Maurice Creek (3) scored 12 points in his competitive return Thursday night, and he looked more like his freshman self than at any other point since.
A reporter spoke directly to Will Sheehey after Indiana’s 86-57 win against Indiana Wesleyan Saturday.
“We know how he feels,” the reporter said to Sheehey, motioning to Maurice Creek, sitting two chairs to Sheehey’s left. Creek had just finished his return to competitive action in an Indiana uniform, his first game since Jan. 15, 2011.
But how, the reporter wanted to know, did Sheehey feel — after spending basically all of his two-plus years in Bloomington watching Creek try to get his body right, from one devastating leg injury to another — seeing Creek play the way he did Thursday?
“It’s fantastic,” Sheehey said. “The guy’s put in the work. He’s done the rehab, and for a guy like him to come out and play well, it pays off.”
Sheehey answered the question without much pause, but his word choice was nonetheless apt.
In our collective, endless wrestling match with the English language, we often choose words that sound right, that seem to fit but are nonetheless perhaps slightly wide of our intended meaning. Given the way he spoke, Sheehey probably meant something akin to “great” with his answer. If he’d meant “so extreme as to challenge belief,” then he hit far closer to the truth.
When Maurice Creek first checked into the game at 10:57, for Sheehey, he received a roar of applause. When he scored his first points, from a layup just more than two minutes later — and each time he scored after — he received the same. When he went to the bench for the final time and it was clear his night was over, a packed Assembly Hall awarded him a standing ovation.
“It was a great, great, great … great reaction,” Creek said, pausing between greats three and four as if he were looking for a better word but not finding one. “A standing ovation, that’s big-time. That’s love.”
Creek scored 12 points Thursday, on 4-of-6 shooting. His was, in a vacuum, little more than a competent performance.
But of course, Creek has not lived in a vacuum. He has had to persevere through three major leg injuries, the latest being perhaps the worst — a ruptured Achilles tendon that ended his comeback junior season before it began.
When he spoke to the media Thursday night, Creek sounded like a young man wizened not just by his on-court experiences but also by what he has had to endure.
“It’s just been a long road,” IU coach Tom Crean said after the game. “He got himself through it, not once, not twice, but three times. The mental aspect of that, I can’t even imagine what you’re going through — ‘Is this really worth it? Could it happen again? How do I do this?’ He’s done it. He’s quiet, but that is a tough, tough young man, mentally. No question.”
Three times, three injuries, three lengthy rehabilitation processes that seemed to follow one another without respite. Creek spoke about just “being able to feel the game again” Thursday, like he’d happened upon an old and dearly missed friend.
Importantly, the way Creek played more closely resembled the form of his freshman year than that of his sophomore season.
Creek’s story has been told several times over at this point, at least by Indiana fans: Through 12 games as a rookie, he was averaging better than 16 points per game, tops among freshman. He was shooting 52.7 percent from the floor and nearly 45 percent from behind the arc. An awkward fall against Bryant (the team, interestingly, Indiana opens the regular season with a week from today) produced a fractured left kneecap, ending his season.
The next winter, his strength gone and his natural court motions barely returned, Creek was a shell of his former self, all his averages slumping from where they had been a year earlier. A stress fracture in the other kneecap limited his sophomore campaign to 18 games. Then came the Achilles tear, suffered last October, which took away all of what should have been Creek’s junior season.
So whether he wants it or not, Creek will be treated delicately — or perhaps at least viewed as delicate — this season, starting with Thursday night.
Every time he planted a foot, someone winced. When he hit the floor, which happened at least once, fans in Assembly Hall gasped audibly. Tom Crean said once this summer that he had to stop himself from treating Creek with too much caution, but IU’s fanbase probably won’t stop worrying all season.
All Creek can do, then, is come out and play to whatever his current capacity is. Thursday, he was scoring again.
Crean said Creek “stayed in his shot,” following through well, but Indiana’s coach was most impressed with 1) the redshirt junior guard’s willingness get physical defensively and 2) some of the off-the-dribble scoring Creek showcased, suggesting he’s regained a sense of comfort moving quickly — naturally — on the floor, without the worry of further injury.
“I try not to think about it,” Creek said of the possibility of injuring himself again, “because I feel like, when people think about it, that’s when people get hurt. I just want to play the game and enjoy it.”
On his first night back, Creek scored more points than any teammate. He put the ball in the net in a number of different ways. He looked more like the Maurice Creek of old than he had at any point since he was the Maurice Creek of old, even moreso than when he scored 16 points in an exhibition game at the beginning of his sophomore year.
The reality of Creek’s current situation is that his role is uncertain. He is a luxury player for Indiana this year, someone of whom little will be expected, so any returns he brings will be largely an added bonus. Where once Indiana struggled to succeed without him, the Hoosiers now need him only to be as good as he can.
Twelve points a night would be an excellent return, but it’s not something over which Creek frets.
“It felt great,” Creek said of his return to action. “Being with these guys is what I always wanted. Praise the man upstairs for giving me the strength to play with these guys.”
Creek began the second half as he had the first, on the bench as a substitute. While his teammates sat along the row of red-cushioned chairs to the left of the Assembly Hall scorer’s table, Creek, wearing his warm-up shirt, rode on an exercise bike at the end of the bench, in the corner of the floor next to the stands.
Two years ago, Creek rode that exercise bike in part because he was not full strength, and he could not afford to let his muscles cool between shifts on the court. Thursday night, according to IU’s medical staff, he rode it simply because it now helps him keep warm. He rode it out of preference, not necessity.
When Crean called him over and sent him back into the game, Creek dismounted the bike, peeled off that warm-up shirt and jogged to the middle of the court, waiting to check in. The crowd cheered as he entered the game.