As Jonathan Irons walked out of the Jefferson City Correctional Center on Wednesday evening, Maya Moore felt overwhelmed.
For Irons, 40, these were his first steps outside of the Missouri state maximum-security prison in 23 years. His first breaths outside the prison as an adult.
For Moore, 31, this was the moment she had waited for years to materialize — one she sacrificed her WNBA career for.
As the two embraced, Moore had a question for the man she had known since she was 18.
“How does it feel?” she asked.
“Life,” said Irons, wearing a cloth mask with the word “hope” on it around his neck. “I feel like I can live life now.
In 2019, Moore, at the peak of her career and the top of the sport, decided to leave the WNBA to focus on freeing Irons, who had been sentenced to 50 years in a Missouri state prison after being convicted of burglary and assault at the age of 16. He wouldn’t have been eligible for parole for another 20 years. Taking on this task would come with no guarantees of success for Moore.
But in March, Irons and Moore received their long-awaited breakthrough. A Missouri judge vacated Irons’ 1998 conviction. And after a string of failed appeals and the Supreme Court refusing to take the case, the lead prosecutor in St. Charles County, Missouri, declined a retrial for Irons.
They had won.
“This journey was deep,” Moore said in a telephone conference Thursday morning. “We were invested. Jonathan was invested. It was a deep-rooted experience.
“If you’re not committed to being deeply committed and invested over time, it’s not how legacies are made. Legacies are made and held by deep, over-time commitments to people.”
As an unprecedented movement has overcome the country in response to the killings of Black Americans such as George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, athletes have been forced to grapple with social injustice and the lengths they’re willing to go to advocate for change.
Players have protested in the streets, advocated on social media and challenged once silent power structures to aid in their fight.
But another option has also gained traction: The option to sit out.
Historically, only a select few have taken this path, but today it’s become a considerable tool for athletes to use their platforms in the midst of a pandemic and social unrest. And as players across sports weigh the pros and cons of placing their already short careers on hold, they can now look to Moore.
By not playing, Moore accomplished something greater than helping a city win a championship: She helped a man win his freedom.
“This is the epitome of using your platform,” said Minnesota Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve in March, shortly after the conviction of Irons had been overturned. “She’s not dribbling up the court, not making a move, but the way she’s given of herself is the same way she gave as a teammate, as a professional to her craft, that is really just who Maya is. If Maya is doing it, it’s going to be excellent.”
“Doesn’t matter which team she plays on,” Reeve added, “she gives that team a chance to win.”
Reeve, who had been Moore’s coach on the Lynx since Moore was the overall No. 1 pick in the 2011 draft. has been present since the beginnings of Moore’s leadership on the topic of racial justice. In July 2016, in response to the shooting deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile as well as members of the Dallas Police Department, Reeve helped facilitate a demonstration by her players. During a news conference before a game against the Dallas Wings, the Lynx’s four captains, including Moore, wore shirts that read, “Change starts with us. Justice & Accountability” on the front. Castile, Sterling and the Dallas police insignia were listed on the back, along with “Black Lives Matter.”
Reeve said Moore felt strongly and was very thoughtful during the construction of the 2016 demonstration. But the longtime coach said she was surprised when Moore put her basketball career on hold two years later.
“It wasn’t necessarily something that I understood to be as big as it became,” Reeve said. “I don’t know at what point that it became as big as it did that she would want to sacrifice a part of her career for it.”
To understand the magnitude of what Moore has accomplished in 2020 requires both the framework and an appreciation of what she left behind on the basketball court.
By the age of 29, Moore had won four WNBA championships, a Finals MVP, league MVP, was a six-time All-Star, won two Olympic and FIBA World Championship gold medals, two Euroleague titles and international team championships in Spain and China. All of this following a collegiate career that included two NCAA championships, three Wade Trophies and being named a two-time Naismith Player of the Year.
So when Moore announced last February that she would sit out the 2019 WNBA season, it froze the entire sport. Moore was synonymous with women’s basketball, on track to cement her place as the greatest champion the sport has ever seen.
Reeve characterized Moore’s exit at the peak of her career to the likes of Barry Sanders or Sandy Koufax.
“It’s not something I had ever dealt with or watched someone else deal with in my 30-plus years of coaching,” Reeve said.
American sociologist and civil rights activist Harry Edwards states it plainly. When history reflects on the sacrifice Moore made during her career and the impact she made off the court, he said, Moore should be mentioned among the greatest athlete-activist figures of all time.
“What Maya is doing is in the tradition of Muhammad Ali,” said Edwards in March. “What Maya is doing is in traveling a path that Colin Kaepernick traveled.”
History reflects a narrative that has underrecognized the contribution of female athletes and their activism. While many remember the pregame actions taken by the St. Louis Rams to show solidarity with protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, fewer know of the actions of Knox College women’s basketball’s Ariyana Smith, who was the first athlete to demonstrate during the Black Lives Matter movement. While many remember the demonstrations of NFL teams kneeling during the anthem in 2017, fewer will recall the first time an entire team knelt for the anthem: the Indiana Fever in 2016.
Edwards laid the root of the issue on society’s failure to equate women’s sports with men’s sports. The lack of respect for female athletes has resulted in their legacies being much more quickly set aside.
“Women have always been marginalized. There’s always been a reluctance to accredit women as athletes,” Edwards said. “The challenge that Maya poses is not just one of social justice … it’s do you understand the magnitude of my sacrifice? Because that too is part of the struggle for justice and equality in American society, and she poses that. Until women’s sports is publicly held in the same regard as men’s and Moore is viewed as one of the best basketball players ever, irrespective of gender, the magnitude of Moore’s legacy can’t be fully contextualized, and thus, adequately understood.
“What Ali gave up made the magnitude of his commitment even greater. What Curt Flood gave up made the magnitude of that commitment even greater. Because not only were they doing it on principle … but they walked away from so much to do it,” Edwards said. “Until we understand and appreciate women’s sports, then that aspect of Maya’s contribution is going to be minimized.”
Whether or not Moore’s legacy will permeate the narrative of sports’ greatest athlete activists, her impact and the lane she created has already inspired the next group of change-makers. This WNBA season, three players have joined Moore in opting out to fight for social justice – Natasha Cloud of the 2019 WNBA champion Washington Mystics and Tiffany Hayes and Renee Montgomery of the Atlanta Dream.
“I always make sure to tell people she’s a trailblazer,” Montgomery said. “Everybody gets why I do it now. She did it two years ago. I’m getting a lot of media attention for what I’m doing; they did it before it was cool, before it was understood.”
Cloud, who herself has used her platform to advocate for solutions to gun violence in the Washington metro area and social justice nationally, feels nothing but pride for Moore and what she’s accomplished off the court.
“To be the face of women’s basketball not only here in the States but everywhere worldwide … to step away from the game and from something that is all about you. To be selfless and do something that is bigger than yourself and for just the love of other people and understanding – it’s a testament to who she is as a person.”
On Thursday, Moore said that while she has been able to get some rest away from the court, she believes her family needs to enter into a new season of rest after the long fight for Irons’ freedom. She said she plans to sit out this WNBA season, as expected, and added that she’s been inspired by the wave of athletes who have also dedicated part of their careers to making a tangible difference in their communities.
“Seeing athletes looking inside of themselves saying, ‘What can I do to empower someone else,’ is amazing,” Moore said. “I’m pumped that people are understanding where the real change lies as far as giving something up.”