From UConn to the Lynx and beyond, chances are you have heard of Maya Moore. Whether you were first introduced to her during her outstanding college career or her dominant WNBA championship runs, there is no doubt Moore deserves to be in the GOAT discussion for her brilliant career on the basketball court.
She is a two-time NCAA national champion, a four-time WNBA champion, a former league MVP and finals MVP, and has earned two Olympic gold medals representing Team USA. While these are just tiny drops in the vast bucket of Moore’s accomplishments, some of her most outstanding achievements did not come on the court. Add criminal justice reformer and social justice activist to the top of the list.
We have not seen Moore play since 2018, yet these last two years may have been the most productive of her career. Even in her absence, she continues to make waves through the WNBA and beyond. This is why Moore is our Athlete of the Year for 2020.
Maya Moore walked away at her peak athletic power
Healthy, 29-years-old, and one of the faces of the WNBA, Moore decided to walk away from basketball in February of 2018. She announced her decision in the Players Tribune saying, “The success that I’ve been a part of in basketball truly blows my mind every time I think about it. But the main way I measure success in life is something I don’t often get to emphasize explicitly through pro ball. I measure success by asking, ‘Am I living out my purpose?’”
Clearly, there would always be more to Maya than just basketball, but she was already so accomplished. She only lost four times during her college career as a Husky. Yes, only four. In 2011, the Minnesota Lynx drafted her at No. 1 where she help the Lynx to one of four WNBA championships, and gain individual honors along the way. Moore and the Lynx won in 2011, 2013, 2015 and 2017. Clearly, there was a trend. Every other year the Lynx would win a championship and many were waiting to see history repeat itself until we found out that she had opted out of the 2019 season.
With a resume like hers, many were wondering what ministry dream or passion project could pull her away from the game. What purpose was she talking about?
Maya Moore’s role in Jonathan Irons’ case
In 2007, just before heading to UConn to begin her remarkable college career, Moore met the man behind her 2019 season sabbatical, Jonathan Irons. Her family’s involvement in a prison ministry brought her to Jefferson City Correctional Center in Missouri, where she found herself in Irons’ presence as he shared his story.
The crime that put Irons behind bars took place when he was 16. He was tried as an adult due to an earlier misdemeanor, convicted two years later by an all-white jury, and at the age of 18, his 50-year sentence for burglary and assault with a gun commenced. The evidence to support Irons’s conviction was weak. No fingerprints, blood evidence, DNA, witnesses, or weapons tied Irons to the crime, and that was the turning point for Moore.
Moore’s activism in the social justice space became visible to the public in 2016, three years before her hiatus, when she first mentioned her friendship with Irons. It was then that she began to outwardly tackle issues involving the legal system and law enforcement, particularly pertaining to black men. At the time, many players advocated for change but never made a move as bold as forgoing the season to tackle those issues.
Though we did not know what her time away from basketball would entail at the beginning of her sabbatical, we slowly learned that Moore was hard at work changing the narrative of Irons’ life. She used much of her time to aid Irons in his court appeal and played a crucial role in raising awareness for his case and cases like his. Her work helped hire the defense attorney, Kent Gipson, that would ultimately handle Irons’ case. With all the progress taking place, Moore announced that she would forgo another season in January 2020. It was heartbreak for fans of women’s basketball, and yet we still did not know the magnitude of what she was doing while away from the game.
It was not until March 2020 when Irons’ conviction was overturned that many began to realize the gravity of what Moore had done. As Moore’s work off the court was finally starting to receive the recognition it deserves, the story of her relationship with Irons took a new turn. In September 2020, Moore announced on Good Morning America that she and Irons had married shortly after his release.
Moore had done so much more than just talk about the issues. She is an advocate in the truest sense of the word. Irons’ freedom is the ultimate example.
Maya Moore blazing a trail for activism in the WNBA
That brings us to December 2020. The WNBA season ended in October, with the Seattle Storm winning their second title in three years. Minnesota made another exit during the playoffs and many of us wondered if we will ever see Moore on the court again. While we do not know when or if she will return, it is evident that even in her absence she has impacted the WNBA and beyond.
WNBA players used their spotlight to speak about causes and social issues that matter to them all throughout 2020. It’s clear that Moore’s activism has influenced the entire league.
Renee Montgomery, another former UConn Husky, two-time WNBA champion, and a Sixth Woman of the Year award winner, decided to opt-out of the 2020 season to pursue racial and social justice issues. Since then, she has expanded her foundation, worked to eliminate voter suppression in Georgia, partnered with LeBron James’ More Than A Vote campaign ahead of the 2020 election, and worked to raise money for HBCUs to better their programming.
Natasha Cloud, Washington Mystics guard, also opted out to raise awareness of social justice issues. From the Black Lives Matter march in Philadelphia to the Juneteenth protests in DC, she put actions behind her words. Cloud also teamed up with Red Bull and Converse for an election-themed t-shirt to raise awareness and benefit the When We All Vote nonprofit.
While neither Cloud nor Montgomery have explicitly said it, Moore walking away from the sport to pursue social justice issues helped blaze the trail for activism around the league.
Maya Moore is so many things: a historic basketball talent, an activist, an example for others, and most definitely our Athlete of the Year.