A Farewell to Maya Moore, a Team Player Who Is Also One of a Kind

One of my clearest memories of Maya Moore has nothing to do with basketball, and nothing to do with her fight for justice.

It is a memory of watching her sing four years ago, in a choir at Passion City Church in Atlanta.

I do not recall the song, but I remember the impression she gave as she and the choir belted out a spiritual. Moore is perfectly comfortable settling in and finding a rhythm with the group. And she can also stand out and make a song her own.

That mix — patiently one with the team and yet powerfully individual — is a hallmark of a career that will undoubtedly end with enshrinement in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

It is the quality that animated her against-the-odds quest to free Jonathan Irons, the wrongfully convicted Missouri inmate serving 50 years for burglary and assault with a deadly weapon until Moore used her star power in a successful bid to gain his release. Then she married Irons, surprising even close chroniclers such as myself.

She carries those traits of communal leadership and independence into the next phase of her life. During a publicity tour for “Love and Justice: A Story of Triumph on Two Different Courts,” a book she co-wrote with Irons, Moore announced Monday that she would never play high-level basketball again. At 33, a midcareer age for most players of her caliber, she is officially retiring. Her final game was a loss to the Los Angeles Sparks in the 2018 W.N.B.A. playoffs.

Jonathan Irons, right, was wrongfully convicted and was serving 50 years for burglary and assault with a deadly weapon until Moore used her star power in a successful bid to gain his freedom.Credit…Bee Trofort for The New York Times

Moore, as always, took the script and made it her own.

“When I was playing, I always tried to bring energy, always tried to bring light and joy and intensity to what I was doing,” she said after her announcement. “I hope people saw me as someone who gave all she had.” She continued, noting another hope: that fans could also tell she had a healthy perspective about basketball and “where people fit into this journey of life.”

What makes Moore stand out is the example she set away from basketball. By speaking up for justice before it was fashionable for athletes to do so, quitting the game to free Irons and continuing to fightfor change in the judicial and prison systems, she became a beacon for others to follow.

Her retirement does not shock. It’s not as if there have been social media posts in recent years showing her sweating through workouts at the gym. Notably private, when she popped up in public, she seemed perfectly content, Irons almost always at her side.

Now is the perfect time to take stock of her legacy. On the court, there were few like her.

She could score at will, rebound, pass, play defense and lead her team like a coach on the floor. She moved at her own pace, faster than the others or slower, depending on the moment. Either way, No. 23 seemed always to be in perfect time, and the results back that up.

Two N.C.A.A. titles starring for UConn. Two Olympic golds for the U.S. National Team. Four W.N.B.A. championships leading the Minnesota Lynx. Plenty of winning in international leagues and plenty of M.V.P. awards.

Moore’s Hall of Fame-caliber career includes two N.C.A.A. titles with UConn.Credit…Suzy Allman for The New York Times

Off the court, well, she was even more extraordinary.

Walk away from a Hall of Fame-caliber career before turning 30 — who does that?

Step out of the bright lights to take on what seemed like an impossible task — gaining liberty for an inmate held in a maximum-security prison — who does that?

Maya Moore, the one and only.

I followed her for weeks in 2019 as she worked to free Irons. There were interviews in restaurants and her church, in her Atlanta townhome, as we drove to visit an Atlanta shelter for struggling families and down No More Victims Road in the middle of Missouri to visit Irons in prison. What struck me most about Moore were her heart and mind.

At times, I admit, I found her a little frustrating. She seemed to answer questions only after pausing, slowing down and considering how she could be perceived. It took a while to understand that Moore’s way of responding to a reporter reflected the careful way she did everything else. She mulls and ponders, mulls and ponders. Then she tells you she is mulling and pondering.

She would almost always deliver, speaking earnestly of her faith, philosophizing about the price of fame, how society is changing for better or worse, and the history of injustice toward Black people in the criminal justice system and beyond.

Raised by a single mother and a phalanx of extended family, she was taught since childhood to walk tall in the world while also standing apart from it. She was never going to follow the crowd. She was going to lead.

There’s a tendency to think of Colin Kaepernick as the first prominent professional athlete to protest racial injustice during the fraught last decade. But before Kaepernick, Moore was helping lead her Lynx teammates in calls for change in the summer of 2016. The team wore black T-shirts over their jerseys. On the front were the phrases “Change Starts With Us. Justice and Accountability.” On the back, “Black Lives Matter,” along with the names Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, two Black men shot to death by police that summer, and the Dallas police shield, honoring five officers fatally shot by a gunman who disrupted a peaceful protest of police brutality.

Moore faced a backlash, but she was undeterred. “I’d found my voice,” she said.

Moore taught a Black History Month workshop focused on teamwork, leadership and social justice to middle school students in 2019.Credit…Nina Robinson for The New York Times

Her willingness to be outspoken made perfect sense. It sprang from her faith. And from her connection with Irons, whom she had known since she was a teenager.

In the early years of Irons’s imprisonment, Moore’s great-uncle and godparents, deeply involved in prison ministry, took him under their wings and treated him like family. Eventually, the relationship between Maya and Jonathan would morph from something they described as siblinglike to something far more profound. She kept it quiet from almost everyone in her sphere, worried the attention would distract from the quest for Irons’s freedom, but she fell in love with him while he was still incarcerated.

Through him, she knew well the price of injustice.

What’s next for Moore? I can’t say for sure, other than that I expect her to keep pushing for reform of the criminal justice system in her way, behind the scenes as often as in the public eye. She has most likely earned enough from playing and endorsements to be financially secure. (She hardly lives lavishly. When I checked in with her a while back, she spoke with joy of showing Irons Atlanta by driving around the city in her 2006 Honda Civic.)

She and Irons now have a son, Jonathan Jr., born early last year. She has said in interviews that they hope to grow their family.

“I’m stepping away to live a less famous life,” she told me once. “A life where I am less visible than in my life as an athlete. Stepping away so I can do things that hopefully can be of service to the world in ways that might not be seen until they get done.”

That was four years ago. It was true then and true now.

Back to top button