“I was fucked. I had nothing in the tank.”
By July 2019, Mitch Creek needed a break.
In the 18 months prior, his basketball journey had taken him from Australia's NBL, to Germany. It was then on to the United States for Summer League, the NBA, G League, and back to Summer League.
With the pre-World Cup Australian Boomers training camp just around the corner, Creek was running on fumes.
“I had just played for about 18 months straight without a week off. I made it pretty clear that I needed to get away from basketball for a week or two because I was really struggling physicality and mentally,” Creek revealed.
The much-needed break came as a close friend from Australia visited him in the US for a quick two-week sabbatical from the game. On his return to Australia, Creek dove straight back into the deep end, as national team duties began in what was expected to be a hotly contested battle for a ticket to China.
“I thought I did alright at camp. I was a little bit rusty in areas, but I thought I did enough.”
Boomers head coach at the time, Andrej Lemanis, controversially left Creek on the outside looking in, with a phone call Creek won’t soon forget.
“I was honestly heartbroken; I was in tears,” Creek recalled.
“It was a massive goal for me and something I wanted to be ready for. I felt I let myself down because I took a holiday right before.”
“I thought with another week or so training I would be back to where I was but it wasn’t good enough and I felt like I let everyone down. I felt like I let myself down, most importantly my mum, my dad, my sisters, I was heartbroken, it was really hard for me.”
With his World Cup dreams in tatters, Creek found comfort with visits to his mum and friends in Adelaide and his sister in Coffs Harbour, before making the move to Melbourne to begin preparations as the marquee signing with the upstart South East Melbourne Phoenix franchise in the NBL.
Just days after one of the most disappointing days in his career, a late-night trip to Kmart resulted in far more than some homely items for his new residence in Melbourne.
“A couple days later I was at Kmart at 11:30 at night. I got a call and that’s when it all changed. I just got over the hump of realising I wasn’t going to the World Cup and the call came through [to say I was in], and the next day I was flying to Perth so it was a pretty surreal four or five days but something that definitely built me into the man I am today.”
Self-blame for missing out on an initial spot on the Boomers roster will come as no surprise to people that know him, for he has built a career on hard work, commitment and accountability.
“It’s just who I am, it’s how I’ve been brought up, it’s the person I want to be remembered as. I don’t want to be remembered as someone who’s selfish, I just want to play the right way and do the right thing,” Creek says.
The Boomers World Cup campaign would ultimately end up in fourth place heartbreak, with Creek playing a vital role off the bench throughout. Despite finishing agonisingly short of a much sought after medal, the experience was an overwhelmingly positive for a man who by self-admission treats every opportunity like it could be his last.
“I look at it as an absolute blessing, I got to play in a World Cup team and contribute. To be called upon in certain situations whether it be for ten seconds or ten minutes or thirty minutes, I was thankful. I was very, very fortunate to be a part of that and it’s something I’ll always remember and cherish forever.”
To be able to play at the highest level requires focus, and Creek has always dedicated himself to his craft. Remaining acutely aware of how it could result in mental and physical burnout, escapism has come in the form of motorbikes and skydiving, hobbies that aren’t typically associated with professional basketball players.
“It’s not always blessed; it is frowned upon somewhat to put it nicely,” he laughs.
“I’m really big into my skydiving, I’ve done a bunch of jumps and some people have said I shouldn’t do that. But at the end of the day go fuck yourself, this is my hobby and what I want to do, and I don’t tell you what you can and can’t do."
It’s not that Creek is setting out to be overtly abrupt or aggressive to those who question how he spends his time away from the club, he understands.
“I’m just trying to be a good example but to do that I need to balance what I do with what I want to do and while motorbikes and skydiving seem pretty crazy there’s nothing more peaceful than jumping out of a plane with one or two of your friends, landing on the ground, packing your chute and going back and doing it again.”
“This is what I love, and this is what I’m going to continue to do.”
The Phoenix forward's passion for basketball, the fans and his job is evident. Hours after game time, you will likely see an exhausted Creek, motorbike helmet in hand, slip out the stadium's back door.
Regardless of the night's outcome, he's never one to shy away from his duties and do his bit for the fans.
“[If] Chris Goulding’s just hit three threes and beaten you in the last minute and you are leaving the game and there’s one hundred people waiting, you could just walk past and not think about it. But at the same time I just let those one hundred people down, and a little bit of my time can go a long way for some people.”
Given the whirlwind nature of the last three years, it seems almost fitting that Creek’s next step on the basketball map has been thrown into uncertainty due to the coronavirus pandemic.
With his desire to once again grace an NBA floor burning more than ever, the Mitch Creek basketball story is set to add another few chapters before it is all said and done. For now, he spends his days working out at home, steeling himself individually while keeping the entire Phoenix franchise accountable at the same time.
“I’m just trying to prepare myself mentally and physically and make sure my teammates stay on the same task, make sure the club is doing as much as they can in the community and with fan engagement.
“If it comes around and if everything goes ahead which we all hope and pray for then we are ready to go, we are prepared and fully stocked and loaded from an organisational standpoint.”
While big names across the NBL opt out of their contracts for the 2021 season, Creek has doubled down on his investment to South East Melbourne amid the financial uncertainty that lays ahead. The team announced on Monday morning that Creek would not be opting out, and intended to stay on.
“If I didn’t get paid a cent to play, I’d do it every day.
“I love it, I don’t know what I’d do or where I’d be without it so I’m very fortunate to be able to play the game of basketball with great people.”