Maya Moore legacy extends far beyond basketball court

THE LAST TIME I saw Maya Moore face-to-face, she was retreating behind a closing door in Jefferson City, Missouri, on March 9, 2020. It was a cold, rainy day, but the dreary weather could not drown out the joy in the courthouse. This was the day Moore had prayed for. This was the day she’d worked for since the ball stopped bouncing in her superstar basketball career some 18 months earlier. This was the day.

Jonathan Irons’ conviction for burglary and assault had just been vacated after he’d been in prison for more than two decades. It would be another four months before he’d walk out a free man, but on this day, the victory was exalting.

Moore had gathered with her family and Irons’ legal team in the library next to the courthouse. I stepped out to make a call and left my notebook in the room. When I went back to get it, the door was locked. Moore opened the door, looking at me expectantly because I was interrupting a meeting. After telling her I left my notebook, she handed it to me.

“You can ask me another question,” she said.

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I had so many questions. What was it like the first time she met Jonathan when she visited him in prison before her freshman year at UConn? Was Irons on her mind when she and the Lynx spoke out against police brutality in 2016? Would she ever play basketball again?

Instead, I asked her about Scripture. What Scripture had guided her on this quest?

Her response was a verse from the Old Testament: Micah 6:8.

“God says: Mankind, God has given you one thing to do,” she said, 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.”

The heavy wooden door thudded closed as she went back into the room to continue her work. I often wondered if that door would open again. If — now that she was victorious in the court of law — she would return to the basketball court.

On Monday morning, nearly three years later, the 33-year-old Moore announced on “Good Morning America” that she was officially retired.

“I think it’s time to put a close on the pro basketball career,” she said. “This is such a sweet time for us and our family. The work we’ve done, I want to continue that in our next chapter.”

Her legacy off the court may continue to evolve, but the door to her playing career was permanently closed, her legacy on the court complete.

In her eight seasons in the WNBA, Maya Moore won four championships, was named an All-Star six times and league MVP once. Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

IT’S HARD TO QUANTIFY Moore’s on-court greatness, but it starts with the hardware. She won at every level, and most of the time in dominant fashion: three high school state championships, two NCAA championships, four WNBA championships, two Olympic gold medals, two Euroleague championships, five All-WNBA first-team selections, WNBA MVP and so on.

UConn coach Geno Auriemma knew Moore was special when he first watched her play as a ninth grader. “There was just this way she carried herself and you just always noticed her on the court,” Auriemma said to ESPN in 2020. “Your eyes were always drawn to her.”

At UConn, Moore was a four-time All-American as well as two-time national champion. She won the Wade Trophy three times, was the Naismith Player of the Year twice and was a two-time winner of the Wooden Award.

“There’s a lot of different ways to be the most impactful and there’s a lot of different ways to lead,” Auriemma said to ESPN in 2020. “Some people just take their sword out and say, ‘Follow me.’ Maya’s just Joan of Arc, man, just take the sword out. ‘I’m going, let’s go.’ Maya is the ultimate warrior.”

Moore was captivating with the ball in her hands. She was a threat to score from anywhere. She could hit a trail 3-point shot, pull up from midrange with a hand in her face and finish at the rim. And she did all of it with flair. One-legged post fadeaways, kicking out her leg on a fadeaway from the elbow, a silky flick of the wrist for a finger-roll finish.

Watch a few Maya Moore highlight reels and it becomes apparent why she was the first woman who signed with Jordan Brand. She wore No. 23, so that fit too.

Although she played only eight seasons in the WNBA, Moore was one of the league’s all-time best players. After being drafted first overall by the Minnesota Lynx in 2011, she won four championships. She was the 2014 WNBA MVP and was a first team all-WNBA selection in five of her eight seasons, an All-Star in six. She scored 4,984 career points and averaged 18.4 PPG.

“Watching her win four WNBA championships in the Barn and Target Center 15 minutes away from where I lived growing up was the most amazing thing,” UConn junior Paige Bueckers said in a statement. “As a young kid, I aspired to fill her shoes someday. But even more than that, the impact she has made off the court is the reason why she is one of the GOATs in my eyes. She is one of one. There will never be another Maya.”

“When we say Maya is a winner, you do winning things,” Cheryl Reeve said to ESPN in a 2020 interview. “Winning things would be attention to detail, a drive to always improve, and, in my view, humility. I think humility is what helps you be great. You have a confidence, certainly have an ego, but you understand how much you need people around you. And that was very much Maya.”

Walk humbly with God.

Moore’s legacy won’t just be confined to her prolific basketball performances. The off-court work for which she left basketball has come to define her legacy in equal parts. That story is one of love, faith and justice.

ON FEB. 5, 2019, just three months before her ninth WNBA season was about to begin, Moore announced that she was taking some time away from basketball 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,” she wrote in The Players’ Tribune.

At the time, little was known about what Moore would be doing during her time away from the game. What she chose to do was fight to free a man she felt was wrongfully convicted, a man she would later marry and with whom she’d start a family: Jonathan Irons.

Irons was convicted in 1998 of burglary and assault and was sentenced to 50 years in prison. He was 18 years old at the time. There was no physical evidence tying him to the crime — no fingerprints or DNA. He’d maintained his innocence since he went to prison. While there, he met Moore’s great uncle. Through him and her godparents, Moore met Irons and learned of the circumstances of his conviction.

For years, Moore and her family had largely kept this struggle private. Irons wasn’t someone Moore talked about publicly until after she stopped playing basketball. In the summer of 2016, when the Minnesota Lynx protested police brutality following the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, it was Moore’s first public foray into activism, but Moore kept her family’s ongoing advocacy for Irons private. But then, in the summer of 2018, when Minneapolis hosted the WNBA All-Star Game, Moore held a private event to discuss prosecutorial reform. A handful of months later, she announced that she would pause her career.

Over the course of 2019 and 2020, Moore fought to have Irons released from prison. She diligently traveled from her home in Atlanta to Jefferson City — her childhood hometown — for hearings every few months. After the March 2020 ruling that vacated his conviction, Irons walked out of prison as a free man in July. He and Moore were married later that year and welcomed their first child, Jonathan Hughston Irons Jr., in February 2022.

“She should be celebrated in the highest regard and is someone who will go down in history as one of the greatest — if not the greatest — players to ever play the game,” Chicago Sky head coach and former Minnesota Lynx assistant coach James Wade said in a statement. “But you know her life was meant to be more than about basketball. The stuff she has accomplished off the court is probably going to be more profound and more meaningful than the stuff she accomplished on it.”

“It’s great that Maya was able to walk away on her own terms at the top of her game while she was still a champion,” Auriemma said in a statement. “She decided that winning championships off the court was more fulfilling than the championships she won on the court. I have no doubt in my mind that the success she had in high school, in college, in the pros, in the Olympics, have prepared her for even greater success for her, for her family and the community that she’s a part of. I’m really proud of her for making this decision.”

Faith is an important part of Moore’s life, and she says Micah 6:8 continues to be a vivid touchstone for her, a reminder of what God has called her to do. “It’s a reminder for me of like, ‘Child, don’t lose sight of my heart,'” she said Monday at a news conference. “It just keeps me grounded. It keeps me trying to remember what the main thing is. That makes me slow down, makes me humble myself and give my energy to the things that matter most.”

What Moore will do next is an open question. She has a nonprofit, Win With Justice, and has advocated for voter participation. Prosecutorial reform continues to be an issue close to her heart. As she closes the door on her professional career and takes her place among the pantheon of basketball greats, her legacy is clear: seeking justice, loving mercy and walking humbly.

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