Extraordinary Woman, Extraordinary Times

Here’s a great story to brighten your day and bend your attention away from That Other Thing that’s on our minds.

Suppose you were Michael Jordan or Tom Brady, the greatest player of a sport in your generation, in the middle of your statistics-blowing career, on your way to winning the Nth of your many championships–and you just decided to take a few years off to help the world? Nuts? Unheard of? No one would do that?

Maya Moore did it.

Maya Moore, as a freshman, in the Boston Globe, photo by Bob Child.

What Makes a Legend

In college, Maya Moore was such an annoying player!–for everyone who wasn’t a UConn fan. Even when she was a freshman, the Boston Globe was suggesting she could be “the best female player ever,” as she began to amass statistics and wipe out opponents. The coach was comparing her to Derek Jeter, and he wasn’t wrong. Moore was always where the ball was, on offense and defense, until opposing coaches would just throw up their hands. She helped lead Connecticut to two back-to-back national championships, a 90-game winning streak, and an overall record of 150-4 in her college career.

I was a fan of northern California teams that she beat and would cringe every time I heard her name. Which was every twenty seconds. When you watched her play, she seemed to be on another level from everybody else. Hold that thought.

Moore was selected as the first pick in the WNBA’s 2011 draft for the Minnesota Lynx. Minnesota then won four championships (2011, 2013, 2015, 2017), while Moore took home League and Finals MVP awards to add to her crowded trophy shelf. Add two Olympic gold medals to that from London and Rio (2012, 2016).

Not content to sit around in the off-season, Moore also helped win the Spanish league title, the EuroLeague title, and the Chinese League title in years between 2012 and 2015. She played for the Shanxi Flame, and her nickname was “Invincible Queen” (不败女王) (Thanks, Wikipedia). I’m happy just thinking that there is a Women’s Chinese Basketball Association. Their games at the moment are postponed.

Maya Moore from her Instragam account, shortly after announcing her 2019 time-off

Taking a True Sabbatical from Basketball

The Lynx lost their bid for a fifth championship in the 2018 season, succumbing to their perennial rivals, the Los Angeles Sparks, in a rare first-round playoff defeat. Moore spoke of fatigue, but perhaps she had other things on her mind. In February of 2019, at 29 years old, she announced that she was taking time away from basketball for the first time in decades.

Michael Jordan, rather famously, stepped away after the Bull’s first three-peat. At the time, it was considered both crazy and understandable. Must be boring to feel like there’s no competition. He tried out for the Chicago White Sox and was talented enough at sport to hit a few home runs in the minor leagues. He played some golf. Ultimately, he returned to the Bulls after two years to lead them to another three straight championships.

Marshawn Lynch retired and returned twice, just this past December going from tailgate parties in the Oakland Raiders parking lot to dragging defenders with him in a Seahawks uniform racking up yards in the playoffs. Athletes who start young and grind through the accolades of high school and pressure of college are prematurely old by the time they play as professionals. Needing time to rest is understandable.

But none of that rest time involved quitting primarily to help people. Maya Moore quit basketball to focus on advocacy for the criminal justice system.

A Case that Would Break Your Heart

Jonathan Irons was a 16-year-old, accused of breaking into Stanley Stotler’s Missouri’s home. A gun was fired during the burglary and Stotler was wounded, badly although not fatally. During the trial, fingerprint evidence was presented that implied Irons might have been there; evidence that ruled out that they weren’t Irons’ fingerprints was omitted. There was an allegation that Irons had confessed, which he denied. The detective who heard the confession was sick and didn’t actually testify.

It was Missouri 1997, and we were all in a Tough on Crime Mood. The evidence was flimsy and not presented fairly. However, the jury was all-white, and the defendant young, black, and ready to be made an example of. He was convicted and received a 50-year sentence, at 18 years old. (Anyone notice that serial rapist’s Harvey Weinstein’s “harsh” sentence was still only 23 years?)

Maya Moore’s family had a history of ministry and involvement in prison criminal justice. She had heard about his case from family members and was struck by the unfairness, the gap between harsh sentence and lack of damning evidence. Perhaps, knowing about his situation and others like it, she felt that somebody ought to do something. Perhaps she rightly believed that her name and money, added to work already underway, would bring in more. It helped.

Jonathan Irons, photo by Nina Robinson,

A Little Trickle of Justice

This past Tuesday, Jonathan Iron’s conviction was overturned by a Missouri state judge. His guilty plea was vacated, and Irons was ordered to be released from prison. This may not be the end, as the state can decide to retry him, should it believe there is still sufficient evidence to make a better case. That does seem like an uphill battle, given the thinness of the information in the first go-round. However, plenty of Internet trolls are chiming in with legal “expertise” that Irons was/is a bad apple and must have done something wrong. So there’s that.

To be sure, Moore wasn’t solely responsible for Irons’ release, nor was she the only person or even the only athlete to pick up a higher calling. Other athletes have retired and become ministers or created foundations. Bill Gates, after all, took his gazillion dollars from Microsoft and started working to defeat malaria, and the Gates Foundation, even now, is front and center of efforts to provide coronavirus home test kits, soon to be available at a CVS near you.

Still, I can’t remember another case where an athlete left in the prime of one of the greatest careers in the sport for the primary purpose of doing the world some good, and then doing it. Moore had already let the Lynx know in January of this year that she was also skipping this season. She said she wanted to give the team time to make player adjustments. There may be also a lot of other cases that need help. I hope she finds, at least for a few more years, that she can take a sabbatical from saving the world to play a little more basketball before her body tells her she can’t. At the very least, back for the Shanxi Flames.

As I said, she seemed to be on another level above everybody else.

Maya Moore, photo in TIME

Moore was asked by TIME magazine prior to Irons’ hearing this week if she could visualize what it would be like if he is finally released:

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.

Maya Moore in TIME Magazine, March 5, 2020

As we know, all good things ought to end with cake.

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