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How Cleanthony Early became a Final Four-caliber player

Apr 6, 2013, 8:27 PM EDT

Louisville v Wichita State Getty Images

I originally ran this article on December 1, 2012, when we barely knew who Cleanthony Early was. The story happened to run on the same day that coaching legend Rick Majerus passed away, so it was understandably overshadowed. Now that “Cle” is playing on college basketball’s biggest stage, it’s worth a second look.

Anthony came out of Pine Bush, NY as a slender, lightly recruited kid, blossomed in junior college, and is now starring in the Final Four as a 6’8″, 215-lb. junior for Wichita State. I spoke with Rick Scarpulla, a trainer and Power Lifting coach at West Point, about how he helped build Early into a DI athlete.

CBT: How did you meet Cle?

Rick Scarpulla: Cle was just finishing up high school. Another athlete, who’s now a DI football player, brought him to me. He said “this guy can ball, but he’s got no body.” High school coaches are so focused on practicing with the ball in the hand; if they spend 30 minutes a day on basic athletic training kids stay stronger and are less injury-prone.

Every big man’s recruiting report says he needs to get stronger to compete in college. How do you do that?

My whole premise of training is built on becoming a better athlete. We work on speed, strength, flexibility, balance, optical recognition and reaction. You have to gain complete athleticism. It’s all about first-step speed and explosive power in any sport.

Defense takes endurance. How do you train a kid to be explosive out of that stance?

That’s all in the posterior chain. Focusing on that area during training allows someone to properly break down into a defensive basketball stance. You take the pressure off the knees and put it on the hamstrings and glutes, which are designed to raise and lower the body.

How much do you focus on a player’s mind while you’re training him?

The mind takes the body where it needs to go. I’ve told Cle a thousand times that this is his shot, and I believe he can play at the highest level. He has to believe he can do it.

If a kid without access to great facilities wants to get stronger, what can he do?

Jump training is one of the best things you can do, and you can do it anywhere. Jump high, low, long. Jump rope. Jump from a seated position, from a kneeling position, holding weights. A kid in his backyard can do all of the old-school things to get stronger.

What part of your workouts did Cleanthony hate most?

I would have to say burpees. We may do a few hundred in a session. Cle absolutely hated it. We had a few big guys who trained with Cle and he always joked “They can feel my pain. This ain’t for a tall man!” But I know I can’t school Cle in basketball, he’s got all those skills. What I did made him stronger, more explosive, able to jump higher. Simple concepts that translate onto the court for him. I’ve had cadets come back after crawling through caves in Afghanistan, and they did the same mental and physical training.

Eric Angevine is the editor of Storming the Floor. He tweets @stfhoops.

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