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Maya Moore Was One of the WNBA’s Biggest Stars. Then She Stepped Away to Fight for Justice

17 minute read

When Maya Moore announced in January that she was once again sitting out a basketball season — and this year, skipping what would be her third appearance in an Olympic Games — in order to keep pursuing a wrongful conviction case in Missouri, her peers expressed admiration. “We are proud of the ways that Maya is advocating for justice and using her platform to impact social change,” said Cheryl Reeve, head coach and general manager of the Minnesota Lynx, the team with which Moore has won four WNBA titles, and the 2014 WNBA MVP award.

The summer after her senior year of high school, Moore first met Jonathan Irons, who is serving a 50-year sentence after he was convicted in 1998 of burglary and assault with a deadly weapon. Moore got to know Irons through her godparents, who are from Jefferson City, Mo. — the city in which Moore was born before she moved to the Atlanta area, where she became a high school star. As Moore dug into the case, she found that no corroborating evidence tied Irons to the crime; the prosecution said Irons confessed to breaking into the victim’s home, but Irons has denied making such a confession. The victim was shot in the head but survived. Irons, who is African-American, was tried as an adult and found guilty by an all-white jury. (A spokesperson for the Missouri Attorney General’s office declined to comment to TIME on the case.)

Moore has taken up Irons’ cause, and the larger issue of criminal justice reform. She’s spent the last year-plus — Moore also stepped away from basketball in 2019 — working with lawyers, attending hearings, and visiting with Irons to offer moral support. Moore is one of the best women’s basketball players of all-time, and among America’s all-time winningest athletes. Besides her WNBA titles, she’s a two-time gold medalist, a two-time NCAA champ at UConn, a two-time EuroLeague champ for pro teams in Spain and Russia, and a three-time title-winner Women’s Chinese Basketball Association (WNBA players, who make far less money than NBA players, often spend their off-season competing overseas to supplement their income).

No basketball player of Moore’s stature has ever willingly taken a sabbatical from the game, in her prime, to advocate for social reform. In fact, Moore’s decision to fight for Irons feels unprecedented in American sports. (Colin Kaepernick, for example, protested social injustice, but has said he wants to play in the NFL). On the eve of a March 9 hearing in Irons’ case, Moore — who’s kept a relatively low profile during her time away from the game, granting few interviews — talked to TIME about criminal justice reform, skipping the Olympics, and how she the hopes to celebrate Irons’ release.

Starting out big picture a bit: why do you think, over the past decade or so, athletes have felt more and more comfortable raising their voice and using their platform to shine a light on issues that the care about?

I think we’re in a technologically advanced time that for is sure overwhelming, but can also embolden people to use their voice. And just having a lot of cultural momentum around using your voice has given people the freedom to feel like they can speak. Culture in general wants to connect ethical issues with consumerism. And we can see that overflowing into something that is consumed so much, which is sports. So I think it’s just kind of a product of our time. But also I think it’s just the fruit of men and women who have gone before, who have helped educate us and appreciate the power that we have. We have so much influence in our culture. We feel so moved and want to use a voice to try to speak to justice and human issues.

Why have you connected with Jonathan on a personal level?

Well, over the years he just became a part of our family. He basically became like a son to my godparents. So it just became a routine, checking in and seeing how he’s doing. Someone who’s been through so much injustice, and the hard upbringing that he had, you would think that he’d be just bitter and violent and angry. That’s just totally the opposite of how he’s carried himself. And so he gave me inspiration, just getting to hear his experiences through phone calls and letters and visits with our family. I just was inspired by the light inside of him.

Why are you 100% convinced that he is innocent?

He was sixteen years old at the time. There was an interrogation that happened without any adult present, there were no interrogation notes that were retained from the time of the interrogation. Those were thrown away.

There were highly unreliable eyewitness testimony practices, eyewitness testimony procedures with no physical evidence, no footprints, DNA, blood. He had alibi witnesses that were never brought to the stand, and there were unidentified fingerprints that didn’t belong to Jonathan or the victim. That was never acknowledged during the trial.

The facts alone are just overwhelming. It’s like something out of a a made-up show, because it just seems unreal how this could have happened.

Jonathan’s character is not what convinced me. It was the facts of the case. The type of person he’d become makes it just that much more devastating to watch the injustice.

What is the biggest problem in our criminal justice system today?

That’s multilayered. I think our criminal justice system has two problems. We have systematic problems and we have people problems. So if the hearts of people are not about justice than any system you have won’t work.

But there’s obviously things that are systematically put in place that bury people in the criminal justice system and make it not redemptive, not restorative. Prosecutorial misconduct is one of the most detrimental problems in our criminal justice system, because prosecutors are essentially the most powerful actors in our justice system because they set the charges, they basically set up the rules of the game. So if your prosecutors are solely focused on getting convictions to build their resume, you’re going to see our justice system break down and you’re going to see innocent people behind bars. Or you’ll see over-sentencing or you’ll see people who are poor or people of color thrown away.

We need everyone in our community. We have too much to offer when we can try to get the best out of every single person. The culture can only be changed when the heart of people can be changed and some of these systematic things can be addressed. Systems are just a reflection of people’s mindsets, so it’s changeable. The more we talk about it the more we can address it.

And what’s the biggest challenge to reforming the system?

Collectively, are we caring about our prosecutors losing their values? Or do we just only vote for the president? Are we investing in our community, in our neighbors that don’t look exactly like us. Or are we so obsessed with being comfortable that we forget about loving our neighbors and seeing our neighbors and forgetting the richness that comes with life and the blessing that comes with life when we live it?

And this is the journey I’ve been on. I’m not really preaching. I’m speaking out of things that I’ve seen on my own.

You’ve said that you’re more exhausted doing criminal justice work than you ever were playing basketball. Why do you think that is?

The type of exhaustion that you experience when you’re facing injustice is more of an emotional exhaustion. Because you’re mourning the evils and the brokenness that you see. And so playing a game is great but there is a surface element to sports because you’re kind of hopping around teams and you’re here and you’re there and you’re in and out. But when you’re invested into something that isn’t going anywhere, like family or people, what they’re going through you’re going through.

It’s just draining when you are trying to communicate the basic message that people matter. Every heartbeat, matters. And not seeing that lived out in our homes, on the street, it’s just hard.

So I just didn’t realize how exhausting that was going to be. I’m hanging in and I’m by no means complaining. I’m just wanting to communicate to people when you love and when you invest it costs. But it’s so worth it.

It’s difficult to think of another all-time great athlete, at his or her peak, voluntarily stepping away from a sport to focus on a social issue they care about. Do you think you decision sends any kind of message?

I hope something that people can take from my decision is that when you want to do something well you have to show up and be present. There are things I haven’t been able to do well personally because I’ve been running so hard after basketball. And so I’ve been able to be present for several of the things that center around family ministry. And I consider prosecutorial reform a part of that ministry and family. That takes a certain amount of mental and emotional capacity. And if I am grinding trying to invest in my craft, in my teammates — because when I’m playing basketball I’m focused on my teammates and the people that I’m around — something’s got to give at some point if I want to continue to do things well without fizzling out.

You’re one or today’s most decorated American athletes, having won titles in the WNBA, college, Olympics, world championships, and in leagues overseas. Have you felt overlooked during this time?

Yes and no. It’s a tough thing to measure, appreciation, gratitude, and acknowledgement, from who, by who. Because there are people who are talked about in our culture who are talked about for ridiculous reasons. And some who aren’t talked about enough, who are out there doing really amazing things.

The marketplace of women in professional sports is a complex, challenging thing. So I tried not to get too frustrated with feeling underappreciated and underacknowledged and underpaid. But at the same time I think it’s always a good thing to give honor to where honor is due. I felt like there was some progress made in that. I appreciated people that acknowledged the success that I had and my teammates had in our craft.

It’s been really actually surprisingly nice for me to see so much encouragement form different people for the things that I’m doing off the court. Because I also don’t want the success of female athletes to be only measured by their athletic achievements. I don’t think that’s really fair to women. I think there’s a different standard for men and women in how you define success. We have equal value, but how that value is measured is different. You know LeBron has some physical abilities that I will never have. But he will never have the potential to birth a human being.

So how are we measuring the amazing value that men and women distinctly bring? So I also don’t get too caught up with just because I’m not being measured with the same standards as LeBron doesn’t mean I’m not valued as a woman, as a person. I feel personally, in the relationships that I have, very acknowledged and valued. But when it comes to the bigger marketplace it’s tricky.

About a week before his passing, Kobe Bryant said that you and some other WNBA players can indeed play in the NBA. Do you agree or disagree?

I think it’s both. I think there’s elements of my game that can be effective. And there’s elements where the physical difference between men and women makes a difference. I took it as love. I’m not trying to at all take that as anything other than Kobe showing his love and wanting to value us.

Are you going to play basketball again?

Well I’m still in my time away and not really talking more about it other than I’m not playing this year. That’s just the best way to leave it. Sometimes you have to, like last year, just kind of sit in that “not knowing tension” of what the next chapter’s going to hold. But I’m comfortable right now just leaving it open for this year.

Do you thrive off that “not knowing tension?”

I definitely don’t thrive of the uncomfortable tension, as someone who’s been so structured my whole life. It’s actually very hard. I walk with the Lord, just trusting day by day and week by week and month by month, what the next season holds and what the best next move for me is.

And so I am a human being who likes answers and predictability. This is not comfortable. But at the same time I know I’m right where I need to be.

You’re skipping the Olympics, which from the outside seems like a lot to give up: they come around only every four years, and athletes work their whole lives to get there. Do you have any fears about missing out?

It’s definitely very, very strange not to be out there with people I’ve been playing with and against for almost a decade. Our 2009-2010 undefeated team from UConn got honored at the exhibition game between USA Basketball and UConn [on January 27], and just seeing my girls play without me for the first time was very strange. I’ve been on the national team since my junior year in college.

It’s strange because you’re just so used to life looking a certain way. But also I’m grateful. I never want to be so caught up in the next thing that I can’t take time to look back and be super, super grateful for the ridiculous opportunities that I’ve had. And to be okay with other players now getting a chance to experience some things this time.

There’s another hearing about the case scheduled for March 9th. What are you most anxious about?

You know, one of the most encouraging things for me is the response of people all around the world. Over a 100,000 people took the time to use their voice [in a change.org petition] to say Jonathan’s life matters. Let the right thing happen.

We spent a whole day in the courtroom back in October going through fact after fact after fact of why this conviction lacks integrity. And then we got to go home and Jonathan went back to a box. We went back to our hotel room just furious. We didn’t know that our justice system worked like this. We just spent a whole day talking about the number of reasons why this conviction lacks integrity, and we can’t really get to a point of doing something about it until March.

So it’s just really, really hard to know this happens. And to know if Jonathan and our family never connected that he would be fighting on his own without a team of help.

If this were a typical pre-Olympic story, I might ask you if you’ve visualized yourself on the gold medal stand. What would you be thinking in that moment? In that vein, have you thought about what the moment of Jonathan’s release may feel like? Have you visualized walking out of the courtroom with him, a free man?

Our family has been dreaming about this day, spanning almost two decades. And honestly, I think the thing that we will want the most is just some peace and quiet and downtime after this long battle. A good meal. The sun needs to shine for a month straight. No rain. Just peace and nothing to run around to do. Kind of like the playoffs. This is game seven and the season’s over and you’re like, what do you want to do? I just want to rest. And not have anybody tell me where I need to be or what I need to do. Just enjoy each other and nothing else. Breathe for a little while.

But for sure there’s going to be cake involved. Red velvet is a favorite of mine. I might have to go just old school and what most of us grew up on was that yellow cake with chocolate icing. If you do it right, that is a staple of celebration.

If the outcome were to go the other way, would all the time you’ve put into it this fight, the suspension of your athletic career, still have been worth it?

Well, that’s a very important question. I’m more human now than I was ten years ago. I think we are more of who we were created to be when we do things like this.

We can live shallow, superficial, materialistic lives very easily in our country, in our day and age. I don’t think anybody that really invests into one’s life will say that it wasn’t worth it.

You just see so much beauty in things that you just wouldn’t have ever thought that you’d see, despite the ugliness of the situation. There are so many people that have been inspired and blessed and felt loved and seen by what I’ve done, by what my family’s done. One of Jonathan’s good friends, that he’s officially grown up with in there with, was just talking to us around Jonathan’s birthday last month; he was just telling us about how the love that he’s been able to receive from our family spread into the prison and just other guys.

It’s just so much bigger than just me. You don’t want to think about, you know, injustice continuing after March 9th. But it is definitely worth it. And I definitely feel like a different person than I was as an eighteen-year-old before I started getting involved in Jonathan’s story. He’s blessed so many of us. For all the things that we’ve given to him he’s given much more to us. So it’s quite amazing. I had no idea a decade ago that I’d be sitting here right now in the middle of this amazing story. So we’re hopeful and we’re going to stay hopeful.


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Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com