Within five minutes of the opening tip-off against Lincoln University Oct. 27, senior guard Jeff Early hustled past everyone to dive for a loose ball and successfully kept it in bounds.
Ironic, for a player who got cut from his middle school basketball team because he “wasn’t tough enough.”
Early, who was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., grew up as the son of a semi-professional basketball player and shared his father’s love for the game.
“My dad played overseas for the Puerto Rican National Team … He was supporting a family off basketball,” he said. “I just decided that I could do the same and make money doing something I love, so my dad started working out with me, and that helped me appreciate the game even more.”
Early moved to Puerto Rico with his mother and siblings when he was one but returned to the U.S. 12 years later. The family settled into Glasgow, Va., where Early said the transition was difficult but rewarding.
“When I came here, I couldn’t speak English at all, and everyone seemed bigger than me,” he said. “But coming here, I was able to play more football, which isn’t that big in Puerto Rico.”
Early tried out for the junior varsity basketball team at Rock Bridge High School his freshmen year. He didn’t just make the team; he was promoted to varsity, started his first game and was a starter for the next four years. He broke the record for most points scored in a game at Rock Bridge with 52 points, and he was second in career points with more than 1,500 total points.
Early also made the football team and developed into a gifted receiver and safety. He was ranked among ESPN’s top 150 prospects for football by his senior year.
However, Early said his heart just wasn’t in the sport.
“I really only played football because some of my friends really wanted me to,” he said. “I was good at football, too, but I love basketball.”
He decided to attend former first-round pick Steve Francis’ alma mater, Allegany College of Maryland. Early averaged 17 points and eight rebounds per game his freshman year and was named a second team All-American JUCO player. He also led Allegany to the national championship tournament, the first time since Francis did it.
Then, as Early puts it, bad luck struck.
He broke his foot in the offseason before his second season at Allegany and had to sit out the entire year.
A few coaches called him when he was injured to see if he was interested in a change of scenery. Playing for a junior college, he was able to transfer from one JUCO to another and play in the same year. Early said he mulled over an offer from Monroe College in New York, a team he played before and a school close to his birthplace.
“I felt that it would be a good thing to play in New York,” he said. “I went there, and I saw that they had a good coaching staff. I met (senior guard) T.J Lindsay, and he was their leader. He let me join and be a leader with him.”
The team was undefeated at home and in conference play. The Monroe Mustangs finished 31-5 — the best record in history — and finished the season at the national tournament and came in third place overall.
“Later on, me and T.J. had a talk that if we got scholarship offers from the same D-I school that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to do it,” Early said. “Luckily, before I signed with Bradley, T.J called me and told me to check out SIU with him.”
The senior guard said he was impressed with SIU’s tradition and wanted to be a part of it.
Lindsay said he has never seen someone as athletic and driven Early.
“I like his game because it’s a very different type of game,” he said. “I’ve never played (with) someone who brought 100 percent every time, and if you don’t bring 100 percent, he will beat you because he is bigger or faster than you.”
Lindsay, Early’s roommate, said the two were really close since the first time they met.
“Jeff’s a people’s person, and he gets along with everybody,” he said.
Early and Lindsay are part of a senior trio that Coach Barry Hinson said must provide most of team’s leadership.
“He is the Energizer Bunny,” Hinson said. “Sometimes it’s a good thing, and sometimes it turns out really bad.”
Freshman guard Jalen Pendleton said Early is one of the team’s most important players because of how much he can and is willing to do.
“He hustles, boxes out and does all the small things,” he said. “It might not be pretty, but he gets the job done.”
Although Early plays guard, Pendleton said he reminds him of Charles Barkley.
“Not the same frame of Charles Barkely but the same game. He’s small for his position,” he said.
Early will lead the Salukis in the team’s first game of the regular season Monday in New Orleans.