It’s not often you see a player step away from the game when they’re in their prime. Maya Moore knew she had a chance to bag a fifth championship, hit more buzzer-beaters, or participate in countless All-Star appearances, but she took a step back and decided to put her career on hold–for the greater good.
Moore is a player known for always stepping up in big moments and putting up numbers similar to the all-time greats. She took the WNBA by storm then gracefully left it behind.
It’s hard to pinpoint when Moore’s path to greatness really began because I’m sure it was something she’s always had. Even her college coach Geno Auriemma said via ESPN: “Maya always had this presence that maybe she was born with. Your eyes were always drawn to her."
Taking it back to her days at the University of Connecticut, Moore took the collegiate scene for a wild ride. She steered the Huskies to the Final Four in 2008 and 2011, jumped up to secure the 2009 and 2010 NCAA titles, and won four Big East Conference Tournament championships and four Big East Regular Season crowns.
Did I forget to mention that she and her team also had a perfect 90-0 streak that spanned three seasons? Yeah, that happened.
With all her college success, it was no surprise that a WNBA takeover was bound to happen. Moore won Rookie of the Year and quickly became one of the WNBA’s most recognizable stars. She won four championships with the Minnesota Lynx, both a regular season MVP and Finals MVP, and if that wasn’t impressive enough, she also won two Olympic gold medals–no big deal.
Yet, in the face of all this success, at the peak of her career, she decided to leave the WNBA to accomplish something much greater than a championship.
She announced she was sitting out the 2019 WNBA season through a Player’s Tribune article. “My focus in 2019 will not be on professional basketball, but will instead be 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.
As an avid Maya Moore basketball fan, it was heartbreaking to hear.
However, if you look at the bigger picture, it was truly so inspiring. To witness one of the greatest champions the sport has ever seen make a sacrifice of that caliber, you begin to realize how much more there is to being an athlete. She walked away from so much and was willing to never step on the court again, because she believed that fighting for criminal justice reform mattered more.
In 2020, Jonathan Irons, Moore’s family friend and now husband, was released from the Missouri penitentiary after being wrongfully convicted on burglary and assault charges that left him with a 50-year sentence.
Moore recognized that Irons was a victim of the faulty justice system and quickly sprang into action. She made it her own mission to use her platform to clear Irons’ name and fight for his freedom. She, along with her family, worked to find the best resources to handle his final appeal, which ultimately led to his release.
“The headline has been centered around the courage it took for me to step away from the game of basketball,” she said upon accepting her 2021 ESPYS Arthur Ashe Courage Award. “I’d say my courage has not been in me not playing, but in the emotional, mental, and spiritual outpouring into love and fighting against injustice.”
Moore’s contribution to the world of sports activism came long before it was the “popular” thing to do. She didn’t boast about her work or make the whole thing a media spectacle. She simply sat and did the work in silence, until she felt ready to bring her cause to the eyes of the public.
Moore knew that what she was doing was meaningful and bringing it to the forefront meant getting people involved. She commanded the system’s attention, she knew what she wanted to happen, and now she continues to advocate for her new-found purpose.
The significance of Moore’s contributions can never fully be understood. At least, not until women’s sports is placed publicly on the same pedestal as men’s sports. I love women’s sports, and Maya Moore is a big reason for that. She inspires generations of athletes to chase greatness, but she also reminds us of the power in sacrificing.
Moore’s strength to step away from the game at her peak meant so much more than the strength she possessed when she was an unstoppable force on the court. And given her basketball legacy that remains secure whether or not she decides to return to the sport, that’s saying a lot.