MAURICE CREEK RIDES in the backseat of a car on Monday morning and stares at the turmoil all around as the driver heads to the border: Barricades. Sandbags. Tanks. Soldiers.
The car inches through the streets of Mykolaiv, a small city in Southern Ukraine that he has called home for the past two months. The American basketball player is terrified of being spotted by the Russian soldiers. Don't get caught. Don't get caught, he repeats to himself.
He practices the two phrases he had memorized in Ukrainian and Russian.
Don't shoot. I am American.
The last four days of his life appear in images. Waking up to sirens. Packing a grocery bag with essentials. Huddling in a bomb shelter. Hearing bombs around him and believing he was about to die in the Russian invasion.
The driver pulls up to a Ukrainian checkpoint, and Creek shudders in his seat. He reaches out the window and hands over his passport to a Ukrainian soldier. He is in the car with two Ukrainian women, the wife and mother-in-law of his Ukrainian basketball team's assistant coach. They're leaving their husband and son-in-law behind. Guilt gnaws at Creek knowing his assistant coach and countless Ukrainians are still in danger and don't have a way out.
He prays he still does.
He fears 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 am American, he thinks. They hand him his passport back. He exhales. They drive on.
It's five days after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and Creek is being driven west from Mykolaiv to the Moldovan border, via Odessa. Four hours and another checkpoint later, Creek gets dropped off near the Moldovan border and parts ways with his coach's family. At least 700 people wait in line ahead 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 stay warm.
He stands in line for nine hours, way past midnight. He has sunflower seeds in his bag, but he can't bring himself to eat anything. He's too nervous.
He had made it to the border, but he knows he isn't safe yet. He had heard reports that Black emigrants, like himself, were being sent back, made to wait for days before being allowed into neighboring countries. He grabs his American passport tight and tells himself that he will beg them to let him enter, if it comes to that.
When he reaches the front of the line, he's asked to move to the side. The border officials let people behind him in. Then, they ask him for his passport. They see it's American, and they ask him to wait, leaving with his passport. The 10 minutes he waits feels like another nine hours.
They come back, hand him his passport. And wave him in.
He calls his mom.
"Mom, I am a free man!" he yells into the phone.
He hears a wail in response.
TWO WEEKS AGO, Creek, 31, was one of five Americans listed on the roster for MBC Mykolaiv, a professional basketball team in the 12-team Ukrainian Men's Basketball SuperLeague. After playing for Indiana and George Washington University, Creek went overseas 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.
By February, fears started to grow about an imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine. For weeks the U.S. Department of State had urged U.S. citizens to leave Ukraine, and the US Embassy in Kyiv was closed on Feb. 14. By Feb. 21, Creek's four American teammates -- the rest were Ukrainian -- had decided to depart, two to play for different leagues and the other two to be with their families. Creek was the only American left -- and it wasn't by choice.
Despite having attended practice for months and playing in three games, Creek had not been paid. Further, team officials downplayed the emerging conflict, saying everything would blow over with Russia. They told Creek that the league would not be suspended, and that they wouldn't let him out of his contract. If he left, he wouldn't get paid, and he would be out of a job.
According to reports by Yahoo Sports, Creek's case is not an isolated one. Other American basketball players in Ukraine have been put in similar situations where breaking their contracts and fleeing meant forgoing their paychecks. According to team rosters on EuroBasket.com, more than 30 American players played a portion of this season in Ukraine.
"I [told him] you have to tell them you are a father, you are a son, a brother, a grandson, an uncle, a cousin -- your life matters more than basketball," his mom, Pammy Creek, said.
So Creek met with team officials days ahead of the invasion, urging them to pay him for the work he had already done and to suspend his contract. All the while, he noticed the prices of flights and hotel rooms were spiking. He didn't have the money to take an expensive flight out, unless he got the payment he was due. Feeling like her son was in imminent danger, Pammy tried to send money to Maurice's Ukrainian bank account, but she was told the transaction would take days.
Finally, on Feb. 21, three days before Russian forces began missile and artillery attacks, the team paid Creek half of what he was owed. That was good enough. His agent landed him a new contract -- to play in a basketball league in Qatar. He would take a COVID-19 PCR test on Feb. 23, pick up his results the next morning, and fly out that Thursday afternoon.
Creek woke up at 5 a.m. on Thursday, to a panicked call from his mother.
"Baby, the war has started," she cried into the phone.
Immediately, he heard sirens go off all across Mykolaiv.
Groggily, he walked around his apartment, filling a grocery bag with essentials. Bottles of water. Cans of beans, tuna. Bags of sunflower seeds. He got in contact with his assistant coach, an American who has lived in Ukraine for some 20 years. Together they mapped out a plan. If they began hearing nearby explosions, the coach, who lived four minutes away from Creek in an apartment building with a giant underground bunker, would drive over, pick him up and take him to safety. Creek spent Thursday between his apartment and the bomb shelter.
Then, things got worse on Friday.
MOM, I LOVE YOU Tell everybody I said thank you for praying for me. Thank you for everything. And just know that I love all of you.
Pammy Creek fell to her knees, sobbing when she saw the words across her phone. She called Maurice on FaceTime and on WhatsApp, but the calls didn't go through. Wherever Maurice was, he did not have cell service. Pammy watched her husband and Maurice's father, Mike, place his hands on his forehead in resignation. He stared at the floor for what seemed like hours.
"It's a nightmare of a lifetime that nobody can wake you up from, that nobody can physically shake you up from, nobody can throw cold water over your face to wake you up from," Pammy said.
Maurice sent that text message to his mother on Friday, when they began hearing bombs in their city, close to their apartment. He could feel the aftereffects, the sound and the impact making him shiver. The assistant coach whisked Creek away to the shelter.
At that point, Creek had no idea if they would make it out alive. He wanted his parents to know how he felt. So he sent them that text.
About four hours after that text, Pammy received a video from Maurice. It was a short clip of the bomb shelter. It was a maze of cinder blocks, cement and dirt and an eerie quietness.
"Just hell without the fire," Pammy said.
As soon as she saw the video message, Pammy called Maurice. When she heard her son's, "Hello," she exhaled. He was alive. Mom, things are getting really bad here, he said to her.
"If they need a body, they can have mine, but I need you back here," Pammy told him. "I don't care what happens to me."
Soon after, the sirens stopped. The bombing slowed down, and Maurice and his assistant coach decided it was safe to get back to their apartments, to lay down -- albeit in utter darkness, as per the rules. This became their routine throughout the next three days. One day, when the bombing subsided, Creek ran to the grocery store near his apartment and found most of the essential items gone. He watched 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.
A YEAR EARLIER, Creek had been working at a basketball clinic organized by Sideline Cancer in Pennsylvania when he met a man named Erik Nordberg, whose son was attending the clinic.
Nordberg, a retired Lt. Colonel who had earned numerous commendations for commanding the U.S. Army's special forces in places like Panama, Afghanistan and Iraq, kept in touch with the players from Sideline Cancer, which has annually competed in The Basketball Tournament.
When Nordberg heard through another member of Sideline Cancer that Creek was still in Ukraine and in trouble, he knew he could help. He had been in similar "escape and evade" situations in his 23 years with the U.S. Army Special Forces, and he had a wealth of resources he could tap into. He reached out to American units stationed in and around Ukraine, asking them for escape plans for American citizens in Ukraine. Late Friday, Nordberg sat down with a map of Europe and plotted different paths that Creek could take to flee to Moldova.
But, the path to freedom was easier on paper than in reality.
Bags packed, Creek waited outside his apartment on Saturday morning waiting for the car his team was supposed to send to drive him to Moldova. He waited for more than an hour, but the driver never showed. The sirens had gone off where the driver was coming from, and the driver needed to take shelter.
Next came a plan mapped out by Nordberg. A team he'd connected with in the southwestern region of Ukraine said they could drive to Mykolaiv, pick Creek up and drop him at the border. But, just as they were about to leave, Odessa was heavily bombed, leaving vehicles stranded.
Then later on Saturday, Nordberg mapped out another plan with a team in Romania, who had a bus they could send over to Mykolaiv. The catch: Creek had to cross a bridge to get to the gas station where the bus would be parked.
When Creek reached the bridge, Ukrainian soldiers guarding it stopped him. Turn around, they told him in Ukrainian. Creek thinks they were concerned he was a Russian pretending to be an American.
Nordberg immediately inquired about finding a boat Creek might take across the river, but he was quickly dissuaded from that option.
They could shoot him on the boat, the team sending him the bus said to Nordberg. That's not a good idea.
Creek was so close. He walked away from the bridge as the bus pulled away from the gas station, just yards away.
"It was a gut punch," Creek said. "I was losing hope."
CREEK SPENT THE REST of Saturday and Sunday in and out of bomb shelters, and when he did get a chance to get back to his apartment, he tossed and turned, unable to fall asleep. The Russian attacks had escalated over the weekend, and they needed to wait until Monday to try again.
According to Nordberg, Monday was an important day. Ukraine had agreed to talks with Russia on the Belarusian border. If things didn't go according to plan, Russia would get more aggressive, Nordberg predicted. So, he needed to have a plan, a backup plan, and a backup for the backup plan. He needed to get Creek out of there on Monday.
By Monday morning, Nordberg had four plans in motion. One of them was leaving with the assistant coach's family members in a car before dawn. Nordberg had Creek's phone pinged, and could trace his movement as the car drove to Odessa. An hour after Creek updated Pammy that he had crossed Odessa safely, she saw Odessa being sprayed with fresh bombs on her TV in Maryland. She clasped her hands and prayed.
The 130-mile journey took Creek four hours. Then, he was at the Moldovan border.
After enduring nine hours in the immigration line, Creek searched for the cab his agent had arranged for him from Moldova to Iasi, a city in eastern Romania, bordering Moldova. There was a language barrier, so it felt like everything took longer. Finally, he made contact with the driver and hopped into the car as fast as he could.
"If they need a body, they can have mine, but I need you back here. I don't care what happens to me." Pammy Creek
From Iasi, he ordered a Bolt -- the equivalent of Uber in Europe -- to Bucharest, a six-hour drive north. The first driver, on checking the destination Creek had plugged in, canceled. The second driver pulled up and asked, "Are we actually going to Bucharest?"
Yes, indeed. It was his base for the next few days. A friend who played in the European leagues with him had agreed to house him there.
Six hours later, Creek arrived in Bucharest. The Bolt ride cost him $200.
The total journey -- including with the wait at the Moldovan border -- had taken about 24 hours. Throughout his journey, Nordberg kept watch and collaborated, answering his phone into the wee hours of the night and making sure every driver he rode with was taking him to the right location.
Finally, Creek was free. Finally, Creek could go to sleep knowing he wouldn't wake up to a siren. Finally, Creek felt relief.
MAURICE CREEK IS in the guest bedroom of his friend's house in Bucharest, Romania. He's dressed in a gray hoodie, his beard long and shaggy. His eyes are puffy from lack of sleep, but he smiles easily and says he has reservations at two different restaurants for dinner that night and the next night.
"I am going to pause and enjoy my food," he says and smiles.
It's Tuesday evening in Romania, about two hours after his escape from Ukraine.
He takes a nap, and is finally able to fall into a deep sleep, the first time in days, he says.
Back at home, Pammy and Mike finally nod off after five straight days of very little sleep. Nordberg takes a long shower, knowing he isn't on call anymore.
Maurice is flooded with relief and gratitude. This could have gone horribly wrong.
"I am feeling a lot better now. I am out of a war situation. It was terrifying," he says.
Pammy is still processing her feelings. The tears won't stop coming. Her son made it out. But the war rages on, and, as the front page of the New York Times read on Wednesday, "Indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets intensifies." On Wednesday, Russian troops seized Kherson, a city 44 miles from Mykolaiv. They're closing in on Kyiv, and 2,000 civilians have been killed so far.
"I'm crying tears of joy, because Maurice is out. I'm crying for the souls that are still there. I'm crying and praying for people who have lost their loved ones. I'm crying for the lady and her daughter who had to leave their son and husband behind," Pammy said.
On Thursday, Maurice is scheduled to land on American soil -- at the Dulles International Airport -- to a crowd of people waiting for him. His parents, his friends from Sideline Cancer, Nordberg and several media outlets.
"Until he reaches the U.S. and until I touch him, he's not safe," Pammy says.
"I can't wait to be back home," Maurice says.
Words don't describe this moment, it's family...it's love...Mo is home— Sideline Cancer TBT (@SidelineTBT) March 3, 2022
We are glad your back safe @Mo_Creek and thankful we are a part of your journey. #welcomehome @thetournament @sideline_cancer pic.twitter.com/fBxhPzCjjM