Maya Moore was the consummate small forward, and yes, it feels weird saying “was.”
We’re always looking for the perfect basketball player and debating what that means. Moore is on my short list of perfect players that I’ve seen in my lifetime.
On the men’s side, there’s been Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant. On the women’s side, Diana Taurasi is the most lethal scorer I’ve ever seen. Her range and her heart and determination make her probably the greatest women’s player of all-time. But when I think of “perfection” I think of versatility, a trait in women’s basketball that has been highlighted by the three bigs who can do it all: Lauren Jackson, Elena Delle Donne, Breanna Stewart.
Moore had at least one way in which she was better than all of those players. She was of course a better shooter than LeBron, played with more physicality than KD and had MJ and Kobe beat in rebounding, as she leaned more toward being a small forward than they did. Yet she had all the skills of an elite shooting guard to put her ahead of LJ, EDD and Stewie when it came to handling the ball, driving and finishing acrobatically. Plus, she had an athletic build and corresponding athleticism matched only by LeBron.
So, I’m here to remind everyone on Tuesday, after Moore officially announced her retirement on Monday, just how close to perfect she was. I think the general consensus is that she would have put herself in the women’s GOAT conversation had she played the remainder of her prime. But maybe even I didn’t realize until I sat down to write this that she could have become No. 1.
Moore admirably chose a different path, instead getting involved in criminal justice reform and freeing the wrongfully convicted Jonathan Irons, who is now her husband. You can learn all about her new life by checking out her social action campaign, Win With Justice.
Moore inspired me when she gave her speech after accepting the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the 2021 ESPYs. This is my favorite quote from that speech:
"Power is not meant to be gripped with a clenched fist ... power is meant to be handled generously so we can thoughtfully empower one another to thrive in our communities for love's sake, championing our humanity before our ambitions."— Swish Appeal (@SwishAppeal) January 16, 2023
- now retired #WNBA legend Maya Moore
I too will be stepping away from basketball, a sport I started playing in third grade and have coached and have dedicated my professional life to up to this point, in September. I am going back to school to get my Master’s in strategic communication so that I can pursue a career in PR and social media at nonprofits. Right now, I think I want to focus on ending homelessness.
For Moore, that ESPY speech was the culmination of many years spent fighting for social justice. The first question at her retirement press conference came from Howard Megdal of the The Next and was about the night in 2016 when Moore and her Minnesota Lynx teammates wore “Change starts with us” T-shirts in response to the shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling.
"This is a human issue & we need to speak up for change, together." -Maya pic.twitter.com/tyfl65Ag81— Minnesota Lynx (@minnesotalynx) July 9, 2016
“Whenever you pause and you stop something great to say there’s something more important, that gains attention, as it should,” Moore said. “And then that actually ended up leading into my life, getting the courage to say ‘let’s hold on’ and give attention to what matters most, which are people and people thriving and people’s well-being. And our personal story with Jonathan was just at the forefront for me over these last few years in shifting away from the game. So I just hope people take away from that the heartbeat of what we trying to do, which was being more human and more caring and more compassionate and also saying it’s ok to grieve what’s worth grieving.”
Moore’s announcement of retirement comes as no surprise. Her final season in the WNBA was 2018. She was 29 years old then and though she could probably still bring it at 33, she has seemed set on her new path for some time now.
“I think these last four years have been just so focused on what I was doing at home, what I was doing with Jonathan in my community, and also just trying to learn a new rhythm outside of playing, that I didn’t really wrestle with a desire to want to switch that pace up,” she said.
“But it was very hard at times to kind of accept, you know, Lindsay (Whalen) retired, then Seimone (Augustus) retires and Rebekkah (Brunson) and now Syl(via Fowles), and missing my teammates. Because as you guys would watch us over that eight-year stretch, our chemistry was just awesome. I think there’s very few teams that had a core like we did with such good chemistry. ... So I miss that more than anything.
“But I was very focused on just trying to be well, have a good rhythm, having to get more rest and the emotional and mental energy that it took to do all the things that I’ve done these last three years. So I was very full, if that makes sense. Like I was so full and focused on what I was doing that I wasn’t just sitting around like wishing I was playing again. I think I just felt such a sense of purpose in the direction I was heading that it wasn’t a wrestling with that going on.”
Moore speaks the truth when she says few teams have ever had the chemistry of the dynasty Lynx. Those Lynx played team basketball and were a classy organization that I think many people had an easy time rooting for. The big four of Moore, Whalen, Augustus and Brunson and later the big five with Fowles added defined a generation of women’s basketball for kids like current UConn star Paige Bueckers, who grew up in St. Louis Park, Minnesota.
The Lynx won it all in Moore’s rookie season and she was crowned a champion in each of the odd-numbered years of her career (2011, 2013, 2015 and 2017). She was named 2011 Rookie of the Year, 2013 Finals MVP and 2014 regular-season MVP. She also won three All-Star Game MVPs.
When asked by ESPN’s M.A. Voepel about her favorite pro memory, Moore said, “Watching Seimone get her first championship and Finals MVP in Atlanta in 2011 was super sweet. And to do that in one of my home states, such a sweet memory. And also washing the feet of all those little babies, when we were in D.C. to celebrate our fourth championship, I believe. We ended up being able to have the Jordan Brand and Nike donate shoes to some school kids in (the) D.C. area and we got to partner with an organization that washes people’s feet and gives them new shoes. It was just so sweet to see the look on those kids’ faces who probably haven’t had people washing their feet like that.”
A huge part of Moore’s story came before she ever played in the W. She was one of the most hyped-up college players of all-time, something I first saw happen with Tennessee’s Candace Parker and have since seen with Brittney Griner, Delle Donne, Skylar Diggins-Smith and Stewart. The attention garnered by those players has greatly helped increase the popularity of women’s basketball. When it was their moment in the college spotlight, it seemed like they could do no wrong. Moore’s UConn team became a prohibitive favorite and she led them to two undefeated national-championship-winning seasons (2009 as a sophomore and 2010 as a junior).
Voepel also asked her about her favorite college memory.
“Honestly, the preseason in my sophomore year. So the first year we went undefeated and won every game by 10 points or more. It was Renee (Montgomery)’s senior year. That preseason, those five weeks in the fall before the season got started, and we were training our tails off, we were so motivated having lost in the Final Four the year before. And our team chemistry just shot through the roof and we were all just so focused and unified in that grind, getting up early, 5 o’clock a.m., in the gym doing weights and playing pick up and conditioning and we even had a nutritionist, even before nutritionists were common. Like we were just super focused and locked in. It ended up leading to what you would see in those next few years. I know it’s not like a normal memory, but I just remember that grind of the preseason being like memorable and just awesome.”
What we saw over those next few years and the eight pro years after that was incredible. But, as we say goodbye to Moore the basketball player, it couldn’t be more obvious that her legacy transcends basketball.
“I was somebody when I was playing, I always tried to bring energy,” Moore said. “I always tried to bring light and joy and an intensity to what I was doing. I hope people saw me as someone who gave all she had in whatever she was doing. Whatever play it was, whatever moment I was engaging with a person, I tried to give my all in those moments.
“But also somebody who looks beyond the craft that I pursue and tried to value people. Having a proper perspective, have a healthy life-giving perspective about where people fit into this, this journey of life that we’re in.
“And just someone that never gave up. Whether it was being down in a game and trying to help the team come back, or not giving up on a person, like Jonathan, or just persisting through the grind of every year. I tried to finish the things that I said yes to.”
Legendary Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax is known for only playing 12 seasons, six of which weren’t great and the last six of which constitute one of the best runs ever by a Major League pitcher. The brevity of Koufax and Moore’s greatness compared to some others does not dim the light of their star.
Koufax gave us six years of greatness. Moore gave us eight. What she has given and will continue to give us off the court is far greater.