WASHINGTON – Maurice “Mo” Creek one day was a professional basketball player playing in Ukraine.
The next day, he was a civilian in the middle of a war zone.
It was Feb. 24, the day Russia invaded Ukraine. Creek was trapped in the city of Mykolaiv trying to figure out a way to get back home to the United States.
“I didn’t think I would be a part of a war,” Creek said in an interview with Capital News Service. “Never in a million years did I think me going overseas to play basketball, I would be stuck in a war with people that are fighting for their lives.”
Creek, whose hometown is Oxon Hill, Maryland, played college basketball at Indiana from 2009 to 2013, missing one year due to injury before transferring to The George Washington University in the nation’s capital. In his one season there, he was a Third Team All-Atlantic 10 selection, led the Colonials in points per game and helped propel them to the NCAA Tournament.
He then went overseas starting in 2014 to play professional basketball. His journey took him to teams in the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, Finland, Israel, Romania and two different stints in Ukraine.
Creek returned to Ukraine for a third time in January to play for MBC Mykolaiv. At the time, the threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine hovered over daily life, even though many Ukrainians dismissed the possibility of a war.
Creek’s team, too, downplayed the threat, knowing there had been previous threats of Russian invasions and nothing had happened beyond the conflict raging since 2014 in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.
“We had meetings about the situation…and the owner, the coaches, were just basically saying everything’s gonna be okay,” Creek recalled.
“Even though you hear about the speculations of war, you just didn’t think it would even actually happen because it didn’t happen in the prior years,” he said.
Some of Creek’s teammates began to flee the country and Creek himself wanted to leave as well.
But things were complicated. MBC Mykolaiv had not paid Creek the money he needed to leave and he did not yet have his letter of clearance signed to go play for his new team in Qatar that his agent had helped him get.
By the time all that was cleared up and Creek was finally ready to leave for Qatar, it was too late: the war had begun.
Mykolaiv, being near the Black Sea, was one of the first cities targeted by the Russians. Creek was stuck trying to figure a way out of Ukraine as martial law was imposed.
Creek found himself escaping from time to time to a bomb shelter when the air-raid sirens blared. In the shelter, he was without phone service and, cut off from the outside world, wondering if he was going to get out of Ukraine.
“When I went in the bomb shelter, I didn’t know if I was getting home or not,” Creek said. “I thought I was gonna be stuck in Ukraine for a good little bit until the war was over with.“
But Creek had someone watching over him from the United States: retired Army Lt. Colonel Erik Nordberg.
Creek said he had met Nordberg just once for only a few minutes at a clinic last summer involving the team Sideline Cancer, a team that plays under the auspices of the Griffith Family Foundation to promote pancreatic cancer research.
Nordberg told CNS he checked in on Creek’s situation a lot leading up to the Russian invasion.
The day after the opening of the war, Nordberg had come home late from a basketball game and was sitting in his bed when he told himself he had to help Creek.
“If I don’t do something, if I don’t put something together to get this guy out, he might not ever get out,” Nordberg said. “I only met (Creek) for a couple of minutes but he was somebody that was important (and) I could do something to save this guy’s life. And I was going to do it.”
So Nordberg went to work from his office in his Fairfield, Pennsylvania, home with plans to get Creek out of Ukraine.
Nordberg communicated with Creek through the app Signal, giving updates and other important information.
Nordberg’s first plan involved arranging for a car to pick up Creek and take him to the Ukraine-Moldova border.
But the driver never showed.
Nordberg tried to get a driver from Odesa to meet Creek in Mykolaiv. But that driver couldn’t get out of Odesa.
Next, Nordberg told Creek he should cross a bridge to rendezvous with a ride to neighboring Romania. But the Ukrainians didn’t allow Creek to cross the bridge.
Nordberg spoke on the phone at one point with one of Creek’s assistant coaches in Ukraine.
Before that phone call, that assistant coach hadn’t made it a priority to help Creek escape, according to Nordberg.
But the conversation with Nordberg changed his mindset.
“He couldn’t believe that somebody in the U.S. was setting up a way to get (Creek) out,” Nordberg said. “I think he understood then that we were serious about it. So then he became a little bit more willing to support and get (Creek) out.”
On Feb. 28, Creek called Nordberg, telling him that the assistant coach’s family had a car and was going to use one of the routes Nordberg came up with to get out of Ukraine.
And the plan worked, as Creek and his assistant coach’s family drove west to the Ukraine-Moldova border.
The ordeal wasn’t quite over: Creek said he had to wait in the cold for nine hours, in line with thousands of people waiting to cross into Moldova.
Nordberg said he worked with the U.S. consulate in Moldova to help make sure Creek got across when he reached the border.
At last, Creek reached the checkpoint and crossed into Moldova. Then he made his way to Romania, where he stayed in a hotel room provided by Project Dynamo, a non-profit organization originally set up to help evacuate Americans and Afghan allies from Afghanistan that now is helping evacuate American citizens in Ukraine.
Nordberg said he didn’t sleep for five days as he aided Creek in his dangerous exit from Ukraine. Nordberg bought a first-class plane ticket for Creek to get home.
“I wasn’t going to rest until he was home to his family,” Nordberg said. “My mission wasn’t complete until he was all the way back.”
Creek flew from Romania to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, and then to Washington Dulles International Airport outside Washington.
When Creek stepped off the plane at Dulles, he was greeted by family, Nordberg, and others.
“It was like one of the best feelings in the world,” Creek said. “I was so happy to get off that plane, turn the corner and see my mom, my father there, my brothers (and) everyone else there.”
Back in Ukraine, Mykolaiv is one of the cities that has suffered heavy damage in the war.
Creek said it’s tragic what’s happened to Mykolaiv.
“It’s not the peaceful place that it once was when I was there,” Creek said. “It’s like a war zone… it’s just bad.”
But he offered his support to Ukraine to keep fighting and that he’s praying for them.
Creek said he’s writing a book about his experience in Ukraine as well as what it’s like to play overseas basketball.
“A lot of people got these dreams and aspirations of wanting to play professional basketball but a lot of people don’t understand what it takes or actually what they have to go through,” Creek said.“I want to give people the real scoop about how this actually is before you go over there and kind of have to figure it out yourself.”
Nordberg said he and Creek plan to call or text each other every year on Feb. 28 to mark the basketball player’s escape from war and to talk about people they have helped during the previous year.
Creek called Nordberg a “guardian angel” for helping him escape. Nordberg said he just did what he was taught to do by the military.
“I use what skill sets I had to help (Creek), who was a very special person,” Nordberg said. “I’m glad I was at that clinic. And I’m glad I met him and was able to help him.”
All this happened because of one simple friendly conversation at a basketball clinic. Creek is forever grateful.
“You never know who you’re going to talk to. You never know who you’re gonna have a conversation with,” Creek said. “The dude I had a conversation with that I wasn’t even thinking about was the dude that saved my life.”