Cleanthony Early’s body had a lot of bounce during pregame warm-ups Sunday. He took a pass, dribbled twice and soared to the rim for an emphatic dunk. Moments later, he did it again.
The way Early was jumping around and elevating toward the rim, it was hard to believe that less than three months earlier, the Knicks forward was lying in a hospital bed recovering from a gunshot wound to his right knee.
Early was robbed and shot outside a Queens strip club early in the morning Dec. 30. Just to be alive has Early feeling “very fortunate and very blessed.”
It’s been a long road back. There were times that Early wondered if he would ever play basketball again, let alone in an NBA game. But with less than 20 seconds left in the first half of Sunday night’s loss to the Kings, interim coach Kurt Rambis looked down the bench and told Early to enter the game.
“It felt great,” Early said. “It felt real good, especially after the incident. Just trying to get back out there and do what I do.
“It means a lot. It means a lot to just get a chance to be out there and play basketball, help your teammates do something.”
Early didn’t register a stat in 19.3 seconds of game action, but that was beside the point.
“He’s had to go through the mental trauma of this situation,” Rambis said. “Any time you go through an injury, there’s the physical recovery but then there’s also the mental recovery where you learn to trust whatever was injured. When you look back on it, the biggest part of it is just how fortunate he was that something more disastrous didn’t happen, especially when you look at what could have happened with his knee. It could have caused more significant damage than it did, so he’s very fortunate, and he knows that and he understands that.”
Early didn’t discuss the incident or what happened to him in his first public comments since that scary night. “I’m doing pretty good,” he said. “As far as the wound and the injuries, I’m pretty much 100 percent. Just got to get my conditioning back up.”
Early was asked if what happened made him change his outlook on things. “I’m very fortunate,” he said. “You just go through certain experiences, certain adversities, certain trials. Just keep your head up, get smarter, work harder and just learn from the past.”
Early said he spent the past three months reading, praying and working to get back on the court. The Knicks’ second-round pick in 2014 said his family, the organization, his teammates and his coaches all gave him tremendous support and that helped him return.
The Knicks assigned him to the D-League two weeks ago. The plan was for him to play four games with the Westchester Knicks. Rambis said Early “didn’t feel like he was ready” to play in the first game and missed the last two after getting sick.
Early was reassigned to the D-League Monday as he continues a comeback that he once wondered if he could make.
“It went through my head for a little bit,” Early said. “After a certain amount of time, and me feeling like I was pretty good, I knew I’d be back.”