Sideline Cancer has captured the hearts of Midstate basketball fans with its remarkable stories of battling pancreatic cancer and inspiring generations of basketball players. But few stories are more notable in the team than that of its star player, Mo Creek, escaping a war to play in this year’s TBT.
Once you meet Mo, you can’t forget him. His gentle spirit and love for the game caught the eye of a Fairfield AAU basketball coach, Erik Nordberg, who ended up saving his life.
Playing professional basketball overseas, Mo Creek joined NMC Mikolaiv in January 2022. In February, Russian forces invaded the country with Mo trapped in Ukraine.
As his town was bombarded with bombs, Mo sent his parents a goodbye text message saying “I love you and thank you for the prayers”.
“It was like death,” said Pammy Morgan, Mo’s mother. “I just fell to my knees and screamed and cried.”
Without the presence of the US Embassy, Mo’s options for leaving the country were limited.
“Our son is stuck in the middle of a war and we can’t just reach out,” Morgan said.
Mo’s dream professional basketball career quickly turned into a nightmare. He became the only team member stuck in the country as governments began to restrict travel.
“I feared for my life every day,” Mo said, spending his nights in a bunker or hiding on the floor of his apartment.
Mo needed a miracle, or maybe a man in his basement in Fairfield, Adams County.
“The conflict there with the Russians is something I had been training for for years,” Erik Nordberg said. The Midstate man spent 23 years in the US Army Special Forces Green Beret.
Nordberg specialized in extraction missions in Europe while in the Green Berets. He knew that if anyone could help Mo flee Ukraine, it would be himself.
“The motto of the Green Berets is De Oppresso Liber,” Nordberg said. “It’s Latin [meaning] to liberate the oppressed.
So Mo became Erik’s mission over 5000 miles away.
“He meant something to a lot of people and I was going to make sure he got out,” Nordberg said.
Success was the only option. Erik assembled a network of international special forces units and planned a series of five different extraction plans.
“Every element had to be planned out and we had to have backups,” Nordberg said.
Mo’s town of Mikolaiv was the next the Russians would capture.
“Based on my understanding of how Russians fight, I thought the best option was to go the quickest route which was not necessarily the safest route,” Nordberg said.
The plan was for Mo to go to the Moldovan border. But the first plans failed, a taxi driver did not show up, then a bus ride failed. There was nowhere to buy a car, and it began to look like Mo was stuck with the approaching Russian forces.
“We’re at the point where I’m trying to understand [if] I [need to] teach Mo how to wire a car and how can I do it over the phone? Nordberg reflected.
The fifth option finally came to fruition, Mo had a coach whose family was traveling to the border. He jumped in.
“I could just feel the energy in that car, like everyone was scared,” Mo said. “Even the driver who was supposed to take us to the border was terrified the whole way.”
“I would send him pictures of the cards,” Nordberg said. “Hey Mo! This is where we just saw a roadside bombing.
“That road to the Moldovan border was one of the most terrifying journeys of my life,” Mo said.
As Mo made the 26-hour journey out of Ukraine, Erik was on the phone every step of the way.
“He felt like me on the other side,” Mo said of their conversations, which happened every 30 minutes. “You’ve been through things but you don’t want to panic. You keep your cool and stay calm. That’s how he was and that’s what kept me calm.
After traversing a war zone and half a dozen flights, Mo landed at Dulles International Airport outside of Washington, D.C.
“The terminal kind of shut down,” Nordberg said of the reunion. “Time stood still for a minute.”
Mo reunited with his parents, friends and family Sideline Cancer.
“It was the feeling of love and I didn’t have that,” Mo said.
“Not the hardest, not the easiest, but the most memorable [mission]”, said Nordberg. “It was the most interesting mission I have ever been on.”
Basketball brought Mo into a nightmare situation, but basketball was also his saviour.
“They took my life back,” Mo said of her Sideline Cancer family. “I thought my life was going to disappear.”
“There were so many parts that the mission was finally over,” Nordberg said. “I was finally able to say mission accomplished.”