Peter Aiken

Overcoming Tragedy, Cleanthony Early Returns to Big Apple

by Jonah Ballow

The beauty of sports allows us to discover the story behind the story.  At times, the narrative involves a dark or troubling past that may or may not lead to a fairytale ending.  We tend to root for a player who overcomes hardship to achieve his or her ultimate dream, which usually takes place right in front of our very own eyes.

Cleanthony Early is returning to New York, the site of joy and despair. 

Early spent his adolescent years in the Bronx, cheering for Michael Jordan while his mom bled orange and blue for the hometown Knicks.  Unfortunately, tragedy entered Early’s life during his seventh grade year when his brother, Jamel and cousin, Ezekiel were involved in a confrontation with a group of men.  Ezekiel was shot in the neck and killed just moments before Early arrived on the scene.  The devastating situation led to Early’s departure from the Bronx as his mom moved the family to Middletown, a safe spot outside of the city in Orange County.

After spending his high school days tearing up the hardwood at Pine Bush in Orange County, one would assume the New York native would gravitate towards a school in the city but his path took several twists and turns before landing back in the Big Apple.

Early spent a year at a prep school in Durham, North Carolina to play at Mount Zion Christian Academy, a famous institution for basketball players, most notably former All-Star Tracy McGrady. 

In the summer of 2010, tragedy struck the Early family once again.  Jamel, drowned at the age of 32 in Schoharie Creek, located in upstate New York.  Following his older brother’s heartbreaking death, Early decided to play at Sullivan County Community College near Middletown where he earned back-to-back NJCAA Division III Player of the Year honors. 

“It’s things that each and everyone has to go through that are similar yet very different. It’s all about our attitude and how we respond to it,” Early declared on a Monday conference call with reporters. 

In the midst of a maturation process that tested his resolve at every turn, Early benefited from an event that rocked his city.  Early planned a 2-day recruiting trip to Wichita State that turned into five days due to Hurricane Irene.

“I’m from a big city but I moved upstate when I was fourteen so I knew what it felt like to be slowed down a little bit and it wasn’t too lively – the city – there wasn’t much to do down there, so I felt like it wasn’t that many distractions and an easy place to stay focused,” Early explained.

At Wichita State, Early exploded on the scene as a two-time first team All-Missouri Valley Conference player and a consensus second team All-American last year.   The 6-8, 219-pound small forward caught the eye of pro scouts with a jaw-dropping 31-point, seven-rebound performance against Kentucky in the 2014 NCAA Tournament.  Prior to the NBA Draft, Early was considered a first round talent and after the Knicks selected him No. 34 overall, pundits considered him one of the steals in this year’s draft. 

“People are obviously in worst positions, and I’m not obviously in the best position, but I’m thankful for what I have and what I’ve been through and it’s been tough but it’s a process and I believe everything happens for a reason and I believe in God, I’m big on faith and I just work my way through those adversities that I know are bad,” Early confidently stated.

The 23-year old displayed self-awareness and maturity during his first encounter with the media on Monday afternoon.  A life already filled with deep, emotional experiences, Early is now a Knick, back in New York, and embarking a new journey.  We’re all waiting to read the next chapter in his book.

“I’m just another one of those guys with one heck of a story to tell and I’m not done yet.”