As great as Maya Moore has been on the basketball court, it’s what she has done off it that will be her legacy.
Jonathan Irons walked out of prison Wednesday night, finally free after serving more than 22 years for a crime he did not commit. Waiting for him was Moore, who took a leave from the WNBA at the height of her career to try and right the grievous wrong that had been done to Irons.
“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,” Moore said Thursday morning during an appearance on ABC’s Good Morning America.
“This is obviously one of the biggest and most direct results of that.”
The death of George Floyd beneath the knee of a white police officer has finally forced this country to reckon with the racism that remains baked into our society, more than 200 years after the end of the Civil War. Our policing, housing, schools, judicial system – there is no part of American life where the system isn’t still rigged against Black people.
As the rest of America grapples with what to do now, how to channel the rage and frustration and embarrassment of the last month into real change, Moore is way ahead. Much like Muhammad Ali, who lost three years of his career for his opposition to the Vietnam War, Moore has realized there are things far bigger than herself.
Things far more important than sports.
Irons was 18 when he was sentenced to 50 years in prison, convicted by an all-white jury of a shooting and burglary at a white man’s home outside of St. Louis. Irons insisted he was innocent, and there was no physical evidence – no fingerprints, no blood, no DNA – to link him to the crime. No eyewitnesses, either.
Moore’s great-uncle met Irons through his prison ministry, and he and her godparents introduced the basketball phenom to him as a first-hand lesson on the injustices of the judicial system for people of color.
“When I met Jonathan, I was 17, my eyes were open and my mind was blown to the reality of there are people in prison who shouldn’t be there,” Moore once said.
The two kept in touch, and after a series of high-profile shootings by Black men by police officers in 2016, Moore began lobbying for changes to policing and judicial system.
A four-time WNBA champion and the 2014 league MVP with the Minnesota Lynx, Moore could have stuck to writing letters and mentioning his case during interviews, hoping it would put pressure on law-enforcement officials. She could have used her status as a star athlete to get meetings with politicians in positions of influence.
She was, after all, in the prime of her basketball career. A career that is measured in years, not decades.
But there comes a time when good intentions are not good enough.
In January 2019, Moore announced she would take a leave from the WNBA to fight for Irons’ freedom. She attended every one of his hearings, and helped hire a top defense lawyer.
In March, Irons’ conviction was overturned for lack of evidence.
In throwing out the conviction, a judge determined that prosecutors had failed to disclose “unassailable forensic evidence” of Irons’ innocence: A report of a fingerprint at the crime scene that did not belong to either him or the victim.
“I am overcome with joy that Maya and all involved were able to reach their goal of Jonathan’s exoneration,” Lynx coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve said Thursday morning.
“I also can’t help but feel a great deal of anger. Maya Moore should never have had to leave her profession to engage in the fight against the two-tiered criminal justice system that over polices, wrongfully convicts, and over sentences black and brown communities,” Reeve said. “The criminal justice system in America is so far from fair and equal and it angers me that Maya has had to sacrifice so much to overcome this racially disparate system.”
Moore doesn’t know when — or even if — she’ll return to the WNBA. When Irons walked out of prison, she dropped to her knees, knowing she could finally rest.
But knowing Moore, that rest will be brief. Irons is finally free, but too many others are not.
“The first step for anybody, whether you have a huge platform as a pro or you are someone who is just getting involved in understanding some of the restoration issues we have in our country, I would say get to know somebody who isn’t exactly like you and doesn’t come from the same background as you. Educate yourself,” Moore said on GMA.
“And then just keep showing up.”
Recognizing injustice is only the start. It takes action to actually make it happen.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.