Maya Moore, a once-in-a-generation basketball star in the prime of her career, stepped away from the sport to help free a man she believed was wrongfully convicted.
On Wednesday night that man, Jonathan Irons, walked free from a Missouri penitentiary.
“In that moment, I really felt like I could rest,” Moore, a two-time U.S. Olympian, said in an interview Thursday on “Good Morning America.”
“I’d been standing, and we’d been standing, for so long; and it was an unplanned moment where I just felt relief. It was kind of a worshipful moment, just dropping to my knees and just being so thankful that we made it.”
Moore was among those greeting the newly freed Irons outside the prison, a scene captured on a video she posted to social media.
“I feel like I can live life now,” Irons said. “I’m free. I’m blessed. I just want to live my life worthy of God’s help and influence.”
At a time when racial justice is at the forefront of the national conversation, many athletes have taken a central role. Moore’s advocacy for Irons has garnered increased attention in recent weeks.
Irons, who is Black, was convicted in 1998 for a burglary and shooting at the home of a white man in O’Fallon, Missouri. The crime took place when Irons was 16. He maintained that it was a case of mistaken identity, and there were no corroborating witnesses or physical evidence connecting him to the crime. Nonetheless, he was tried as an adult and convicted by an all-white jury. He was serving a 50-year sentence.
Moore, who spent the early part of her life in Jefferson City, Missouri, met Irons in 2007 as part of a prison ministry her family was involved with. In the coming years Moore developed into one of the sport’s all-time great players, winning two NCAA titles and two Naismith Player of the Year awards at UConn before embarking on a WNBA career that saw her win four championships with the Minnesota Lynx and the league’s 2014 MVP Award.
Moore also won Olympic gold medals with Team USA in 2012 and 2016, as well as two world titles.
Through it all she maintained a close relationship with Irons, and prior to the 2019 WNBA season she announced she would forego the coming season to focus on helping overturn Irons’ conviction. She then decided to sit out the 2020 season as well, a decision that also meant she would not compete at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, which have since been postponed to 2021.
Moore, 31, has been steadfast in her decision.
“When I stepped away two springs ago, I just really wanted to shift my priorities to be able to be more available and present to show up for things that I felt were mattering more than being a professional athlete,” she told GMA, “and so this is obviously one of the biggest and most direct results of that.”
A judge overturned Irons’ conviction in March, but he remained in jail until this week as the appeal process played out.
Moore began speaking out about criminal justice reform and other social justice issues in 2016.
That year, following the police killings of two Black men — Philando Castile in Minnesota and Alton Sterling in Louisiana — Moore and her Lynx teammates arrived at a July home game wearing black t-shirts reading “Change Starts With Us” and “Justice & Accountability” across the front. On the back, the shirts had the names of both men, as well as the words “Black Lives Matter” and a Dallas police badge to honor five officers who had been killed by a protestor.
The statement came two months before San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick brought the issue of police brutality into the national conversation by kneeling during the national anthem before games.
It was also around this time that Moore began speaking publicly about Irons’ case.
Moore’s advocacy has garnered increased attention following the Minneapolis police killing an unarmed Black man, George Floyd, and the unrest that followed in cities around the world.
In a June interview with Time, Moore spoke of the racial issues facing the country.
“Racism is a mindset that lives within,” she said. “Our country comes from a centuries-long culture of dehumanizing Black and brown bodies. So what role does racism play? A huge role. You can’t downplay how deeply woven and embedded this is in our country. Clearly we’re not over it. We’re just now really starting to talk about it. I don’t want us to underestimate this beast that we’re facing called racism. It’s a real beast and we all have to engage in tearing down.”
As for a return to the basketball court, Moore said she isn’t making any commitments just yet.
“As a basketball player you’re so scheduled and knowing what’s going to happen, but for the first time in my adult life I’m really just trying to live in the moment,” Moore said. “And honestly my rest is going to start now. I haven’t really been able to have the fullness of the rest that I wanted, and so I’m like OK guys, now is the time to take a break. So I’m looking forward to some rest and then seeing what the future holds maybe around the same time next spring.”
Chrös McDougall has covered the Olympic and Paralympic movements for TeamUSA.org since 2009 on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. He is based in Minneapolis-St. Paul.