Cleanthony Early: From Hardship to the Hardwood

We detail Early’s ascension into the NBA with a remarkable work ethic and perseverance through adversity

Photo: Nick Laham/Getty Images

The majority of basketball fans know Westchester Knicks forward Cleanthony Early as the Wichita State star who lead his team to a Final Four appearance in 2013 and a 34–0 regular season the following year. He is also known for being the Knicks second-round draft pick, who hasn’t quite materialized into the player many thought he would be. However, most fans, even Knicks fans, aren’t aware of the tremendous adversity Early has endured since he was a young boy.

Cleanthony Early, like a hand full of the current players in the Knicks organization, is a native New Yorker. Early was born and raised by a single mother in the Bronx. The family struggled to stay afloat financially, with Cleanthony’s mom, Sandra Glover, working 16-24 hour shifts at a foster care center to bring in enough money to keep up with daily expenses. Glover was also a huge lifelong Knicks fan, so by default, Early was born with Orange and Blue in his blood.

Growing up, Early loved baseball before he even considered hoops. His cousin Ezekiel and step-brother Jamel would always push him to play basketball. He gradually gained more interest and would practice and play pickup at his local church parking lot deep into the night under the bright street lights.

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Unfortunately, tragedy struck soon after Early was introduced to basketball. When Cleanthony was 14 years old, Ezekiel was involved in a street altercation and was gunned down in the neck, killing him instantly. The young Early arrived at the crime scene only to see one of the most inspirational figures in his life, dead on the sidewalk in a pool of blood.

Following the murder of Ezekiel, the family had seen enough and Sandra Glover decided to relocate the family to Middletown, N.Y., a small city in Orange County surrounded by rolling hills and wide open fields. Despite the move to a much safer place, this unfortunately was not the end of bad times for Cleanthony Early and his family.

Photo: RealGM.com

After settling in well to his new home and new life in the country, Early enrolled in Pine Bush High School and quickly stood out as the unquestioned star of the basketball team. On top of his incredible athletic talent, the young stud was one of the most well-liked kids in the school, according to principal Aaron Hopmayer. He described teenage Cleanthony as an “alpha-dog” and someone who he “never saw angry.” Very admirable for a guy who had dealt with so much heartbreak and struggle in his life up until that point.

Towards the end of his sophomore year at Pine Bush, Early began garnering some attention from college scouts. In two years, he averaged 20 points and 10 boards as a 6'6" forward. I find this particularly neat because I recall hearing about Early on the local News12 channel, since I live about only 40 minutes from Pine Bush.

He opted to attend Mount Zion Christian Academy in Durham, North Carolina, for his final two years of basketball. At his new school, Early was subjected to more national exposure and he capitalized on it. Shortly before graduation, tragedy suddenly hit again. His step-brother Jamel had drowned in the Schoharie Creek, not too far from Middletown. He was only 32. Following another devastating loss, Cleanthony decided to return close to home and play his first two years of college ball at Sullivan County Community College, despite having some D1 offers for the upcoming season.

This latest tribulation didn’t derail Early one bit. He starred at SCCC and won the Division III Player of the Year award in both seasons at the school, averaging a double-double (24.2 points per game and 10.2 rebounds per game) in his final season in community college. Early had offers from major D1 programs but decided to attend the smaller school in Kansas: Wichita State.


Photo: Harry How/Getty Images

Coach Gregg Marshall saw something special in Cleanthony Early, not only as a basketball player, but as a young man. Coach Marshall even flew to Orange County, N.Y., to speak with Early’s mother and Cle himself to express his desire to have her son join the program.

In two seasons as a Shocker, Early, along with current Knick, Ron Baker and Raptors reserve Fred Van Fleet, turned the team from a formidable mid-major basketball program into a national powerhouse that competed with schools like Kansas and Kentucky for the #1 spot in the rankings. Cle could flat-out ball and his tremendous talent was on display immediately and his instant impact propelled Wichita State to their first Final Four since 1965. As a college basketball fan myself, I absolutely loved watching these guys play, especially Early, who was not only a dynamic player, but a smart player who played with humility and class no matter win or lose. The following season, after a 34–0 regular season, the Shockers lost in the Sweet 16 to the Kentucky Wildcats and the Early’s collegiate career came to a abrupt end.

Although he never was able to get over the hump and win a National Title, his accomplishments and impact on the program will live on forever.

As all Knicks fans know, Early was the only selection they had in the 2014 NBA draft due to the infamous Andrea Bargnani trade which left them without a first-round pick. Despite being taken 34th overall, Knicks fans, including myself, were incredibly excited about the pick, and believed he could be a major contributor.

Photo: Mary Altaffer/AP

He got off to a slow start, however, and only saw limited action as he bounced around from the D-League to the Knicks in his first season in the NBA. The following season was much of the same for Early and doubt was starting to creep in if he was ever going to be able to be a mainstay on the roster and a guy who would get key minutes.

Then on December 30, 2015, Early’s life took a downturn once again. He was robbed at gunpoint after leaving a Queens strip club in an Uber with his girlfriend. Cle was shot in the knee and survived the shooting but was forced to miss the bulk of the season while he recovered from the gunshot wound (Early would return for the final six games).

The combination of his lack of production and his recent injury made it seem like this might be the end of his Knick career and potentially his NBA career. However, the Knick’s decided to re-sign Early in October and eventually made his way to the Westchester Knicks and calls the Westchester County Center his current basketball home.

As a basketball enthusiast, I really value players who demonstrate humility and passion for the game and, to me, Cleanthony is the epitome of those qualities. I am not entirely sure whether we will ever see Cleanthony Early on the floor for the Knicks ever again, let alone even on the roster. But there is no doubt he is someone we should all cheer for. The violence, the loss, and the tragedy Cleanthony has gone through in only 25 years of life is mind-blowing and unmatched by most individuals. The amount of mental toughness and determination this man possesses is quite frankly unbelievable and I wish him nothing but the best.

Hopefully Cle and his story will continue to gain more recognition and notoriety as he has the potential to inspire so many people out there going through any adversity.

Nick Scolaro, site writer

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