APA alum, UNC hoops manager turns adversity into success
Kinston native, Arendell Parrott Academy graduate and UNC senior Tyson Creech, front, helps prepare the Tar Heels before Thursday night’s ACC Tournament quarterfinal game against Louisville. Photo by Bryan Hanks / Neuse News
CHARLOTTE — As Tyson Creech was preparing for his senior season for the Arendell Parrott Academy basketball team, a life-changing moment happened — he ruptured the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his left knee.
Creech has taken the potentially-devastating experience and turned it into a positive. This weekend, Creech is working his final ACC men’s basketball tournament as a varsity manager for third-ranked North Carolina.
The path from lying injured on a court in Kinston in the summer of 2014 to being an important cog in the powerful Tar Heels basketball machine has been long, but it’s a journey for which Creech is thankful.
“The injury was unfortunate, but it really opened the doors for my opportunity here,” Creech said this week at the UNC team hotel. “I’m not glad it happened, of course, but it definitely helped me to where I am today.”
The injury and the aftermath
Creech was understandably excited for his senior campaign and was helping his Patriots prepare for the 2014-15 season with the recently-hired APA coach, Wells Gulledge, when the injury occurred.
“It was a week or two before the East Coast Invitational when I tore my ACL in practice,” Creech said. “It was really hard — I was really looking forward to my senior year and being able to help my team.”
Gulledge, who coached at APA from 2014-17 after winning three state titles at Kinston High School, was crestfallen when Creech was injured.
“Tyson’s injury broke my heart, because he’s such a good kid,” Gulledge, who just concluded his second year as the head coach at Wilmington Ashley, said this week in a phone interview. “He had worked his tail off during the summer and was a big part of our team. He just kind of fell awkwardly and it was tough to watch.”
Although the injury knocked him out of playing competitive basketball for all but 30 seconds of his senior campaign at APA, Creech was far from being done with the sport he loves.
Creech began helping Gulledge and the Patriots coaches at practices by running the clock, among other duties. During games, he kept statistics for APA; between enduring rehabilitation sessions with a physical therapist, he sat on the bench with his Parrott teammates and never lost his smile. He traveled to every road game — keeping the scorebook for Gulledge — and always provided encouragement to his Patriots teammates.
“I was appreciative to Coach Gulledge for giving me a chance to work with the team,” Creech said. “I loved the game and I loved my teammates. I just wanted to do whatever I could to support my team.”
Zacchaeus Rasberry was a junior shooting guard when Creech suffered the injury; Creech was set to start beside him that year in the APA backcourt. Despite the injury, Rasberry — now a star senior outfielder for the Presbyterian College baseball team — said Creech remained one of the Patriots’ key leaders that season.
“He wasn’t the type to give a pregame speech, but he was very encouraging to everyone in a one-on-one setting,” Rasberry said.
Shivar Person, Creech’s head coach when he was a junior on the APA varsity squad, said Tyson’s work ethic was unequaled.
“Tyson was always a hard-working kid and a good role model to others,” Person said. “He was a good teammate and player — he was like having another coach on the court — but he’s an even better person. He could’ve given up on basketball but that’s not who he is.”
APA Headmaster Bert Bright agreed with Person’s sentiment and said Creech was an exceptional student-athlete at Parrott.
“He handled that setback with grace, just as he has done in every other facet of his life,” Bright said. “We are very proud to call Tyson Creech an Arendell Parrott Academy Patriot.”
Creech’s final APA season ended with a poignant moment for Creech and the Patriots. He was introduced as one of the senior starters, but didn’t play. However, Gulledge inserted him into the game with 30 seconds remaining and — knee brace and all — Creech was able to play a few seconds for the Patriots.
“I have a picture in my room of the one defensive possession where I was able to box someone out,” Creech said with a smile. “We had an offensive possession, but I didn’t get to touch the ball. But it was pretty cool to be able to put on the uniform one more time and be able to feel what it was like to play, even though I couldn’t make an impact.
“It’s something I’ll never forget.”
The road to Chapel Hill
In October 2014, as the Patriots were preparing for the 2014-15 season without Creech on the court as a player, Gulledge had an idea.
“He was so smart and so good with numbers, I asked him if he’d ever thought about being a manager,” Gulledge said.
Creech had applied to Carolina, but had not yet received his acceptance letter. Gulledge knew Creech — whose parents (Hardy and Dana Creech) both attended UNC — was interested in attending Carolina. The coach, whose basketball network throughout the sport is legendary, contacted a friend in Chapel Hill to inquire about Creech potentially becoming a Tar Heels manager.
“All I did was make a couple of phone calls and he was introduced to the right people,” Gulledge said.
Creech was accepted into the school in January and, a few months later — after working UNC basketball camps for the school — he became a Carolina junior varsity basketball manager. He served in that role his freshman and sophomore years in Chapel Hill; his sophomore season, he was the head JV manager for the program.
“There were about 20 JV managers,” Creech said. “If you work hard enough, you can become a varsity manager.”
Although there are only six varsity managers selected for the Tar Heels, his work ethic paid off again — he has been a varsity manager the past two years for UNC.
“It’s been incredible and it’s something I’ve dreamed about my whole life: to be a part of the Carolina basketball program,” Creech said. “To be around the players and have relationships with them, to work with the coaches and other managers has been an opportunity I’ll never forget.
“It’s been very challenging but very rewarding at the same time.”
Rasberry said Creech being a part of the UNC program gives him a reason to cheer for the Tar Heels.
“I’m so happy for him that he’s still around the game he loves, at a school he loves so much,” Rasberry said.
A day in the life
So what happens in an average day for a UNC basketball manager?
On non-game days, Creech estimates the managers work about five to six hours. However, game days include around nine consecutive hours of work, he said.
Managers have to be at team events (such as shoot-arounds or practices) an hour before the rest of the team. On game-day shoot-arounds (which occur about five hours before tip-off), the managers set up the court, then help rebound shots for the players.
After game day shoot-arounds, managers get the bench area and locker room prepared for the coaches and players; this includes making Gatorade and getting water bottles ready, along with aiding equipment managers, athletic trainers and strength coaches.
Right before games, managers help stretch players and conduct individual workouts. During games, they sit behind the UNC bench and give players water, Gatorade or whatever beverage they need at the time. They also pull the bench chairs out during timeouts and give players liquid refreshment and a protein bar, if they need it.
After games, JV managers clean up the bench and court area and varsity managers go back to the locker room and help with the food for the players and coaches. They also collect all the uniform jerseys and shorts and give them back to the equipment managers.
“We’re just there to make their lives easier and help them succeed,” Creech said.
After all that, they finally get to go back to their dorms — where it’s time to study. Despite all the work, Creech said it’s been a fulfilling experience to serve the Tar Heels.
“There has been a lot of hard and there are a lot of late nights, especially with taking full class loads,” he said. “Time management is key; I’ve had to learn how to balance my time wisely. But it’s been fun to play a role helping this team, even if it’s not the most glamorous job ever.”
The perks of being a UNC basketball manager are nice, Creech said. He flies on the same chartered flights as the Tar Heels players and wears a lot of the same gear they wear.
“Going on the trips has been my favorite thing, though,” he said. “To be able to see other arenas and other environments is fun.”
The Kinston-to-UNC fraternity
When told he’s now a member of the Kinston-to-UNC basketball pipeline — which includes Jerry Stackhouse, Reggie Bullock, Charlie McNairy, Webb Tyndall and others — Creech smiled humbly.
“It’s pretty cool to be grouped with them and to maintain that Kinston connection, although I don’t really measure up to it,” he said. “But it makes me even more proud to be from Kinston.”
The next chapter
Creech is ready to begin the next chapter of his life when his service to the UNC team ends in the next few weeks. In May, he’ll graduate with a double major in biology and exercise and sports science; a month later in Chapel Hill, he’ll marry Harper Rae Jones, a fellow Carolina student from Houston he started dating when they were freshmen.
He’s already been accepted into the UNC School of Dentistry, where he’ll start in the fall. Creech said his career in basketball will soon be over, although he could picture himself on a sideline as a recreational league coach at some point.
“It would be really fun to coach, since I’ve learned Coach Williams’ system,” Creech said. “But it would certainly be different to be a rec league coach, since I’d be managing kids instead of college players.”
Advice for prospective managers
So you’d like to become a college basketball manager? Creech has some advice for you.
“Be willing to work; be intentional about getting involved,” he said. “If you have to volunteer at games or whatever, do what you need to do to get your foot in the door. I was very fortunate to have Coach Gulledge on my side to open that door for me, but contact someone at the school you’re interested in.
“Once you get your foot in that door, work hard. The biggest thing I’ve learned (at UNC) is how important it is to work as a team — it’s a lot about putting others in front of yourself.”