Former NCAA basketball star Maurice Creek heads home after getting stuck in Ukraine

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    • maurice creek rides in the back seat of a car Monday morning, looking at the confusion around him as the driver heads for the border: barricades. sandbags tank soldiers.

      The car crawls through the streets of Mykolaiv, a small town in southern Ukraine that he has called home for the past two months. the American basketball player is terrified of being discovered by Russian soldiers. don’t get caught. don’t get caught, he repeats to himself.

      practice the two phrases you had memorized in Ukrainian and Russian.

      don’t shoot. I’m American.

      The last four days of his life appear in images. wake up to sirens packing a grocery bag with essentials. huddled in a bomb shelter. hearing bombs around him and believing that he was about to die in the Russian invasion.

      The driver pulls up to a Ukrainian checkpoint and Creek shudders in his seat. he leans out the window and hands his passport to a Ukrainian soldier. he is in the car with two ukrainian women, the wife and mother-in-law of the assistant coach of the ukrainian basketball team. they are leaving behind her husband and her son-in-law. Guilt gnaws at Creek knowing that his assistant coach and countless other Ukrainians are still in danger and have no way out.

      pray he still does.

      He is afraid that the Ukrainian soldiers will send him back or ask him to join the fight. They don’t know my story. They don’t know I’m American , he thinks. they return the passport. exhale. keep driving.

      five days have passed after the russian invasion of ukraine, and the stream is being led west from mykolaiv to the border with moldova, through odessa. Four hours and another checkpoint later, Creek stops near the border with Moldova and is separated from the family of his coach. at least 700 people wait in line in front of him. it’s past sunset and the temperature drops below 30 degrees. Creek doesn’t have gloves, so he rubs his palms together to keep warm.

      He queues for nine hours, past midnight. she has sunflower seeds in her bag, but she can’t bring herself to eat anything. he is too nervous.

      He had reached the border, but he knows he is not safe yet. he had heard reports that black migrants, like himself, were being sent back, made to wait for days before being allowed into neighboring countries. he clutches his American passport tightly and tells himself that he will beg them to let him in, if it comes to that.

      When you get to the front of the line, you are asked to step aside. border officials let in people who are behind him. then, they ask for his passport. they see that he is American, and ask him to wait, leaving with his passport. the 10 minutes he waits feels like another nine hours.

      They return, they give him his passport. and beckon him in.

      he calls his mom.

      “Mom, I’m a free man!” she yells at the phone.

      he hears a groan in response.

      Two weeks ago, Creek, 31, was one of five Americans named to the roster of MBC Mykolaiv, a professional basketball team in the 12-team Ukrainian men’s basketball super league. . After playing for the University of Indiana and George Washington, Creek went abroad in 2016 and bounced around European teams in the Netherlands, Denmark, Romania, Israel and Ukraine. he signed a contract with mbc mykolaiv in december 2021 and moved to mykolaiv to continue his basketball career there.

      In February, fears began to grow about an impending Russian invasion of Ukraine. for weeks the us the state department had urged u.s. citizens to leave Ukraine, and the US embassy in Kyiv was closed on Feb. 14. by Feb. On January 21, Creek’s four American teammates – the rest were Ukrainians – had decided to leave, two to play in different leagues and the other two to be with their families. Creek was the only American left, and it wasn’t by choice.

      despite attending practice for months and playing in three games, creek had not been paid. Furthermore, team officials downplayed the emerging conflict and said that everything would be resolved with Russia. Creek was told that the league would not be suspended, and that they would not let him out of his contract. if he left, they wouldn’t pay him and he would be out of a job.

      according to yahoo sports reports, creek’s case is not isolated. Other American basketball players in Ukraine have found themselves in similar situations where breaking their contracts and running away meant giving up their paychecks. according to team rosters, more than 30 american players played a part of this season in ukraine.

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        “I [told] him you have to tell them you’re a father, a son, a brother, a grandson, an uncle, a cousin: your life matters more than basketball,” his mother, Pammy Creek, said.

        so creek met with team officials days before the invasion, urging them to pay him for the work he had already done and suspend his contract. meanwhile, he noticed that the prices of flights and hotel rooms were skyrocketing. he didn’t have the money to take an expensive flight, unless he got his due. Sensing that her son was in imminent danger, Pammy attempted to send money to Maurice’s Ukrainian bank account, but was told the transaction would take days.

        Finally, on Feb. On January 21, three days before Russian forces began missile and artillery attacks, the team paid Creek half of what was owed. that was good enough. his agent got him a new contract: to play in a basketball league in qatar. he would take a covid-19 pcr test on feb. 23, collect the results from him the next morning and fly that Thursday afternoon.

        creek woke up at 5am. m. Thursday with a panicked call from her mother.

        “Honey, the war has begun,” he yelled into the phone.

        immediately, he heard sirens wail all over mykolaiv.

        groggy, he walked around his apartment, filling a grocery bag with essentials. water bottles. cans of beans, tuna. sunflower seed bags she contacted his assistant coach, an american who has lived in ukraine for about 20 years. Together they made a plan. if they started hearing nearby explosions, the coach, who lived four minutes from the creek in an apartment building with a giant underground bunker, would come over, pick him up and take him to safety. Creek passed Thursday between his apartment and the bomb shelter.

        then things got worse on Friday.

        Mom, I love you tell everyone I said thank you for praying for me. Thanks for everything. And just know that I love you all.

        pammy creek fell to her knees and sobbed when she saw the words on her phone. she called maurice on facetime and whatsapp, but the calls did not go through. wherever maurice was, she had no cell service. Pammy watched her husband and Maurice’s father, Mike, place his hands on her forehead in resignation. she stared at the ground for what seemed like hours.

        “It’s a unique nightmare that no one can wake you up from, no one can physically shake you from, no one can throw cold water on your face to wake you up,” Pammy said.

        maurice sent that text message to his mother on friday, when they started hearing bombs in his city, near his apartment. she could feel the side effects, the sound and the impact making him shake. the assistant coach took creek to the shelter.

        At the time, Creek didn’t know if they would make it out alive. he wanted his parents to know how she felt. so he sent them that message.

        About four hours after that text message, Pammy received a video from Maurice. it was a short clip from the bomb shelter. it was a labyrinth of concrete blocks, cement and earth and an eerie stillness.

        “Just hell without the fire,” Pammy said.

        As soon as she saw the video message, Pammy called Maurice. when she heard the “hello” from her son, she exhaled. he he was alive. Mom, things are getting really bad here, she told her.

        “If you need a body, you can have mine, but I need you here,” Pammy told him. “I don’t care what happens to me.”

        Shortly after, the sirens stopped. The bombardment slowed, and Maurice and her assistant trainer decided it was safe to return to their apartments and lie down, albeit in total darkness, per the rules. this became his routine for the next three days. One day, when the shelling died down, Creek ran to the grocery store near her apartment and found that most of the essential items were gone. she saw people grab cans of food and throw money at the counter before running to safety.

        creek needed to find a way out; he needed someone to help him.

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