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On wings like eagles: Cleanthony Early rises above hardship

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, March 16, 2014, at 4:23 p.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, July 1, 2014, at 7:18 a.m.

Correction: An earlier version of this story indicated Cleanthony Early's mother, Sandra Glover, flew with Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall on a flight from Middletown, N.Y., to Loch Sheldrake, N.Y. in Sept. 2011. Glover was not on the flight. Marshall met with Glover in Middletown, then flew to Loch Sheldrake by himself.

Bernice Young was yelling at the doctors in the maternity ward, and their patience with her was wearing thin.

Her voice ricocheted through the halls and into the rooms of expectant mothers that night at Our Lady of Mercy Hospital in the Bronx.

“Looooook … I don’t think you understand. My sister is in pain over here. I don’t know how many times I have to tell you. She’s in pain and I expect you to do something about it.”

The doctors already knew her big sister, Sandra Glover, was in pain. And they knew it’s because she was about to give birth to a baby boy so big, they thought it might kill her if they didn’t handle it properly.

He’s going to be a football player, the doctors told her. He’ll play for the New York Giants and make you a lot of money, they said.

Young – the kids call her Aunt Boogie – didn’t let up.

“Did you not hear what I just said? I’m telling you she’s in pain and you’re not doing anything about it. Do something.”

Bernice was asked to leave. She yelled over her shoulder to Sandra as they walked her out.

“I’m not going far, girl. I’ll be right down the block. You hear me? I’m gonna be real close.”

Sandra fell asleep after Bernice left. She woke up at 11:15 p.m. and it was time.

They wheeled her into the delivery room. She said a prayer and it went fast.

The doctor was perfect in that moment, 11:24 p.m. on April 17, 1991, and the boy was as advertised – almost 10 pounds and 22 inches. The doctor said he’d never seen a baby with shoulders that big.

The nurses began to take the nine babies born that day back and forth from the nursery to their mothers for feedings. They put Sandra’s boy last on the list. It didn’t take many rounds before she noticed.

“Why is my baby being fed last? Why does he have to wait to eat until after all the other babies have eaten?”

The nurses laughed. They’d put him in this spot so they could spend more time with him, taking him to the feedings of the eight other babies and their mothers.

“He’s our baby, too, Miss Sandra. We wanted to show him to all the other women.”

Cleanthony Robert Early began to gain weight immediately.

Unlike most babies, he never dropped under his birthweight in those first few days. Never lost an ounce – a born survivor.

They let Bernice back in the hospital.

•  •  • 

The group of boys took turns hopping the fence at Our Lady of Mercy Church, maybe 50 yards from the building they all live in on Marion Avenue in the Bronx. Once over, the day’s designated fence-hopper popped the church gate open from the other side and let the others in.

Their little crew most days is Cleanthony, Cedric Simmons, Alex Paredes and the two brothers, Trenton and Joseph Washington. Cleanthony is in the fifth grade at P.S. 51.

The boys moved down a thin space between the fence and the church’s school to a basketball court, a secret place they kept in kind. It was their only hideaway besides an open-air skywalk on the sixth floor of their building where they set up makeshift hoops at either end. But every time they played there, the ball eventually went over the railing and into the super’s courtyard.

Then somebody had to go get the ball from the super.

So they sneaked behind the church. Cleanthony’s first love was baseball, but his big brother, Jamel Glover, and Jamel’s friend, Sharif Brown, kept putting a basketball in his hands. Cedric goads him into it, too.

Twelve years later, when he’s finishing the fast break at the Final Four for Wichita State with a thunderous, one-handed dunk against Louisville, Cedric makes everyone he’s with stop watching the game and just watch that over and over again. Their lifelong friend has grabbed the world’s attention.

“All he could do was shoot at first,” Cedric says now. “So we played where you couldn’t guard until the other one got past the free-throw line. And he’d sit back there and hit four or five shots in a row. He loved baseball but Jamel, Reef, me … we were all about basketball.”

Sandra’s whistle – two-fingered, high-pitched, LOUD, filled up the block when it was time for Cleanthony to come home. If he was on the skywalk, he’d scoot off back to his apartment, leaving his friends laughing in his wake.

“You could hear him going down the stairs, ‘BOOM-BOOM, BOOM-BOOM’ and then sprinting down the hall and ‘BAM,’ the door would slam and we’d all crack up,” Cedric says, 13 years later and sitting in an apartment in the same building.

When Sandra tried to whistle for Cleanthony and he was at the church, it was a different story. Everybody stopped except the person the whistle, heard clear as day, was intended for.

“It wasn’t that he was bad or trying to not listen to Miss Sandra,” Alex says. “It’s just that, and I tell people this to this day, this kid wasn’t capable of leaving the courts. If there was a game going on, he couldn’t get off the court. You could see it in his eyes, even then. I swear. If there were people playing, he was going to be there. That’s it.”

When Sandra’s patience wore out, she turned to Jamel, 13 years older than Cleanthony.

“Where is my boy?” she asked him.

“He’s playing basketball behind the church,” Jamel said. “Everybody knows that.”

“Oh Lord. No he isn’t. You know those boys aren’t supposed to be back there.”

Jamel, like he always did, stuck up for his little brother.

“Who are they hurting, mom? The nuns?”

Jamel had a way of making her laugh in any situation. Sandra calls him their protector.

Long after he’s dead, his name still resounds in the Bronx, for that same reason.

“Go get my boy,” Sandra told Jamel. “Before I have to go down there and beat his little behind.”

•  •  • 

Trenton and Joseph wanted to take Cleanthony with them to go see a movie. They’d have to take the No. 12 bus up to Co-op City, not even out of the Bronx.

Cleanthony was 10, but Sandra had never let him go anywhere by himself other than up and down their block.

She called Trenton and Joseph’s parents. They said it was OK. Then she called Jamel.

“You’ve got to let him live,” Jamel told her. “Just let him go to the movies with his friends. It’s not that big of a deal. They’re not even going that far.”

She finally agreed. She watched them get on the No. 12, white-knuckling her purse and biting her lower lip as it rolled away. Another bus pulled up, seconds later, also headed to Co-op City. She got on before she realized what she was doing.

“Lord help me, I don’t know why I did it, but I just decided I was going to follow them the whole day,” Sandra says, laughing. “My bus pulled in right after theirs. I got off and watched them walk up the block toward the theater. I stood across the street and watched them buy the tickets outside and go in. Then I crossed the street and watched them as they walked in to the actual theater to watch the movie.

“I went shopping for a couple of hours, then came back to the theater and sat back across the street. I watched them walk out, get on their bus and then I grabbed the bus after them and went home. To this day, they have no idea.”

•  •  • 

Sandra worked at a foster care agency in the Bronx, and the hours were long. She worked as much as she could, for the family, which meant nights. Which meant some days of being on call 24 hours. Cleanthony was in the seventh grade now, at M.S. 45, and she couldn’t always keep an eye on him. His world was getting bigger by the day.

One night, with Sandra at work, Cleanthony went down two blocks, past Webster Park to 187th Avenue, looking for Jamel and their cousin, Ezekiel.

Moments before Cleanthony arrived, there was a confrontation between Jamel and Ezekiel and another group of men. Ezekiel was shot in the neck and killed. Jamel escaped unharmed.

“I don’t know why, but I kept going … I came around the corner and saw him, lying there … he was gone,” Cleanthony says. “There was nothing. It was with me for days … I told my mom it was giving me nightmares. I knew that was just the environment, and I knew that situations and stuff like that happens around there, but I was still shook up.”

In that moment, Sandra had enough. She began to tell people she was leaving the Bronx, but no one believed her. She had a friend, Vanessa Duvoll, who lives about an hour upstate, in Middletown, N.Y. Vanessa used to live in the Bronx with a son, Denzel, who is the same age as Cleanthony.

For years, Sandra and Cleanthony had visited Vanessa in Middletown. He liked the rolling hills and the wide-open spaces of Orange County. She liked the schools and that it wasn’t the Bronx.

“No one believed me, right up until the day I told my sister she had to watch (Cleanthony) so I could go to Middletown and get the keys to my new apartment,” Sandra said. “Enough was enough. No more murders. No more death. No more violence.”

She enrolled Cleanthony in the eighth grade and began commuting two hours each way to the Bronx for work, catching a 5 a.m. bus. Jamel lived between upstate and the city.

Years later, at Webster Park, they still tell the story of Miss Sandra.

About how she got her family out of the Bronx, and the tragedy and triumph that enveloped them once they left.

Middletown

In Middletown, the village truly helps raise a child.

Cleanthony made friends quickly, first Kyni Scott and Derrick Jean at Circleville Middle School, then Pat Chellel, who they met their freshman year at Pine Bush High.

They bonded over basketball, then over everything else.

Sandra did the same with their parents. They’re connections that will last a lifetime – the three boys, a decade later, sat behind the Wichita State bench at the Final Four as the Shockers took on Louisville and Cleanthony put on a show for the nation with 24 points and 10 rebounds as WSU was a hair’s breadth from playing in the national championship game.

They were in Koch Arena in February, still behind the Shocker bench, going nuts, as WSU took on Evansville. They are, in a pop-culture prism, Vinnie Chase’s “Entourage” crew of E, Johnny Drama and Turtle come to life.

Last week, friends and family fill up Sandra’s apartment in Middletown and tell stories about Cleanthony for hours. The sheer noise of the gathering begins to attract people from all over the complex, filtering in and out to see what’s going on, to see what the craziness is all about.

When it comes down to it, they’re a big, spider web of a family with connections that weave in and out of each other’s lives. Forget about blood. This is something else.

“We all had to look out for each other,” Pat said. “We love Cle, man. That’s always going to be our brother.”

•  •  • 

Aaron Hopmayer has been the principal at Pine Bush High for nine years and, as a rule, isn’t someone who tries to foster many relationships with students after they leave the school. It’s not that he doesn’t care about them – that’s far from the case – but he’s ex-Army and all New York. Tough. To be the No. 1 disciplinarian in a school with 2,000 kids, maybe that’s what’s needed.

But when it comes to Cleanthony, for some reason, he turns into a big, gushing teddy bear.

It’s kind of endearing.

“You want to talk about playing angry?” Hopmayer asks. “That’s hilarious to me. I tell Cle I’ve never seen him angry in his whole life! Seriously, though, I’m so proud of the man he’s become. Of the leader he’s become. You walk the halls here, you go in the cafeteria and the kids all love Cleanthony. I don’t think many of them have actually got to meet him but they all talk about him a lot. If they’re talking about college basketball, they’re talking about Cle and his boys Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker.

“He’s a tremendous success story. You’re talking to a kid about going to college and they’re on the fence, you point to Cle.”

Hopmayer ran herd over the boys for four years – which was no easy task. Kyni, who became an All-Patriot League defensive back at Lafayette University, was the school’s best football player. Cle was a basketball star from the jump. Alpha dogs all the way.

“We showed up on campus and basically thought we were the toughest kids, the best kids at sports right away,” Pat said. “Whether that was true or not didn’t matter. In our mind, we were running things.”

It led to some dicey moments. Cleanthony was thrown off the basketball team his junior year for arguing with the coach. There were a couple of fights, kid stuff, usually sticking up for one another, that had to be sorted out. Sometimes Cleanthony skipped class. Sometimes he socialized in the cafeteria for too long.

But they all graduated. And Cleanthony, without the academic requirements to go Division I, went and spent a year at Mount Zion Christian Academy, a prep school in Durham, N.C., that has pumped out NBA players Tracy McGrady and Brandon Rush.

•  •  • 

The story of Jamel’s death has been told many times.

It wasn’t on the streets of the Bronx, which was always Sandra’s fear, but in Schoharie Creek in upstate New York, where he drowned while swimming with friends on June 27, 2010. He was 32.

He left behind three sons, Melquan, Ezekiel and Jamel. Jamel, now 3 and decked out in Wichita State gear last week, was still in his mother’s womb, at the creek, when his father died.

Pat says he’s never seen so many people at a funeral.

In the past year, Cleanthony added to an elaborate tattoo on his torso with a huge eagle, wings open, stretching across his entire chest, perched right above a cross with a basketball in the middle. The two tattoos tell the story of his past and his future.

The meaning of the cross is religious. The eagle is a little deeper. Both were inspired by the spiritual growth Cleanthony has experienced since Jamel’s death.

“The eagle owns the skies, he is the ruler of the skies,” Cleanthony said. “He flies fast and furious … and he teaches us to conserve and use our energies for the greatest good, how to be swift and focused for maximum results. We need to learn when to coast and when to accelerate.”

Sandra wonders aloud why Jamel’s life had to end like it did. After all she went through to make sure the family got another chance, all she did to make sure there was a different way.

Did it test her faith? Did she ever question God, and why he would take him away like this?

Tears pour down her cheeks, but her voice doesn’t waver. In this moment, she is as strong as she is vulnerable.

“He didn’t die on a street corner,” Sandra says. “He didn’t die in the Bronx. That’s my only comfort. I miss him every day. He is in my prayers every day. My son is always with me. My faith is always with me. It’s what gets me through.”

Loch Sheldrake

The combination of an appealing place to play – and somewhere to live – is what has drawn a multitude of high-profile basketball players to Sullivan County Community College, 30 minutes north of Middletown and winners of four NJCAA Division III national championships. They’ve continually churned out NCAA Division I players despite not being able to offer athletic scholarships — but they do have dorms, paid for by local billionaire and Cablevision founder Alan Gerry, who also paid for where the Generals play, Paul Gerry Fieldhouse.

Sullivan athletic director and former men’s basketball coach Chris Depew led the Generals to a 32-0 record and the 2007 title in his last season, around the same time he began to hear about an uber-talented star at nearby Pine Bush High who was developing a reputation for being as likely to come unglued at the referees as he was to drop 30 points.

“The thing was, nobody really knew Cleanthony that well,” Depew says. “He was the most well-known athlete in our area because of all the publicity he got and by far the most talented player in the area … but he had a lot of negative attention because he got a lot of technical fouls. Because he was immature on the court.

“Our coach at the time, Kevin DeVantier, got in on recruiting him early. We knew that coming out of Mount Zion what he needed to get done, academically, and there was the possibility of him going to a Division I junior college or maybe sticking around home.

“We told ourselves we’d keep actively recruiting him through the summer, until we saw his name pop up on the NJCAA website indicating that he had signed a letter of intent somewhere. And then, of course, everyone knows about the tragedy that struck his family around that time. After that, we said we decided to just give him space to figure out what was right for him. He knew we wanted him.”

Early showed up at Sullivan on Aug. 20, four days before school started, and told Depew and DeVantier that he wanted to play there. Without scholarships, Early had to take out student loans. Sandra was willing to pitch in with money and meals whenever she could.

“I got called for a lot of technicals when I was younger, yes, but people wanted to make me seem like a bad person for that?” Early says. “They didn’t know me, they didn’t know my heart. To judge someone like that, it’s not right.”

What Depew and DeVantier and everyone else would soon find out was that the person who showed up in Loch Sheldrake that day in August wasn’t what anyone thought he was anymore.

•  •  • 

Depew and DeVantier adopted a more modern version of old collegiate tradition of in loco parentis when it came to Early, and he began to thrive under their tutelage. He wasn’t perfect, but he was improving every day, as a person, off the court.

“Cle spent a lot of time in my office, chatting,” Depew says. “It wasn’t that he was in trouble, necessarily, but we’d hear about two kids getting in a fight in the dorms, and we’d go back and watch the video and he was one of the people in the crowd, watching. We wanted to know why he was even there in the first place.

“He played his music too loud. Sometimes he didn’t want to wait in line in the cafeteria. Little, growing-up type stuff … people were always just drawn to him and I don’t think he knew how to deal with it at first. But he started to figure it out.”

On the court, every single day, the ceiling got a little higher.

“Emotional, driven … every workout, every practice, every game,” DeVantier says. “He was constantly pushing his body to see what it could take and what he could do on a basketball court. It was amazing to watch.”

Early averaged 20.4 points and 11.4 rebounds his freshman season and was named NJCAA Division III player of the year as the Generals went 28-4.

Sandra was there at every home game, peppering Depew and DeVantier with questions about her son.

“She’d walk in the arena, give me a hug and then she wanted to know everything that was going on with Cle,” Depew says. “How did Cle do on his test that day? Was Cle playing his music too loud in the dorms? Was Cle staying out of trouble? Totally involved … she wanted every single detail.”

Like DeVantier, Wichita State assistant coach Greg Heiar began building a relationship with Early and Sandra early in the recruiting process.

By the time he and WSU coach Gregg Marshall first saw Early in person, at Jerry Mullen’s Top 100 junior college camp in St. Louis in the summer of 2011, the foundation was already there.

“He was really good out there,” Heiar said. “Coach Marshall pointed at him and said, ‘That’s the one I want, right there,’ so we started to pick it up. We made it clear how important he was to our recruiting class, I went out (to Sullivan) two or three times … I remember thinking he was so talented, so light on his feet. I knew he was raw, but if he got in our system, with Coach Marshall and Coach (Chris) Jans, he could be tremendous.

“One thing I noticed, too, was that he seemed to really like lifting weights … they’d go from practice to the weight room and he was still getting after it. He seemed to enjoy the hard work. So I knew his work ethic would go a long ways in our program.”

In the summer of 2011, right before school started, DeVantier made Cleanthony a scouting report on the schools that were recruiting him. It identified Wichita State and San Diego State, the schools he would eventually decide between, as both targeting him as their No. 1 recruit.

By early September, Marshall and Heiar’s dogged efforts had won over Early, thanks in no small part to an extended recruiting trip to WSU as Hurricane Irene battered the East Coast, leaving Early stranded in Wichita for an extra three days.

“We got past all the stuff they do to try and impress recruits and I got to see how people really were,” Cleanthony said. “I saw they were all good people, and I saw that everything was centered around how hard you worked. I knew I was going to get out of it what I put into it.”

Marshall took a private jet to Loch Sheldrake when he heard Early was close to making a decision.

“I didn’t know if he was ready to commit, but I knew we were in good shape,” Marshall said. “...we went in the gym, they’d already finished their workout, He comes in just to shoot the breeze and then he just says he wants to play for us.

“I just remember being really excited because I knew the ability the kid had and if he was willing to come and buy into our program, he was going to take us to another level.”

Early was named NJCAA Division III player of the year again as a sophomore, averaging 24.2 points and 10.7 points.

Wichita

After Early, the Shockers scored two more junior-college recruits out of that same class – Coffeyville forward Chadrack Lufile and Vincennes College guard Nick Wiggins. The three already knew each other from a junior-college all-star game in Las Vegas, and Lufile and Wiggins, who had known each other since they were teenagers in Canada, had developed some distinct initial impressions of their new teammate.

Mainly, they thought he talked too much.

“Oh my goodness, it just wouldn’t stop,” Wiggins said. “Everything was a debate. You don’t expect that, when you first meet someone. It never stopped.”

“Always a debate,” Lufile said. “Everything was, everything still is, a discussion about how you perceive things and how that affects your whole viewpoint on life.”

Marshall co-signed.

“The difference between hip-hop and rap, politics, whether you should wear your pants tight or loose,” he said. “I kind of like it, though. Keeps things lively.”

And before they knew it, Lufile and Wiggins began to like it, too.

“I like how he thinks, I don’t mind going back and forth with him,” Lufile said. “I can hold up my own end. I don’t mind debating.”

Wiggins might not be as quick to debate, but he found something else to appreciate in Early, who lives in a house near campus with the two.

“He’s a deep dude, a soulful dude,” Wiggins said. “And he knows what he wants out of life. You have to respect that. You always know where his heart is at.”

Early is never more effusive, never more emotive, than when he’s talking about Marshall and his teammates – whether it’s on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook or in person.

He breaks down their first meetings and the order, he, Wiggins and Lufile – “CJ” – committed in. How they built their friendship through practices and classes together. How they became like brothers on the run to last year’s Final Four.

Early says the younger Shockers names in a row so many times and so quickly – Ron Baker, Fred VanVleet and Tekele Cotton — that it begins to sound like one name: RonFredandTekele.

“There’s so much stuff you have to go through with a person to really connect with them, so many struggles and so much good and bad that you have to get through …you just can’t take those relationships for granted when they come along, and they’re ones I’m going to have for life,” Early says. “Fred, Ron, CJ, Nick, Tekele … they’re my brothers just like Pat, Kyni and Derrick. We’ve all gone through so much, you can’t break those bonds.”

And then there’s Marshall.

“It’s been a loving thing, a learning thing,” Early says. “The something he’s really, really good at is coaching basketball. The something I’m really good at is playing basketball. He doesn’t have to always be down our backs in order to continue to push us, to continue to ask for more. That’s not softening up, that’s just being effective. What you have to understand about him is that he never stops. He’s always on, he’s always ready to compete.”

And in that, the two have been a perfect fit.

“Selfishly, I want to stay a part of his life even after he leaves,” Marshall says. “Mainly because of his joie de vivre, how he lives life to the fullest.”

Early became a two-time All-MVC pick two weeks ago and, with a big NCAA Tournament, could play himself into becoming a high NBA Draft pick. The best parts of his game, above the rim and beyond the three-part arc, seem like a perfect fit for the pro game. His defense is getting better by the game and he’s developing a knack for coming up with the big block. He’s also the prototypical size for an NBA swing forward – 6-foot-8 and around 220 pounds.

And that’s the thing – eventually, whether it’s at Cowboys Stadium in early April or before, his time in Wichita is coming to an end.

•  •  • 

Cleveanthony Early was there the whole time. Before the story even started, actually.

He was there in the Bronx, growing up on public assistance as one of six kids to a single mother. He was there, tearing up the football fields at Dewitt Clinton High as his brother, Michael Early, tore it up on the basketball courts.

He was there when Sandra walked up her front steps on Davidson Avenue, way back in the day, bending her ear until she had to go inside. Bending her ear until she didn’t want to go inside.

He was there when they broke up, with a kid, although neither one will talk about why they split. No one will. Maybe it hurts too much. Maybe it’s just everybody’s over it and moved on.

Cleanthony, in a series of interviews, doesn’t say much about his dad, other than to confirm where he lives. When asked if it’s OK to talk to his dad:

“Do what you want.”

Cleveanthony lives in another Middletown — this one in Connecticut and about two hours east of the one in New York. His body is failing him – three stents in his heart in the last six months have him without use of most of the left side of his body. He’s been battling diabetes and constant pain from a work-related motorcycle accident in 2011 – he was an urban park ranger in New York for almost 14 years and had knee replacement surgery last November. He also says he has Tourette syndrome.

He admits being hurt by an article last year that said he and Cleanthony had a strained relationship. This is the first interview he’s done about his son, he says, and likely his last.

“I felt like that was inaccurate,” he says. “I don’t know where they got that. I saw my son. I didn’t see him all the time, because they lived in another town. Sandra’s been an amazing mother and I still talk to my son almost every day. I don’t know where anything else, any other intimation of problems between us …I don’t know where that came from. ”

Sandra won’t get into it, other than to say they’re a family, they love each other, and that Cleveanthony’s side of the family has always been there for them.

Cleveanthony picks apart what he thinks are his son’s flaws when he watches him play on television, taking mental notes for the next time they talk. He always wants him to be more aggressive, to be more physical.

“He’s a fighter,” Cleveanthony says. “In this family, we don’t back down from anybody.”

•  •  • 

It’s an unseasonably warm day in the Bronx, a Tuesday afternoon and Webster Park is filling up with people. Cleanthony and Jamel’s friends are gathered around the basketball courts, telling stories and laughing.

People come over, curious, and Sharif and Alex tell them it’s for a story about Cleanthony.

“That 34-0 ain’t no joke, ‘Ant’ be out there putting it on them kids,” one man says. “And that white boy can really play.”

Jamel’s birthday is Thursday. He would’ve been 36. Sharif, like a lot of people, says he misses him every day.

Everything always seems like it ends the same here, they say. A murder on a corner. Generations of families caught up in a vicious cycle of murder, drugs and violence.

But just this once, they point out, maybe it doesn’t have to be like that. Maybe this could be the time when it all turns out good.

“You hope against hope sometimes,” Sharif says. “And then it happens. Miss Sandra did what she had to do for her family. She made sure they didn’t get caught in that cycle.

“She got them out. What more can you say?”

Reach Tony Adame at 316-268-6284 or tadame@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @t_adame.

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