Mitch Creek dunking on Melbourne United's Matthew Dellavedova. PIC: South East Melbourne Phoenix

An ever-present figure in NBL headlines, Mitch Creek has used the off-court challenges of 2021 to raise his on-court play in NBL22 and a potential return to the NBA beckons because of it.

For most athletes approaching 30-years-old, their prime playing days would be behind them, but not for Mitch Creek.

NBL22 has not only seen Creek’s game reach new heights, but also a resurgence of his career from the brink of retirement.

The South East Melbourne Phoenix star has firmly entrenched himself in the conversation for league MVP, a possible return to the NBA and has the Phoenix poised to make a legitimate run at the championship come season’s end – three things which looked far less likely 12 months ago.

2021 was a tumultuous year for Creek, both personally and professionally and the 29-year-old is still dealing with the ramifications of various challenges as the early months of the year saw him faced with multiple assault allegations from a former partner.

Creek temporarily took time away from the Phoenix to be around his family before returning to the team midway through NBL21 after Victoria Police withdrew all charges in April of that year.

Just months after the charges were withdrawn, Creek took part in a training camp with the Australian Boomers, where the squad for the Tokyo Olympics would be decided.

Despite being one of the more experienced players in the squad, he was not selected for the Olympic team, a decision some have suggested was due to the possibility of social media backlash. Creek said those few months tested his “mental fortitude and strength”.

Mitch Creek. PIC: South East Melbourne Phoenix

Creek had maintained his innocence throughout proceedings and said he understood the weight of what had been alleged. But the case never went to trial and the reasons given by Victoria Police for dropping the charges were too ambiguous to reassure some members of the public, who took to social media in droves to express their views.

In a time where athletes are scrutinised more than ever for their off-court behaviour, it was no surprise to see Creek’s name trending.

NBL commentator and pundit, Tom Hersz, said the complete truth behind what occurred with regards to the allegations against Creek will always be opaque.   

“With those sorts of allegations, even if the charges aren’t upheld, they will leave a stain for a while,” Hersz said.

“The public makes up their mind pretty quickly, rightly or wrongly, and it takes time to rebuild that reputation.”

Hersz’s advice to Mitch would be “to focus on being the community minded person that he is. To be happy and present and available to the fans, especially the kids.” It’s about continuing to build his Phoenix fanbase, “the heartland” and slowly people’s perceptions will change.

It’s clear Creek is attempting to do exactly that. He has been ever-present in the Phoenix community this year, regularly making himself available to fans.

To be happy however, is easier said than done, particularly for Creek, who has been vocal about his issues with mental health. After missing out on Tokyo and faced with an abundance of dispiriting personal attacks on social media, for a time, Creek considered retirement.

“After returning to the season last year, in all honesty, I was playing to stay alive,” he said matter-of-factly.

“Basketball was probably the only thing that kept me here.”

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Creek never lost his love for the game but said candidly, “Being in the spotlight in such a way really took a mental toll. When you’ve got strangers telling you they wish you were dead and people coming to your house to abuse you…it’s pretty crazy.

“Early in the offseason, I didn’t actually want to come back and I vocalized that to the club – I just couldn’t buy in mentally.”

He said the time away from the game was good for his mental wellbeing. He spent time overseas, travelling alone, in order to “figure out what I wanted to do in this world and who I wanted to be”.

After some self-exploration, Creek returned to training ahead of NBL22 and said after a month of preseason back with the team, “That fire relit itself”.

“I started to enjoy myself again, got myself back into shape and just focused on the basketball,” he said.

It’s reasonable to say Creek’s focus on fitness and basketball has paid dividends for the Phoenix. The former NBA player is averaging career highs in points, player efficiency rating and is making more three-pointers than ever before.

Hersz said, “Mitch has never been a lights-out guy from beyond the arc but at the start of this season he simply couldn’t miss. Although he’s cooled of a little lately, he’s still hitting threes at a good clip and he’s respected by defences – they have to guard him all the way out to the three-point line, which never used to happen.

“I think Mitch has realised, if the defence is guarding him higher up the court, then everything else opens up; he can put the ball on the floor, be aggressive and get to the hole far easier.”

The improved shooting is the obvious case for Mitch Creek’s improvement, the second key component is his fitness. At 29, Creek appears to be in the best shape of his life, surpassing his 2019 fitness levels when he had stints in the NBA with both the Brooklyn Nets and Minnesota Timberwolves.

Creek’s run in the NBA didn’t last long and many have suggested it was down to a lack of athleticism and shooting. With both those aspects of his game having vastly improved over the past two years, Creek said he feels as if he is on the cusp of a remarkable return to the NBA at almost 30-years-old.

He said, “The NBA is the dream. I made it, I tasted it and I want more of it.

“Obviously, the last two years haven’t been favourable for me off the court but I’ve been doing everything I can to get into a better place and right now, I feel ready. Give me a vet’s minimum contract and I’ll give you ten-fold of that in return.

“Nothing has necessarily come to fruition just yet, but all I can do is continue to be aggressive and continue to fight.”

Mitch is back to enjoying the game he loves. PIC: South East Melbourne Phoenix

South East Melbourne Phoenix coach, Simon Mitchell, said Creek’s performances this season have been those of an NBA-calibre player.

Mitchell is under no illusions as to where Creek belongs and said after being by his side through all the turmoil of last year, it’s clear the NBL star is “playing with a freedom of mind I haven’t seen from him before”.

“Creeky was very open with me about his loss of enjoyment of the professional game. There was never any mystery about his feelings and I think that’s been the most significant change from last season to this one – his feelings,” Mitchell said.

“You see it on the court, he looks happier and has been a more encouraging leader. He’s been able to give of himself to his teammates and lift the locker-room atmosphere and everyone is better for it.

“It’s exactly why he belongs in the NBA. Whatever role he may take with an NBA team, his veteran experience and off-court leadership will be just as valuable as anything he produces on the court.”

With so much having happened to Mitch Creek over the past 12 months, one thing is certain – he has displayed a commitment to his craft that few others can match.

The Phoenix’s championship aspirations are constantly on a knife’s edge as an immensely close battle at the top of the NBL22 table unfolds in front of our very eyes.

If they are to win it all this season then Creek will need to be at his best both on and off the floor.

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