Hurricane Irene helped Wichita State recruit Cleanthony Early

ATLANTA — As Hurricane Irene churned along the East Coast, flight after flight was getting canceled, and Cleanthony Early remembers thinking to himself, “I’m stuck in Kansas.”

The talented forward from upstate New York was on a recruiting visit to Wichita State, which he barely knew existed before the trip. The first two days had gone well, though, and he was starting to think that he might someday play for the Shockers.

Then he wound up stranded three more days, and came away convinced. The rangy forward with the versatile inside-outside game spurned overtures from Baylor, Alabama and Missouri to commit to coach Gregg Marshall, who’d been busily putting on the full-court press.

Three days, and one storm, ultimately changed the course of Early’s life.

The Shockers’ basketball program, too.

“Everyone knows in two days they can show you the best of the best, and in five days, you can see a lot more, and maybe some of the things they don’t want you to see,” said Early, the leading scorer on a team of upstarts that will face Louisville in the Final Four on Saturday night.

“But I felt like it was a place without any distractions,” Early said, “where I could stay focused. That trip convinced me, not because of what I saw, but what I didn’t see.”

Early didn’t see players partying, or the type of big-city lifestyle that can chew up impressionable young players. He didn’t see a coach that put winning above all else, a school that bent the rules to win, or an environment that could get him into trouble.

No, in those five days, the soft-spoken Early saw a place where he could focus on school and basketball, the two things that have helped him cope with the roller coaster of life, from trouble in school to the death of his beloved brother, to a strained relationship with his father and to being constantly overlooked by more high-profile Division I schools.

“On that trip, I got a better feel for the team, the guys. I got a better feel for the coach. It was just a regular town,” Early said. “It wasn’t San Diego or New York or another big city, it was a place where there wasn’t anything but basketball.”

There are words for what happened, the turn of events that deposited Early at Wichita State. Destiny is one, chance is another. Luck gets thrown around a lot.

“I think it was fate,” Early said. “That’s what I think it was.”

Early was largely raised by his mother, Sandra Glover, and had a strained relationship with his father. So it was his older brother, Jamel Glover, who first introduced him to the game.

Big brother became his biggest fan, watching him grow into a basketball player’s body.

Then, on June 27, 2010, Jamel was swimming with friends in a creek near his New York home. He drowned, and Early was devastated. He could barely drag himself to the funeral, and to this day thinks about his brother constantly. He wonders what he’d make of this Final Four adventure, and even admitted in a voice barely above a whisper that he dreamed about him just this week.

“When it’s someone that close,” Early said, “you want them to be there, especially on days like this. You want that person by your side, to experience everything with you.”

His teammate, Malcolm Armstead, knows better than to talk to Early about his brother. It’s a painful spot for someone who seems to always play with a smile on his face.

“But we’re there for him, all of us. I’m there for support, whatever he might need,” Armstead said. “He’s like my little brother. We’ve grown that close.”

Early’s brother became his inspiration, following him wherever he’s stepped on the court.

He was the star forward for Pine Bush (N.Y.) High School, but grades forced him to spend a year at Mount Zion Christian Academy in North Carolina. He spent two more years at Sullivan County Community College in New York, putting up the kind of ridiculous numbers that made him a two-time Division III junior college player of the year but didn’t catch the attention of many coaches.

So when the Shockers called, Early was ready to listen, even if he had to Google the school to learn something about it, and scout out on a map where he was headed for a recruiting trip.

That’s when serendipity — or chance, or fate, or destiny — set in. Hurricane Irene swept up the Atlantic seaboard in the fall of 2011, one of the most devastating storms in U.S. history.

“It really shut down the Northeast, and for one day he couldn’t get back,” Marshall recalled. “Then the second day, we took him to the airport and he was supposed to try to get back, now all the flights were backed up and everyone was on a waiting list, standby.”

Wichita State dashed off a quick petition to the NCAA to ensure it was OK to extend Early’s recruiting trip, and by the end of it, the swingman was sold on the Shockers.

“It was a very, very long visit,” Marshall said, “but it worked out for us.”

It seems to have worked out for everybody.

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