Four-time WNBA champion Maya Moore is skipping a second straight season of professional basketball, plus the 2020 Olympics, in favor of her interest in criminal justice reform and, in particular, her efforts to help free a man from prison.
That man, Jonathan Irons, has been behind bars since 1997, when he was arrested at age 16 in connection with a nonfatal shooting of a homeowner during a burglary. According to Moore, Irons was wrongfully convicted as a result of prosecutorial misconduct, and she has played a major role in having his case reopened.
In revealing her intention to sit out another year of basketball, Moore told The New York Times, “I’m in a really good place right now with my life, and I don’t want to change anything. Basketball has not been foremost in my mind. I’ve been able to rest, and connect with people around me, actually be in their presence after all of these years on the road.”
“And,” she added in comments published Wednesday, “I’ve been able to be there for Jonathan.”
Moore’s decision last year to step away from a sport in which she became one of the all-time greats by age 29 sent shock waves through the WNBA. It also lessened the dominance of the Lynx, who won league titles in 2011 – the year they drafted her first overall out of UConn – and in 2013, 2015 and 2017, but who have lost in the first round of the past two postseasons.
“Over the last year we have been in frequent contact with Maya around the great work in criminal justice reform and ministry in which she is fully engaged,” Lynx Coach and General Manager Cheryl Reeve said in a statement Wednesday. “We are proud of the ways that Maya is advocating for justice and using her platform to impact social change.”
Moore, 30, first met Irons in 2007 (per the Times), when she was finishing a highly decorated high school career and he was a decade into a 50-year sentence related to the St. Louis-area burglary. A native of Jefferson City, Missouri, she has grown close to Irons and has reportedly helped pay for his defense team.
Moore also started last year a social action campaign, Win With Justice, and a petition at change.org demanding a “fair trial” for Irons, who was reportedly convicted by an all-white jury after a public defender at the time discouraged Irons from taking the stand to proclaim his innocence.
Irons was sent to prison, the petition states, even though “no DNA evidence, fingerprints, physical evidence, or footprint evidence collected ever linked Jonathan to the crime.” At a hearing in October (via missourinet.com), an expert witness for the defense testified that photo bias and police tactics of suggestion played roles in Irons getting picked out by the victim.
An unidentified fingerprint found in the victim’s home that was not revealed during Irons’s first trial was also introduced at the October hearing, and the Cole County (Mo.) circuit judge in the case subsequently ordered state police to check it against a database. Moore and Irons’s defense team hope that the results of that inquiry help exonerate him.
“He is so close to getting his freedom,” Moore said in December (via missourinet.com). “We were able to present an overwhelming amount of facts about his case two months ago. He’s just somebody that should be so bitter and angry and just hopeless.
“He is a light – and just very inspiring to me, my family and just his perseverance and not giving up the hope of the truth coming out around his case.”
Moore told the Times that another factor in her decision to sit out a second year of basketball was a continued respite from the year-round grind she had been on since emerging in her teens as a top-notch player. Many in the WNBA augment their incomes by spending the offseason competing in foreign leagues, often for higher salaries, and Moore has also had extensive experience with Team USA, including Olympic gold medals in 2012 and 2016 and world championships in 2010 and 2014.
“We are going to miss Maya tremendously, but we also respect her decision,” U.S. women’s national team director Carol Callan said (via the Times). “A player of Maya’s ability does not walk away from the gym lightly. Everyone feels it. The thing that makes her so special is her approach, her dedication, which has always been contagious for our team.”
Moore’s decision to focus on criminal justice initiatives does not necessarily mean she is ready to close the door completely on her athletic career.
“Retirement is something that is a big deal and there is a right way to do it well,” she told the Times, “and this is not the time for me.”