, and he tried to hide it but couldn’t when she picked him up at the airport. He asked to go to a pharmacy for Vaseline. She laughed at the memory, the big man with the low pain threshold, but then he added a cross and basketball on his sternum and abdomen after his brother died. His mother knew it was for pain; he wanted to absorb more. His latest inking was an eagle, wings and all, needled into his skin over his clavicle. The wing tips are visible beneath his game jersey.
“I like what it represents in multiple cultures, the messenger of God, precision, the ability to fly,” he says.
Rosenboom wanted the Shockers to come out soaring again this season. Over the summer, he incorporated a yoga routine to their workouts. Some players, especially the taller ones, were “trying to move the mighty oak.” Early took to it, as he typically does Rosenboom’s instruction, and added his own music as a soundtrack. As flexible as Early was on the mats, he can also dig in his heels about music choices in the room.
“He argues about everything,” Rosenboom says. “They debate whether the sun’s yellow or red. They can go for 45 minutes.”
Early’s voice is unmistakable to Rosenboom. The weight room lies around the bend from the locker room in the Roundhouse; voices carry in the hallway. When Early is approaching, he is often audible from a distance. Rosenboom turns to his assistant coach.
“It’s Clee coming down the tunnel,” he says. “Get ready.”
* * *
It’s 5:30 p.m. on March 3 and Early, dribbling a basketball after a high-functioning practice, is talking with teammates about a dream he had the night before. It involved his father and their intermittent relationship over the years. In the dream, Early learned that his father was ill. In real life, his father has been sick and living in Connecticut for some time. Still, the dream was darker: his father died and someone informed Early by phone. Early awoke with his pillow wet from tears and sweat. He wondered whether he would have any regrets if he actually lost his father in the coming days. He decided their relationship was more friends than father and son.