Wichita St.'s Cleanthony Early carries added motivation into Sweet 16
It's hard to miss Wichita State's 6-foot-8 junior forward Cleanthony Early. In the Shockers' locker room, he's the one doing the raspy-throated Dick Vitale imitations, or arguing with senior forward Carl Hall about the superiority of LeBron over Kobe, or laughing louder than anyone else. On the court he stands out even more. If you watched the Shockers upset No. 1 seed Gonzaga 76-70 last Saturday, you had to notice No. 11 in black, the lean, springy forward with the gap-toothed smile who is quick around the basket and lethal from the arc. In just 24 minutes against the Zags, Early, the team's leading scorer as a reserve, had 16 points -- including four threes -- seven rebounds, two blocks and a steal. Afterward, Early and all his teammates danced in celebration on the court with their coach, Gregg Marshall. But it was the image of Early with his arms back, face turned upward and mouth agape, mid-scream, that made the rounds on the web.
"Cle is loud, but he plays with passion and heart, he plays with soul," says Shocker senior point guard Malcolm Armstead. "He makes shots, he can stretch the D, he plays way above the rim. He's a mismatch all over the floor."
There are a lot of matchup headaches in college basketball. But Early brings an extra element of entertainment to his role. "He is a high-wire act as an athlete," says Marshall. "When he's running and jumping, there's no more beautiful player in the NCAA."
When he arrived in Wichita last summer as a junior college transfer, Early was more raw than beautiful, especially on defense, the keystone of Wichita State's game. ("He'd be the first to tell you he was horrendous," says assistant Greg Heiar.) A quick succession of December injuries to starters Evan Wessel, Carl Hall and Ron Baker forced Early to evolve quickly. "He was thrown into the fire and he had to grow up and accept a larger role," says Heiar. "To his credit he took off."
On Jan. 9 Early offered a glimpse of his offensive potential by delivering 39 points -- including five threes -- six rebounds and two blocks in a 82-76 win over Southern Illinois. It was the most points by a Shocker in a game since Xavier McDaniel scored 44 against West Texas State in 1985.
"When some people step out, some people have to step up," says Early. "That happens all the time in life." It happened to him two and half years ago when his 32-year-old brother, Jamel Glover Biggins, drowned in an upstate New York river, leaving behind two children and one on the way. "He was way more than a brother to me," says Early. "He was a role model, a father figure. He was someone I could confide in; I knew he had my back. He was pretty much my everything."
The two were 14 years apart and at different poles when it came to personality: Jamel was quiet and self-contained, while Cleanthony was a social butterfly who loved to read, write and share anything he had, whether it was a game or an opinion. "Cleanthony loved to debate people, on any subject," says his mom, Sandra Glover. "I always thought he'd grow up to be a lawyer."
When Early was a 10-year-old devoted to baseball, Jamel handed him a basketball and taught him a few moves. Early played the game at rec centers in their Bronx neighborhood, but he didn't get serious about basketball until Glover, a Brooklyn office manager, moved the family upstate to Middletown, N.Y., so Early could attend high school outside the city. (Glover still works in Brooklyn, making the two-hour commute both ways five days a week.) After averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds as a senior at Pine Bush High, Early spent a prep year at Mt. Zion Academy in North Carolina, where he averaged 24 points and 11 rebounds. With his academics still in need of polish, he was considering a number of DI junior college options. Then, on June 27, 2010, his path was suddenly altered. That day Jamel and a bunch of friends were enjoying an outing at Schoharie Creek, near Charleston, NY, when he slipped on rocks trying to get out of the water, panicked and drowned.
Early was devastated. He had to leave the funeral, and he has never been to his brother's gravesite. "It was really hard; it hurt," says Early. "But at that point I had an epiphany: you're the man of the house. I felt like those children were my own and they would follow my example. I realized l could really influence a lot of people if I made the right decisions."
His first decision was to stick close to home for his first two years of college. Glover didn't know he had decided to attend nearby DIII Sullivan County Community College instead of attending a higher-level college far away, until she read about it in the paper. "I told him he didn't need to do that," says Glover, "but he said, 'Mommy, you don't want me to leave you now."
Early made the most of his time at Sullivan, averaging more than 20 points and 10 rebounds both years and becoming a two-time NJCAA DIII Player of the Year. The only DIII player invited to Jerry Mullen's JUCO Top 100 Camp in July of 2011, Early grabbed the attention of several DI schools, including San Diego State, Baylor, Washington State and Alabama. "It was crazy, schools you dream of like Georgetown were suddenly knocking on your front door and sending emails tying to get in touch with your mom," he says. Early chose Wichita State because of a connection with Heiar, a former coach at Chipola College, and because, as he told Sandra, "it felt like the perfect fit and the best opportunity to grow."
Heiar doesn't think Early, who earned MVC Newcomer of the Year and MVC First-Team All-Conference honors, is anywhere near his limit. "If you're supposed to be a 10 as a player when you leave a program, he's a three right now," says Heiar. "He still has that much potential."
Early has found a good time to tap it. Wednesday, March 20, would have been Jamel's 35th birthday. On the Facebook page friends set up after his death, Early wrote, "Happy Birthday, Big Brother. I'm going to give you a gift."
In the Shockers' Round of 64 game against favored Pitt the next day, Early wiped out the memory of a disappointing Missouri Valley Conference performance (15 points in three games) by scoring 21 points -- despite going 0-6 from the three -- grabbing seven rebounds, making a block and a steal, in 28 minutes off the bench, in the Shockers' 73-55 win. Against Gonzaga two days later, he rediscovered his outside touch, hitting four of seven from long range, including one that cut the Zags' lead from seven to four with 5:09 to go. In the delirious Shocker locker room afterward, he could barely contain his excitement. "I love this team, I love this moment," he said. "But we have to stay focused and realize we have a whole other opportunity in front of us. We all have another chance to step up."