Inside WNBA legend Maya Moore’s extraordinary quest for justice

ON A SUNNY October day in Jefferson City, Missouri, Maya Moore huddles with her family and friends outside the Cole County courthouse. They stand in a circle, holding hands. Moore prays with them before heading inside.

Her hair is pulled back and laid under a headband, just like it was when she was one of the greatest basketball players in the world, when winning championships, not fighting for justice, was her focus. Game 4 of the WNBA Finals was last night, but instead of watching the Connecticut Sun force a decisive Game 5 against the Washington Mystics, Moore was here, meeting with lawyers.

Her blue suede sneakers squeak against the marble tile as she descends the stairs to the security X-ray machine, empties her pockets and puts her purse on the belt, then marches up the narrow stairs to the main floor of the courthouse. “A little nervous,” she says, “but ready for this day.”

Moore’s family and friends form a crowd outside the hearing room. The group is big enough — a couple dozen people — that there is a question about whether the hearing should be moved to the upper chamber. After it’s decided that today’s proceedings will happen here, in the smaller room, Moore’s family follows her inside. Four rows of wooden pews make up the seating area. Two tables for the respective legal teams sit in front of a wooden banister. Moore and her loved ones fill the first two pews that extend across the room and half of the third.

LISTEN: On the ESPN Daily podcast, ESPN’s Katie Barnes joins Mina Kimes and reveals why Maya Moore left the WNBA in her prime to fight for the freedom of a man who’d spent the past two decades in jail.

A man named Jonathan Irons enters the room, the chains of his silver shackles clanking against the floor with his every step. He’s wearing an orange jumpsuit. He looks over at the crowd. “Clothes don’t make the man,” he says, taking his seat at the head of his legal table, his chair facing the judge’s bench. The shackles stay on.

“God is a chain-breaker, you hear me?” he says. “God is a chain-breaker.”

“Yes, he is,” comes a response from the crowd.

Moore sits next to her mother, Kathryn, in the front pew, 6 feet from Irons, her eyes fixated on the profile of his face. Her godparents, Cheri and Reggie Williams, who have advocated for Irons for the past 15 years, sit behind them and next to Cheri’s parents. It was Cheri’s father, Hugh Flowers, who first formed a bond in the early 2000s with Irons while volunteering as the choir director at Jefferson City Correctional Center. Irons, who grew up without knowing his birth father, grew so close to Flowers that he came to see him as a father figure. Moore’s fourth-grade teacher, Joni Henderson, sits next to the Williams family. Even the judge, Daniel Green, is connected to Moore. He coached her kindergarten soccer team.

Irons calls to Jonathan Williams, Cheri’s 25-year-old son. Jonathan stands, clasping a large brown envelope — details of Irons’ case, the product of over a decade of investment in Irons by the Williams family.

“Ooh!” Irons says, giving Jonathan’s suit the once-over. “You lookin’ sharp!”

The room laughs in collective exhale. Kathryn leans over to Maya and whispers in her ear, giving her shoulder a comforting squeeze. Maya gives her mother a nod before reaching back a pew to clasp Henderson’s hand.

Today is Jonathan Irons’ Hail Mary. It is, in many respects, Maya Moore’s too. This hearing is Irons’ best chance to try to convince at least one person in the criminal justice system of the innocence he’s claimed for over two decades. And it is Moore’s opportunity to prove that leaving the WNBA at the height of her talents was not in vain.

The bailiff stands up from his seat at the front of the room.

“All rise.”

For the past 16 months, former Minnesota Lynx superstar Maya Moore has dedicated her life to the exoneration of a Missouri man named Jonathan Irons, who at age 16 was convicted in 1998 of assault and battery and sentenced to 50 years in prison. Kelvin Kuo/USA TODAY Sports

ON FEB. 5, 2019, Maya Moore made an announcement on The Players’ Tribune that would upend the WNBA: She would be sitting out the 2019 season to focus on “the people in my family, as well as on investing my time in some ministry dreams that have been stirring in my heart for many years.”

It was a stunning declaration. This was Maya Moore, in her prime.

Consider: At 29 years old, she’d already won four WNBA championships and a league MVP award. She was the 2011 WNBA Rookie of the Year. She was a six-time WNBA All-Star and a five-time All-WNBA first-team honoree. She had won three consecutive championships with her club in China, Shanxi Flame, as well as a EuroLeague Championship with Russian powerhouse UMMC Ekaterinburg. She had won two Olympic gold medals with Team USA. At the University of Connecticut, she’d won two national championships and was a four-time consensus All-American and the only player in women’s college basketball history to win the Wade Trophy three times.

When Moore chose to sit out the 2019 season, it was the equivalent of Michael Jordan announcing his retirement in 1993, if, instead of pursuing a new sport, he had done so for reasons barely defined and virtually unknown.

Since then, for the past year, Moore has explained her departure largely through her actions, flying between her Atlanta home and Jefferson City, fully committed to a singular cause: supporting the effort of Jonathan Irons to regain his freedom — because she believes he was innocent.

For more than 20 years, the Missouri justice system had not agreed. And entering this year, Moore’s commitment begged a question:

Why was one of the greatest players of all time willing to never step on a court again — and to leave behind one of the WNBA’s great dynasties — for the sake of what could well be a lost cause?

Jonathan Irons first met Maya Moore during the summer of 2007, only months before Moore would begin a UConn career that saw her become one of the most dominant collegiate players in history. Nina Robinson

THE CRIME FOR which Jonathan Irons was ultimately convicted began with the click of a closet door.

It was around 6:30 p.m. on Jan. 14, 1997, and a man named Stanley Stotler had returned to his home in O’Fallon, Missouri, some 40 minutes west of St. Louis, to change his clothes before heading back out for a hair appointment. After walking through the door, he ventured toward the back of the house, to his bedroom. It was then, according to his testimony in Irons’ original trial, that he heard the latch of the closet door.

Stotler testified that he knew something was wrong. His home had been robbed before, the previous December, and the burglar had taken more than $200 in cash from that same closet. Frightened, Stotler slowly reached under his mattress and pulled out a 9 mm semi-automatic pistol he owned. He loaded a magazine, put a shell in the chamber and pointed it at the closet door. He called out to the intruder, imploring the person to come out.

Stotler reached for the phone on his nightstand, calling out once more, this time to alert the intruder that he was calling the police. Seconds later, the closet door flew open, and Stotler saw a young black man whom he would later identify in court as Jonathan Irons.

Stotler testified that as he turned his eyes away to look at his phone, he was shot in the shoulder and fell to his bedroom floor. As he tried to stand, he was shot again, this time in the temple.

He struggled to find his gun, which he’d dropped as he collapsed to the ground. Once he grabbed it, Stotler fired once in the direction of the closet. Bleeding from bullet wounds to his face and right shoulder, Stotler managed to get to his kitchen, where he called 911. He did not see the intruder again.

Stotler was rushed to the hospital and underwent emergency brain surgery. He remained there for the next seven weeks. At the time of his testimony, in October 1998, he still had bullet fragments lodged in his brain.

Although Stotler identified Irons in court, he had not been able to do so immediately following the burglary. According to testimony from Detective John Neske, O’Fallon police were originally alerted to then-16-year-old Irons as a possible suspect because he had been seen that day in the neighborhood by a number of witnesses. Irons, who declined to comment for this story, testified at the Oct. 9, 2019, hearing that it wasn’t out of the ordinary for him to be there, even though he was black and the neighborhood majority white. By that time, Irons had dropped out of high school, but he had friends and acquaintances — including those to whom he sold marijuana — in the area.

According to his testimony from that October hearing, Irons acknowledged that he’d been in the neighborhood that night with a gun, which Irons says was a .38-caliber. Stotler had been shot with a .25-caliber gun. Capt. Jerry Schulte of the O’Fallon Police Department had told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that Irons was named a suspect after mentioning the shooting to a friend. Irons has denied this allegation.

The gun that was used to shoot Stotler was never recovered. Despite telling Neske in February 1997 that he was uncertain about who shot him, Stotler would later identify Irons at a pretrial hearing. No DNA or fingerprints belonging to Irons were found at the scene.

Despite the lack of physical evidence, Irons was convicted of burglary and assault in 1998, after being tried as an adult because of a previous charge.

At the age of 18, Jonathan Irons was sentenced to 50 years in prison.

Maya Moore, with her mother, Kathryn, spent her first 11 years in Jefferson City, Missouri, before moving to Atlanta, where she became one of the most sought-after recruits in the nation. Nina Robinson

THE SAME YEAR Irons was arrested and charged, Maya Moore was a rambunctious 8-year-old growing up in Jefferson City, Missouri — a small-town kid who went to church every Sunday with her mother and godparents. Moore lived in Missouri’s capital until she was 11, then moved with her mother to Charlotte, North Carolina, before settling in Atlanta the following year. It’s always been the two of them. Even today, they live next door to each other.

While growing up as a basketball phenom in Georgia, Moore had also begun to explore her faith. She’d gone to church with her mother since she was a child but says that in middle school she focused more attention on her faith after her mom lost her job, which had brought them to Atlanta. Moore and her mom began attending World Changers Church International, a nondenominational global ministry headquartered in Atlanta. The church’s pastor, Creflo Dollar, is known for preaching “prosperity gospel” — that faith in God can lead to material gain and help followers triumph over adversity. “My faith is the core of who I am,” Moore told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2010. “I feel like everything I do stems from that.”

It was Moore who encouraged her mother to take them to church every Sunday in Atlanta. Without a relationship with her biological father, Moore says she found her identity in God. “It hit me so hard when I was in middle school that God is my father and he is my identity,” Moore said on The Grove Podcast in 2019. “He is my security. He is what matters most about who I am. I’ve become such a believer in the beauty and power and need for fathers, especially godly fathers. And whatever our culture says, I’m convinced that the best way for kids to grow up is with their mom and their dad.”

Moore has never been public about her relationship with her father, Mike Dabney, who was a star basketball player at Rutgers in the 1970s. The identity she found in the wake of Dabney’s absence became foundational to the person who put on a basketball jersey nearly every day for most of her life. “I was trained in the faith before I was trained as a national champion,” Moore said.

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Moore attended Collins Hill High School in Suwanee, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta, where she won three state championships and led her team to a 125-3 record. She received the Naismith Prep Player of the Year Award her junior and senior seasons, becoming one of only two players to win the award multiple times.

“Everybody was talking about this young kid that was just this phenom,” says UConn women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma. “I usually don’t get that excited about ninth-graders. Maya always had this presence that maybe she was born with. Your eyes were always drawn to her.”

Moore has long said that her faith has been as integral to her athletic success as her skill itself. Athletes in Action, a Christian sports ministry, became an essential part of Moore’s life at UConn. While a student, Moore regularly participated in campus Bible study sessions. Following her freshman year, she attended AIA’s Ultimate Training Camp, which merges athletic competition with faith exploration in a summer camp environment. She worked as an intern at the camp for two additional summers.

Moore’s faith, sources close to her say, shaped her journey to becoming one of the greatest basketball players in the world. By all accounts, that same faith in God, and in justice, gave her the strength to walk away.

Her collegiate résumé is staggering: Maya Moore led UConn to a 150-4 record in her four seasons, with four consecutive Final Four appearances and two national championships. Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos/Getty Images

BACK IN JEFFERSON CITY on that sunny October day, Judge Daniel Green calls Irons’ case from the bench. It’s been 10 months since Irons’ legal team filed the petition that led to this hearing and over a decade since Reggie Williams, Moore’s godfather, discovered a piece of evidence that Irons’ team plans to present today. The catalyst was Moore, who had met Irons through Reggie and Cheri in the summer before her freshman year at UConn. According to The New York Times, Moore had seen Reggie reviewing Irons’ legal documents during a family vacation in her senior year of high school, became interested in the case and visited Irons in prison for the first time during that summer of 2007.

“Until Maya Moore got involved, [Irons] just really didn’t have the resources to either hire counsel or hire investigators,” says Irons’ attorney Kent Gipson. “It’s big to sacrifice a year of your career in your prime to do that.”

Back in August, after months of motions and extensions and exhibit filings and updates, Green, the judge, had set this date to hear arguments in the case. Today, Irons’ legal team begins by calling Reggie Williams to the stand. Williams’ testimony focuses on the longevity of his relationship with Irons and his intimate knowledge of the path Irons has taken through the legal system following his conviction. Williams, who has worked for State Farm for 33 years in both underwriting and claims investigation, says Irons gave him power of attorney in 2005, after he had shown a keen interest in the case, and Williams spent years poring over the materials contained in the three boxes of evidence given to him.

In 2007, he took these materials to a University of Missouri law professor, who referred Williams to one of his students for help. They then filed a records request, which led them to the O’Fallon Police Department to review additional files. Williams, who declined to comment for this story, testified that once they were allowed inside the police department, Williams asked to see police reports. He was handed a blue folder stuffed with documents.

He paged through them and discovered something that caught his eye. “It was a latent fingerprint report that I had not seen before,” he says today on the stand. Irons’ team then calls Irons’ original defense attorney, Christine Sullivan.

The report, Irons’ lawyers argue, raises questions about the conduct of the prosecution in Irons’ original trial. The document is not the same report that was given to Irons’ defense attorney in 1998. At the time of Irons’ 1998 trial, the fingerprint report indicated that the two fingerprints found on the storm door leading out of Stotler’s home belonged to Stotler. But this report, which Williams found two years into his investigation, indicates that only one of those prints was Stotler’s. The other, this report reveals, doesn’t belong to Irons.

“Explain the significance of the fingerprint evidence to your defense,” says Jessica Hathaway, one of Irons’ attorneys.

“That someone else was in or out of that house that left the print on an outer door,” Sullivan says. “Not Jonathan, not the homeowner, someone else.”

A choked sob comes from the corner of the room. Tears stream down Irons’ cheeks as he gasps for air. This is the argument upon which Irons’ appeal hinges. Moore presses her lips together and grips the railing in front of her. Her knuckles tighten and the tension ripples up her forearm. Green calls for a recess.

The room empties. Moore stands in the hallway surrounded by her family. Irons is off to the side, flanked by corrections officers. They aren’t allowed to speak to each other.

“I’m heartbroken that we can’t console him as part of our family,” Moore says. “One of the results of someone suffering injustice is that pain.”

Twenty-one years after his conviction, Irons has finally received another day in court, but he will have to wait weeks, maybe months, to find out if Green believes him.

Days after the July 2016 killing of Philando Castile at the hands of a police officer in Minnesota, the Lynx wore shirts supporting Black Lives Matter and victims of police violence. In response, four off-duty officers working the game walked off the job. David Sherman/NBAE/Getty Images

AS THE MINNESOTA Lynx entered Mohegan Sun Arena for shootaround on July 7, 2016, head coach Cheryl Reeve pulled aside her four captains: Lindsay Whalen, Seimone Augustus, Rebekkah Brunson and Moore. The Lynx were 15-3 and preparing to face the Connecticut Sun for the first time that season.

The night before, on July 6, Philando Castile, a cafeteria supervisor at J.J. Hill Montessori School, was shot and killed by a police officer in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, a suburb just east of Minneapolis. His death came just one day after 37-year-old Alton Sterling was killed by police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in the same neighborhood where Augustus grew up.

Since the death of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man, on Aug. 9, 2014, the issue of police violence against black people had reentered the public consciousness. But the deaths of Sterling and Castile struck a specific chord for the Lynx, both because they came so close together and because they occurred in familiar and cherished places.

In a moment that echoes now, almost four years later, Reeve looked to her captains. “Let’s use our voices,” she said. “What do we want to do?”

After the game, on the bus to the airport, the answer began to take shape. Moore and Brunson led the conversation in the following days, Moore guiding her teammates through the process of choosing the words they wanted to use. She proposed where to put them on the T-shirts they eventually debuted on July 9, 2016 — three days after Castile’s death — during warm-ups for a home game against the Dallas Wings. The black shirts read, “Change starts with us — Justice & Accountability.” The names Philando Castile and Alton Sterling were displayed on the back, along with the Dallas police shield, honoring the victims of the July 7, 2016, attack on Dallas police officers that had claimed five lives. In bold white letters, “Black Lives Matter” stood out on the back, underneath the names and shield.

“If we take this time to see that this is a human issue and speak out together, we can greatly decrease fear and create change,” Moore said during a pregame news conference.

The Lynx’s public display sparked demonstrations across the league. The Phoenix Mercury, Indiana Fever and New York Liberty wore similar T-shirts and were fined $5,000 for breaching the WNBA’s uniform guidelines — before the league withdrew the fines two days later.

Four days after the Lynx had donned their shirts, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony opened the 2016 ESPYS by condemning the violence and encouraging athletes to participate in creating change. Later that summer, 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began to kneel during the national anthem.

After the Lynx’s demonstration, the league had sent out a memo reminding teams of the uniform policy. The Lynx never wore the shirts again. The WNBA’s most dominant team had walked out on a limb, but not far enough to snap the branch.

But for Moore, something was giving way. Her relationship with Irons and her belief in his innocence had long been a personal conviction and a private cause, she told ESPN’s Dan Le Batard in April, but the events of 2016 showed her that she could have an impact on issues of criminal justice publicly.

Four months after the Lynx had donned those shirts, they lost the 2016 WNBA Finals to the Los Angeles Sparks on a last-second putback by Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike. It was Moore’s fifth WNBA Finals in six years, on the heels of four consecutive Final Fours in college. During that stretch, Moore had spent three WNBA offseasons in China. She had won the EuroLeague women’s championship in Istanbul in April 2012, just six months after the Lynx won the 2011 WNBA title and just seven weeks before the first game of the 2012 WNBA season. In the middle of the 2012 and 2016 WNBA seasons, she had played with Team USA in the Olympics. She had played in the 2014 FIBA World Cup and had been an All-Star in four of her first six seasons.

For six long years, Maya Moore had been consumed by chasing basketball success without respite. Without time to be with her family. Without time to get Jonathan Irons out of prison.

Some months after the Finals, Moore, along with teammate Lindsay Whalen, flew to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to train with skills coach Ganon Baker. Moore had played in the Rio Olympics three months earlier, in July, winning her second gold medal. When considering the motivations for why she stepped away from the game a year ago, it is worth acknowledging: Maya Moore was exhausted.

“By the time we got to Rio, there was a difference about her,” Auriemma says. “She just didn’t have the electricity coming out of her.”

After consecutive days of two-a-days in Fort Lauderdale in the spring of 2017, Whalen and Moore took a night off. They’d booked a suite at the Hilton Fort Lauderdale Beach Resort and decided to have dinner at Ilios, the hotel’s restaurant.

It was during a conversation there that Moore first told Whalen about Irons — and her family’s advocacy on his behalf. She told Whalen about the case. About her godparents. About what she saw as the injustice facing a man she considered family. About how other than training, this was what she’d been focused on all offseason. About how personal this fight was to her.

Moore asked her not to say anything. “I didn’t even tell my husband,” Whalen says.

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IT’S DEC. 9, 2019, in Jefferson City, and Moore and her camp roll into town for yet another hearing. During the October evidentiary hearing — when the fingerprint evidence was presented and the case reexamined — excitement and relief had filled the room. Today, a rainy Monday in central Missouri, the hearing takes all of five minutes. Green orders the fingerprints, the ones discovered by Reggie Williams in 2007, to be run through a process called the Automated Fingerprint Identification System, a central database used by law enforcement to identify people whose prints had previously been entered into the system — but those results won’t be ready for weeks.

The fingerprints are crucial to Irons’ case for several reasons. They could belong to someone else in the system, casting further doubt on whether Irons committed the crime. But in the state of Missouri, a person’s innocence is, in some ways, irrelevant. Legal precedent in the state holds that unless a prisoner is on death row, proven innocence is not reason enough to be set free. Petitioners must prove that they have been denied a constitutionally adequate trial.

To that end, the existence of the report as new evidence could also be enough to prove that Irons had his rights constitutionally violated — and therefore his conviction could be void. That’s because the suppression or altering of the fingerprint document could constitute a violation of the Brady rule, which mandates that the prosecution turn over all exculpatory evidence to the defense pretrial. Failure to do so is a violation of a defendant’s due process.

“I think it’s pretty clear [the prosecution] either altered or suppressed that report,” Gipson says. “And then misled the jury to think that all of the fingerprints that were found on that door, which was the only possible exit point of the burglar, belonged to the victim.” The Missouri attorney general’s office declined to comment for this story, citing ongoing litigation.

But even a ruling in Irons’ favor does not guarantee his release. The state could appeal, or he could be retried. And so this is how it goes. Process begets more process. Hearings beget more hearings. Motions result in countermotions. Decisions are appealed, and that process can feel interminable — and is one that even in the event of confirmed innocence does not guarantee freedom.

The night before the 2018 WNBA All-Star Game in Minneapolis, Maya Moore held a private dinner with some of her closest confidants, revealing to them her deep commitment to criminal justice reform. M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire

BACK WHEN MAYA MOORE was still one of the best basketball players on the planet, Cheryl Reeve walked into Cosmos Restaurant at the Loews Hotel, right across the street from the Lynx’s home court and practice facility at the Target Center. It was July 27, the night before the 2018 WNBA All-Star Game in Minneapolis.

Reeve walked past the towering glass behind the bar to a private room in the back, where she was joined by Lynx forward Rebekkah Brunson, who sat across the room. The two dozen attendees had gathered at the behest of Moore, who had begun to speak more publicly about her commitment to criminal justice reform.

“I don’t think I really knew how involved she was until then,” Brunson says today about the dinner. “She didn’t boast about her passion. She just quietly sat back and did the work.”

Moore wanted to introduce her social action campaign, Win With Justice, as well as highlight the work happening across the country to reform the criminal justice system. “You could start to see that her energy and focus may not have been solely on basketball,” Brunson says.

Reeve, who had coached Moore for all eight of her WNBA seasons, took her seat at dinner to support her star player. This was the same player whose wingspan had been plastered on a downtown billboard in a rendering of Jordan’s iconic pose. The same player who, nine months earlier, had delivered Reeve her fourth championship in seven years. “It was high priority for us because I knew the work she’d put into it and how passionate she was about it,” Reeve says.

“Obviously, we’d find out a month later really how passionate she was.”

On March 9, Maya Moore called Jonathan Irons to tell him that, after 22 years, his convictions had been vacated. Three months later, Irons remains incarcerated, as the state has appealed the ruling to the Missouri Supreme Court. Jeff Haldiman/The Jefferson City News-Tribune/AP Photo

IT’S A COLD, rainy March morning in Jefferson City, and Cheri Williams pulls into the familiar courthouse parking lot in an old red pickup truck. Her sons step out of an adjacent car, both wearing suits. As the rain pours down, they scramble to take photos with one another. Cheri leaves them outside. In the time since the hearings began, over a year ago, she and her husband, Reggie, have moved to Atlanta. They join Maya and Kathryn at church in Atlanta most weeks. They’ve all made the trip back to Missouri for this.

The hallway outside the courtroom is loud, family and friends and onlookers chattering before the day’s proceedings. They hug, shake hands and smile. “Today is the day,” they say.

Moore stands silently in the center of it all, as tension pulls at her body. She shushes her jubilant loved ones before they enter the room. Irons’ case is scheduled for a counsel status hearing — where the lawyers give an update on the case and schedule a date for the next hearing.

The clock ticks past 10:30 a.m. Green enters the courtroom 10 minutes late. Many cases are scheduled to be heard in this time slot, but Green starts with Irons’. He reads the decision from the bench, in a manner so blunt and perfunctory that it’s almost absurd to think that two sentences could undo two decades of a life.

As he speaks, Moore swallows and tightens her lips. The sentences are a jumble of legalese — habeas relief, conditional writ, Brady claim — but six words stand out.

“… orders that his convictions be vacated …”

A sigh ripples through the courtroom, followed by a round of applause. Moore puts her head in her hands and cries. Kathryn envelops Maya in her arms, cradling her daughter, wiping tears from the corner of her own eyes.

In his judgment, Green found that there was, in fact, a Brady violation. He wrote that Irons’ “due process rights were violated by the prosecution’s suppression of material exculpatory evidence.” That evidence was the fingerprint report discovered by Reggie Williams in 2007.

There are, however, conditions to Green’s ruling. The state could appeal his judgment, and even if it is upheld, Irons would not be eligible for immediate release, as the county that originally tried him could elect to do so again. But those are details to be litigated another day. Green calls for a recess, and the celebration spills into the hallway. Moore and her loved ones take pictures. “Short people in the front,” Moore urges as they try to arrange themselves in the small hallway.

“That’s everyone other than you,” someone shouts.

Everyone laughs.

Moore’s phone rings. She tells everyone to be quiet. It’s Jonathan. She answers, and the crowd shouts in delight. And as Moore delivers the news, Irons’ sobs echo through the phone.

“I’m free,” he sings through the phone, the notes wafting through the hallway. Tears stream down Moore’s face. “Hallelujah! I’m free!”

PASSION CITY CHURCH is a sprawling white building north of downtown Atlanta. At the intersection leading to the large nondenominational church, police officers control traffic at the stoplight on Sunday mornings. There’s an overflow parking lot down the street that has shuttle service to the church doors should any of the thousands of congregants not get there early enough to secure a closer spot. Greeters steer the crowd through the entrance. The white walls reach high with single-word signs: Bloom. Kids. College. Resources. Less than 100 feet from the main sanctuary, there’s an overflow room where the service is streamed to those who can’t find a seat. There’s a second location 10 miles away in Cumberland where the service is streamed as well. On the wall leading into the sanctuary, light blazes through 2,265 lightbulbs to form the towering words “Jesus Is Life.”

When Moore was in high school, 29 miles from here, people often referred to Gwinnett Arena as Maya Temple, because her teams played in four consecutive state championships there. But Passion City is her spiritual home. She’s in the church choir. She has appeared on its podcast, talking about her faith and criminal justice advocacy. It’s here where for several years — in the dark, club-lit sanctuary — Moore and her family have heard messages and sermons focused on knowable truth, radical grace, whole-life worship and community of faith. When Reggie and Cheri moved to Atlanta six months ago, they began attending church at Passion City with Moore.

On most Sundays, this is where you will find Maya Moore. As for Jonathan Irons, he is still in prison, though perhaps not for long. On March 23, the state of Missouri appealed Green’s decision, but on April 28, the appellate court upheld Green’s decision to vacate Irons’ convictions. That decision put a 10-day clock on the state and St. Charles County to decide whether to retry Irons, but that clock doesn’t start immediately. Missouri had 15 days to file a motion for another hearing, which extended the timeline a month. That motion was denied on May 22. The state filed an additional motion on June 8, requesting that the case be transferred to the Missouri Supreme Court. That decision could take another month. If that motion is denied, St. Charles County can elect to retry the entire case.

So Jonathan Irons likely wouldn’t be released for at least another month. And if St. Charles County decides to retry Irons, he might not get out at all. As for Moore, she has committed to sitting out the 2020 WNBA season as well — should one be played. And she has spoken about the criminal justice system beyond Irons — the need for prosecutorial reform and for frank conversations regarding the nation’s long-standing racial divide, in particular.

Indeed, in response to Drew Brees’ apology for his original comments about the right of athletes to protest by kneeling during the national anthem — and the heated response from his fellow athletes in the wake of the killing of George Floyd — Moore was steadfast in her stance:

“There are so many, namely black and brown bodies, in America who have experienced a different America than what the mainstream American flag symbolizes,” she told ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap. “For centuries in this country, black people were seen as three-fifths of a person, and so when you hear the national anthem or you see an American flag as an African American person who has experienced the effects of that dehumanizing existence, it’s not going to mean the same. Now, just because it doesn’t mean the same doesn’t give you the right to destroy, but at the same time, we have to acknowledge that there have been inconsistencies with who we’ve been as a country.”

But her advocacy, for now, remains focused on Irons.

“I think one of the best ways I can continue to help is to continue to tell Jonathan’s story well,” Moore says.

So will Maya Moore ever return to basketball? It is a mystery that those around her continue to ponder — a chorus of voices, some disappointed, each as curious and speculative as any fan would be.

“I don’t think she’s coming back,” Auriemma says. “I have no knowledge of that. I’m just guessing. I think about this myself too. I think about, like, Bjorn Borg was the best tennis player in the world. He goes, ‘I need a month off.’ One month turned into, like, 20 years.”

“I hope so, I really do,” Whalen says. “She’s one of my favorite players ever. I’m just a fan of women’s basketball and a fan of elite-level athletes. But I mean, I can’t call it either way, to be honest.”

“Oh man, I don’t know,” says former UConn teammate Kelly Faris. “As much as I want to know, I try to leave that out of the conversation because I know at some point that’s not an easy thing for her to decide.”

“I miss her,” says DePaul coach and Team USA assistant Doug Bruno. “I miss her as a fan getting to watch her play.”

“I think that she’s retired,” says Las Vegas Aces forward Angel McCoughtry. “She gave so much at such a young age, and we just pulled from Maya. We took from her. Do I wish she would come back? Hell yeah. I miss Maya Moore.”

“Maybe she’ll move on to somebody else’s trial; maybe she’ll continue to pursue criminal justice for all and not because it’s this thing that is personal,” Brunson says. “I’m sure she has a lot to offer the game if she wanted to come back to it. The fans would love to see her come back and play again. But who knows?”

“For you, as a viewer, you want to enjoy her,” says former Lynx and USA Basketball teammate Asjha Jones. “But what if that’s not what she’s interested in anymore?”

In the days following the March verdict, Moore offered comments about the motivations for her continued support of Jonathan Irons. “Even though we are very excited and grateful, we are also frustrated because Jonathan is still not a free man,” Moore said on a media call the day after the ruling.

But she offered little clarity regarding her future.

“I have just been trying to take it one season at a time, one day at a time,” Moore said. “This is a real-life situation. It’s not a cause to me as much as it is a real person’s story. I definitely see myself having purpose in this criminal justice space because, unfortunately, there’s so much work to be done.

“When next spring rolls around, I’ll be willing to discuss what the future will look like,” she added. “I understand the desire to know what’s going to happen next, but all I can really say right now is what this year is going to look like.”

THIRTY MINUTES AFTER Green hands down his ruling in Jefferson City in March, Moore huddles with her family and Irons’ lawyers in a meeting room on the second floor of the public library, two doors down from the courthouse. The rain pours outside, and the library is the only refuge available.

Moore opens the door to a wood-paneled room. Even now, she is strategizing. There is no champagne or celebratory cake. She might have felt joy in the courthouse, but as long as Irons remains in prison, that emotion is fleeting. When a visitor asks Moore what Scripture has been guiding her throughout her advocacy of Jonathan Irons, she takes a deep breath and furrows her brow.

“God says: Mankind, God has given you one thing to do,” she says, leaning against the frame of the door. “Seek justice, love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God. That’s what I’ve been trying to do.”

And with that, Maya Moore nods her head, closing the heavy door behind her.

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