KIGALI, RWANDA — Six years after an unceremonious end to his time with the New York Knicks, 31-year-old small forward Cleanthony Early is in his element with the Cape Town Tigers at the Basketball Africa League.
Flown in ahead of the BAL playoffs in Rwanda as a replacement for the injured Jamel Artis, Early told ESPN that leaving the NBA helped him rediscover his love for the game, after his time with the Knicks, which ended in 2016, sucked the enjoyment from it.
Early did not have an easy time of it after being drafted in 2014, the low point being a shooting in December 2015 as he was leaving a New York strip club with his girlfriend. He was shot in the knee by robbers, who had demanded he hand over his “gold,” including the caps in his teeth.
Early told ESPN ahead of the knockout games in Kigali this weekend: “I would say when I got with the Knicks, s— was so crazy, even on the court, [that] basketball stopped being fun for the first time as a professional.
“That s— was weird. I wasn’t ready for that. I didn’t know how to handle that. I didn’t like that, but I would have to adjust to it if I wanted to be a professional.
“I did, but I didn’t get the chance to adjust to it the way I needed to or wanted to in the NBA, because I got shot, a reputation was built [of a player who hung in the wrong places at the wrong times] and people had a preconceived idea of who I would be, coming to the team.
“I’ve been having fun since I went overseas. When I was in the D League, I was having a little bit more fun again… Taking my talent and playing overseas has been great. I’ve had tons of fun, met great people, experienced great cultures, great countries, seen different places I didn’t even know existed.”
Since leaving the Knicks, early has taken to the court for teams in Greece, France, Saudi Arabia and lower leagues in the USA, before most recently playing for New Taipei CTBC DEA.
When asked what specifically drew him to the Tigers, Early said: “My season in Taiwan got cut short early, so I had an opportunity to be home for a bit and I was reached out to by a couple of agents who pretty much presented me the opportunity.
“It’s Africa; it’s the BAL. Taiwan was phenomenal, but my uncle had passed away, so I wanted to rush back home and support my family and be with my family.
“They had a 15-day quarantine and a whole bunch of other requirements for me to come back. By then, the season would have been over and we could have lost in the playoffs. It kind of defeated the purpose of going back there.
“When I got this opportunity in Cape Town, I’d seen it on TV. I always told myself it would be a dope league to play in and I wished I could experience it. I had that in my mind, and when it came to fruition, it was pretty dope.”
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By his own admission, early does not have much experience of African basketball or life on the continent, although there are some BAL players whom he is familiar with.
“I know [Michael] dixon I know [Edgar] sosa [at Zamalek]. Some guys from New York, I’ve met around the city. It’s been pretty cool seeing them from a high school age and reach overseas. We grew up [and went to] South America, NBA, [and] Africa — it’s just a good feeling,” he said.
The Tigers, quite frankly, shocked fans when they made it to the knockouts, and will be up against Dixon’s US Monastir in the quarterfinals on Sunday. When asked what he could add to the team ahead of this crucial fixture, Early did not mince his words.
“Just some experience and some talent. I feel like I’m a hella good player. I feel like any team I get on, I can better, even at NBA level. I don’t think there’s one team in the basketball world that I would be on and make worse,” he said.
The BAL airs on ESPN in Africa, and on ESPN+ and ESPNNews in the US.