A frenzy of television cameras and elbows and digital recorders pushed Maurice Creek from his locker.
“You need to get in?” the Indiana junior asked a reporter as he scooted away.
One cameraman balanced the rig on his head. Another reporter wedged into a locker, unable to move. Journalists kneeled. Perched on their toes. Stretched. Strained. Contorted.
The temperature rose in the small room beneath Verizon Center on Wednesday afternoon. All for a few quiet words from Victor Oladipo. The freakish athlete who could be a top-five pick in June’s NBA draft hunched on a blue chair in the corner. First, of course, is Thursday’s Sweet 16 matchup with Syracuse in the NCAA tournament.
Creek rested his black backpack, iPhone, thin comb and red headphones on a nearby chair. He peeked over the scrum pressing toward his longtime friend, then retreated to an empty seat across the locker room. No one followed or, really, paid attention.
Three serious injuries in 22 months bring that anonymity. Three injuries that transformed the onetime top-50 prospect from Oxon Hill who graduated from the Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Va., into a role player scrounging minutes. Three injuries that made the memory of him dropping 31 points on Kentucky as a freshman shooting guard with NBA aspirations seem as distant as the locker room gulf between him and the media horde.
But Creek wasn’t about to let a fractured left kneecap — that was the flat-out worst injury — in 2009 keep him from this room. Same for the stress fracture in his right patella that followed in 2011. Or the torn left Achilles tendon suffered walking up stairs to his apartment the same year. Not even December’s right foot injury that sidelined him eight games.
“I never want to quit what I love,” Creek said. “I just wanted to get back on the floor so bad. After I got back on the floor, that’s when I wanted to get to the tournament. The dream came true.”
Creek watched the cameras swallow Oladipo as red numbers on a small wall clock ticked toward zero. They were teammates on AAU’s Triple Threat; Oladipo played at DeMatha, too. Creek could’ve been Indiana’s center of attention. The one buried by microphones and questions about the two-three zone defense. Instead, the role belongs to his friend, the one who pushed him through the moments of pain and darkness and, finally, recovery.
“It hurt him to see what I went through,” Creek said. “He made me stay true to what I want to do, telling me this isn’t the end of the world. This is another bump in the road. Take it as that. Good times are going to come. And my time did come because I’m back.”
He’s always talking in practice, an extension of Tom Crean. Like a player-coach.
Sure, those 22 months left Creek a different player. His patched-up body feels fine. But basketball isn’t going to be the same. Now he comes off the bench after sitting out last season. Played 23 games, including four minutes in the tournament opener against James Madison. Averaged 1.9 points, after that instant in 2009 when he was the nation’s top-scoring freshman. Didn’t start once this season, but that’s not the point.
Indiana assistant Kenny Johnson, another Oxon Hill native, coached Creek with Triple Threat.
“He was an explosive scorer,” Johnson said. “He was one of the best players, I thought, coming out of the area at the time. He had a very bright future. The injuries slowed him down a little bit. … With every day that passes he gains a little more explosiveness.”
Creek appreciates each opportunity on the court. He understands, better than most, how quickly they can disappear. Stay humble, he tells himself. Stay hungry. Work.
And you won’t hear him complain. Not about the detoured career or disappointment or pain.
“Man,” freshman Yogi Ferrell said, “he’s probably the most positive guy I’ve seen.”
Creek glanced around the blue-carpeted locker room Georgetown uses during the season. He’s home.
“I kind of forgot what this feels like,” Creek said.
Sorting through tickets for family he doesn’t see much. Remembering the Metro route he took home after catching Georgetown games: hop on the Green Line until Branch Avenue. That’s the end of the line.
But his career rolls along. Love is the word he uses. Love that wouldn’t let him give up this game. Relentless, impatient love that pushed him back to the court each time a broken body pulled him away. Love that overcame. And, now, love that has him playing for the “big prize.” Creek’s words.
“I always want to go do what I love,” he said.
The cameras pointed the other direction. They didn’t move. Creek didn’t, either.