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.
"It wasn't San Diego or New York or another big city, it was a place where there wasn't anything but basketball," Early said.
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."
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
"It was a very, very long visit," Marshall said, "but it worked out for us."
Louisville vs. Wichita State
What: NCAA Final Four semifinal game
Where: Georgia Dome in Atlanta
When: 6:09 p.m.
Radio: WHAS-AM 840
Records: Louisville 33-5, Wichita State 30-8
Series: Louisville leads 19-5
Last meeting: Wichita State won 78-74 on Feb. 28, 1976, at Wichita, Kan.