SI.com legal expert Michael McCann examines Cleanthony Early's shooting and robbery and explains why the Knicks forward may have been targeted.
In a chilling incident that threatens a young NBA career, New York Knicks forward Cleanthony Early was shot in the right knee Wednesday morning. The shooting occurred after six masked men robbed the 24-year-old former Wichita State University standout and his girlfriend near CityScapes gentlemen's club in Queens. A statement by the New York Knicks indicates that Early’s injuries are not life-threatening. According to police reports obtained by the New York Daily News, the shooting occurred at 4:15 a.m. As explained below, the shooting appears to have been part of an organized and possibly targeted hit.
Minutes before the shooting, Early and his girlfriend had left CityScapes to hop in an Uber car. The Uber driver then drove about a mile before suddenly being boxed in by three cars. Six masked men—two of whom were armed with semi-automatic pistols—exited the cars and charged at the Uber car. One of the assailants then pulled Early from the backseat. Early was then threatened with guns to turn over “everything” he had. Early complied and surrendered his cash, gold chains and even the gold caps on his teeth. The Uber driver was also robbed during this exchange.
An already horrifying encounter then turned grave. After taking Early’s belongings, one of the assailants then shot Early in his right knee, which underwent arthroscopic surgery last year. This sequence raises a crucial legal point. If Early had already given the assailants what they wanted and then they shot him, it would suggest the shooting was an intentional attempt to inflict lethal force rather than an inadvertent firing during a robbery. The assailants, who remain on the loose, will likely face attempted murder charges as a result, among other charges.
• MORE NBA: Knicks drop in latest NBA Power Rankings
The manner in which the robbery and shooting occurred also raises questions about Early possibly being a specific target. Consider the fairly complex involvement of three cars and six men. These men, perhaps with the assistance of accomplices, apparently devised a strategy to box in the car containing Early at a specific street location and at a specific time. This was a risky undertaking that required three cars to escape before law enforcement arrived. Would the assailants have carried out the robbery if they were not certain that someone possessing valuable items was a passenger? Did someone at CityScapes tip off the assailants when Early was leaving? Did the assailants know the direction Early’s car would be going, or was it simply Early being in the wrong place at the wrong time? Did one of the assailants shoot Early in the knee—and potentially ruin his NBA career—to carry out some kind of personal grievance? These are all points of speculation at this stage, but the robbery and subsequent shooting of Early do not seem amateurish and may not have been spontaneous.
It will be interesting to see if there have been similar types of robberies in that location. If there haven’t, law enforcement will ask why this one occurred and they’ll carefully probe if Early may have been targeted. Early, who has played sparingly for the Knicks since being drafted in the second round of the 2014 NBA Draft, is originally from the Bronx and lived there until he was 14 years old.
Fallout for NBA players?
For the NBA and the National Basketball League Players’ Association, the shooting of Early could spark discussions about player conduct while away from the court. To be clear, Early broke no laws or NBA rules by going out to a club with his girlfriend—something that many 24-year-olds living in New York City do—and many would argue that Early did the “right thing” by taking a cab home rather than driving and by complying with the robbers’ demands rather than trying to confront them. To the extent life choices of athletes while away from their sport should be questioned, it doesn’t seem that Early’s incident Wednesday morning should be the catalyst for change.
Michael McCann is a legal analyst and writer for Sports Illustrated. He is also a Massachusetts attorney and the founding director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute at the University of New Hampshire School of Law. McCann is also the distinguished visiting Hall of Fame Professor of Law at Mississippi College School of Law.