Chris Early watched the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga men's basketball team practice in a cold McKenzie Arena during the winter break of the 2007-08 season.
He sat on the visitors bench and dribbled a ball between his legs, looking up now and then at the action and saying little even to those who spoke to him.
Mocs coach John Shulman invited Early to his Lookout Mountain home for dinner that night. The coach knew Early's basketball skills were outstanding for the Southern Conference level, but he didn't know the young player.
Then Shulman's youngest son, John Carter, came running up from the basement chasing Early and tossing Nerf balls as best as a 2-year-old could throw.
It's a moment neither Early nor Shulman will forget, despite the fact Early ripped Shulman on Twitter to his friends in November, ultimately resulting in the coach dismissing Early from the team Monday.
"I felt like he wanted to give me another chance to be successful," said Early, who had been dismissed from Oklahoma about six months earlier. "He wanted to see how I interacted with his kids. I made them laugh and they made me laugh, and I felt like I was being welcomed. I was wanted."
That feeling, that sense of admiration for a human and not just a basketball player, was rare for Early.
He began life as Chris Smith and was born to a heroin-using mother and an absent father. He fluttered through foster homes until an aunt, Lana Early, adopted him as her own son.
"I had a rough childhood and my thing is to find people who are genuine and mean what they say," Early told the Times Free Press on Monday night. "When they say they're going to do something, I expect them to do it. And that's what I felt like it would be from Coach. I thank him for that."
Early never felt more thankful to see his coach than the weekend of Sept. 17, 2011, when they exchanged hugs in Huntington, W.Va., at the funeral of Lana Early -- the woman who played the role of mother.
Shulman took a four-seat single-engine airplane from Chattanooga to Huntington with a headset over his ears.
"I thought I was going to die," Shulman said. "It's about the scariest thing I've ever done. I went to surprise him and spend quality time with him. It was important for me to be with him. He's one of my children."
When this basketball season arrived, the Mocs played at Indiana, at Butler and against Kennesaw State. UTC lost all three games and Shulman noted that Early, now a young man, did not start the season well.
Shulman benched Early in favor of walk-on Drew Baker about the time Early tweeted, "I'd [rather] run through hell in gasoline draws than to play for this man another year."
That's how he felt at the moment -- like an employee cussing about a boss to fellow employees. But the vile words became public.
"He was trying to motivate me," Early said. "He called out me and Ricky [Taylor], and I got the harsher end of it.
"That week, I handled it to him and my teammates in practice and in meetings the was I was supposed to. I remained supportive of my teammates when I wasn't playing in practice."
Early's immediate future does not include UTC basketball.
It involves two classes and two internships necessary to receive his degree. He'll be out of basketball for a few months except for the times he decides to use the UTC weight room and practice courts to improve his skills for a future overseas professional career.
But he'll be around UTC hoops for the rest of the semester, living with former teammates in UTC Place, grabbing lunch with them and trying to beat them in video games.
"I'm still going to be around teammates, and I want to be there for them," Early said. "I want to cheer and root for them and give them any advice."
Early can advise his former teammates on many UTC basketball subjects. He can also provide personal experiences of his relationship with Shulman.
"The story is that the kid came from the depths of hell, was left for nothing, then his aunt adopted him, giving him a chance," said Early's mentor, Greg Thompson. "And now he's about to be an educated man despite all obstacles in his way up and excuses to give up."
David Uchiyama is a sports writer at the Chattanooga Times Free Press who began his tenure here in May 2001. His primary beats are UTC athletics — specifically men’s basketball and athletic department administration — and golf, which includes coverage from the PGA Tour to youth events. He also covers other high school sports, outdoor adventures, and contributes to other sections of the newspaper when necessary. David grew up in Salinas, Calif., and began working ...