JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — One of the greatest players in basketball drove down a narrow strip of blacktop called No More Victims Road. It led to a prison.
She parked in front of the Jefferson City Correctional Center, a maximum-security penitentiary in rural central Missouri. She walked through its heavy front doors on this May morning and stood in line with two dozen people: the parents, children, grandchildren and friends of inmates.
Some had come to know her, Maya Moore of the W.N.B.A., but no one in the tense, hushed room paid her any mind.
Each visitor, including Moore, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, two-time N.C.A.A. champion and four-time W.N.B.A. titlist, waited to be escorted by armed guards into a large room full of convicted men.
Moore was there to see Inmate No. 101145. He is Jonathan Irons, serving 50 years. In 1998, a jury found him guilty of burglary and assault with a deadly weapon. He was 16 when the crime occurred.
Moore is certain that Irons, now 39, was wrongly convicted. “No more victims,” she said, echoing the name of the roadway she had driven, which recognizes those done wrong by the men inside the prison. Her head shook in chagrin. “Every time I come here, I think of that. The hypocrisy.”
Her announcement stunned fans.
It is a little over a month into the W.N.B.A.’s 23rd season, but Moore is not with her team, the Minnesota Lynx. She is sitting out for the year, perhaps longer. At 30, healthy and in her prime, she is doing something virtually unthinkable for an athlete of her stature: taking a sabbatical, a journey far from the chase for championships.
She is answering what she says is a call from God. For most of her life, others have defined her: “the Invincible Queen” and “the Perfect Superstar.” Now she believes that God wants her to step away from the fray and consider what is truly important.
When Moore announced her departure in February, she stunned the W.N.B.A., its fans and many who are close to her.
“We were all taken aback,” said Geno Auriemma, who was her coach at the University of Connecticut. “I thought, ‘Hey, what is wrong? Is there something Maya is trying to be private about? Is it personal?’ I am still just really, really surprised.”
Basketball wants her back. She told The New York Times, however, that a return was uncertain. “I don’t know what the future is going to look like,” she said. “We are just going to sit in this uncomfortable tension for a year and see.”
Her reasons are complex. Burnout is one. Even the best players in professional women’s basketball make far less than their male counterparts. To maximize earnings, she has played in leagues all over the world, with few breaks. The grind, she said, has taken a toll.
But to appreciate what she describes as “the call,” one must understand why she visited the Jefferson City prison in May. Athletes are speaking with increasing urgency about social issues, but few are as engaged as Moore. Convinced that Irons has been victimized by a racist justice system, she has given money and time toward a last-gasp bid for his release.
Making a difference in just one case, Moore said, could animate a growing movement to overhaul American jurisprudence.
The day after her prison trip, Moore drove to the nearby Cole County Courthouse, where a judge would consider Irons’s request to reopen his case. Moore would be in the courtroom with members of her family. They have grown so close to Irons that they call him “Big J” and treat him as one of their own.
Together, Moore said, they will “make right a terrible wrong.”
She found a new purpose in her old home.
It seems fitting that, during a search for her future, Moore has come to Jefferson City.
It is where she was born — where she discovered basketball at age 3, when her mother, Kathryn Moore, attached a plastic hoop to a door in their small apartment.
“She couldn’t get enough of it,” Kathryn Moore said.
When Kathryn was pregnant with Maya, she moved from sprawling Los Angeles to Jefferson City, which had fewer than 45,000 residents. Kathryn was single, but a strong network of cousins lived in town. Two pillars were Reggie Williams and his wife, Cherilyn. They became Maya’s godparents, on hand for her baptism at a little church downtown and for her basketball games in elementary school and junior high.
The grind began. Top teams. Expectations. The pressure that comes with always being the best.
Moore moved with her mother to Atlanta and led her high school team to three state championships. She rapidly grew to 6 feet. Her polished game won comparisons to Michael Jordan’s. Back in Jefferson City her cousins had come to know Irons through a prison ministry. They were impressed by his friendliness, wit and eagerness to learn. “There was something about him,” Reggie Williams said. “Just a peace.”
During her senior year, Moore and her cousins vacationed at a lake near Jefferson City. Williams had developed such an interest in Irons’s case that he spent months investigating it. One day at the lake, he spread court files on a table and studied them.
“What’s this all about?” Moore asked. “Why are you doing this?”
She was shocked by the bare-bones facts. Irons was a poor African-American teenager who had been tried as an adult and convicted by an all-white jury. The crime was violent and involved a gun, but no weapon was found. No blood evidence, no footprints and no fingerprints tied Irons to the crime. His 50-year sentence was handed down at a trial that ended when he was 18 — Moore’s age.
“My eyes started opening,” Moore said.
‘I’m here,’ she said, ‘because I care.’
Moore recalls the day she met Irons, starting with the clang of the prison doors behind her. It made her flinch. This was a dozen years ago, just before she headed off to star at UConn.
Irons was skeptical. He was still getting used to the fact that Moore’s family was becoming a fixture in his life. He thought the teenage Moore was there for a token visit.
She sat in front of him. She said she wanted to hear his story. Where was he from? What had growing up been like?
“I’m here,” she said, “because I care.”
He fought back tears.
They played checkers. Moore won. “I don’t think he realized just how competitive I really am,” she said, laughing at the memory. “I took my win, and that’s it. Not going to give him another chance.”
Then her voice softened. “Not until he gets out.”
‘She is light. Pure light.’
On a recent afternoon, Irons sat in an isolation room for an interview. He was clean shaven and wore a loose gray shirt. A guard stood nearby. Irons smiled. He called Moore a lifesaver who gives him hope.
“She is light,” he said. “Pure light.”
Growing up — rudderless, poor — he paid little attention to school. He was drawn to the streets. “I will be the first to admit that I wasn’t a choir boy,” he said. “I was a juvenile delinquent, and I made a lot of bad decisions.”
But he said he had changed. As proof, he offered a string of commendations from the prison administration.
He was adamant: He did not commit the crime for which he is imprisoned.
It took place in O’Fallon, Mo., a predominantly white, working-class suburb of St. Louis, on the evening of Jan. 14, 1997. A 38-year-old man, Stanley Stotler, returned to his home and was confronted by a burglar, court records say. Shots were fired, two by the burglar with a .25-caliber handgun, and one by Stotler in self-defense. The records show he had gone for his own 9-millimeter pistol when he heard someone in his closet.
The burglar fled, but Stotler, who could not be reached for this story, was badly wounded. One of the burglar’s bullets had hit him in the right temple, but he was able to call the police for help.
A week later, Irons was arrested. On the day of the crime, he had been seen in Stotler’s neighborhood with a gun. Although he was 16, an earlier misdemeanor for tampering with a car meant that he would be classified as an adult.
His trial began Oct. 19, 1998.
A key piece of evidence was a detective’s testimony at a pretrial hearing: He described an interrogation in which Irons said that he had broken into Stotler’s house but could not remember anything else because he had been drunk.
There were no notes from the interrogation, and no recordings. Irons was questioned without a lawyer or guardian, and no other police officers were present. The detective, who has since died, could not be cross-examined during the trial because he was ill.
Irons has always denied making such a confession. In the isolation room at the prison, he said that he’d had a gun that day, but that it was not a .25-caliber. He said that he was simply in the wrong neighborhood at the wrong time — in the wrong era.
During the 1990s, the White House and Congress encouraged harsh penalties for young offenders, many of them impoverished African-American boys and men swept up by the police, their convictions in some cases overturned years later by forensic testing or other new evidence.
“Don’t be soft on him because he is young,” a prosecutor urged during Irons’s trial. “He is as dangerous as somebody five times that age. We need to send a message to some of these younger people that if you are going to act like somebody old, you are going to be treated like somebody old.”
Irons was convicted on Dec. 4, 1998. A series of appeals would be turned away.
What he remembers most about his early years in prison is loneliness and fear.
“I was a kid, around nothing but grown men,” he said. “I thought I would always be on my own. There would never be anybody from the outside who could help.”
She saw him as a sibling.
Moore had grown up taking justice for granted. But during college, Moore said, she began to consider Irons as she would a sibling.
It was hard to get to Jefferson City for visits, but they kept in touch as best they could. She sent him books by her favorite spiritual writers. Sometimes before her big games, they spoke on the phone.
A bond was forming.
The basketball grind amped up for Moore in 2011, her first year as a professional, when she helped lead the Lynx to the W.N.B.A. championship and was named the best rookie in the league. Three years later, she was named the W.N.B.A.’s most valuable player.
When she wasn’t competing in W.N.B.A. games, she was medaling again at the Olympics or leading championship teams in more lucrative leagues in Europe or China.
Although Moore is a homebody who shares a four-story townhouse in Atlanta with her mother, she could rarely attend her local church or visit her tight-knit extended family. She had little time for rest, for anything but her sport.
Then came the summer of 2016.
∙ Philando Castile, a 32-year-old African-American man, was shot to death by a police officer in Minnesota.
∙ Alton B. Sterling, a 37-year-old African-American man, was shot to death by a police officer in Louisiana.
∙ Five Dallas officers were fatally shot by a sniper during a protest of police brutality.
At a W.N.B.A. game that summer, Moore and her Lynx teammates wore black T-shirts over their jerseys. On the front were the phrases “Change Starts with Us. Justice & Accountability.” On the back: “Black Lives Matter,” along with the names of Castile and Sterling, plus the Dallas Police shield.
There was backlash, but Moore said, “I’d found my voice.”
With Irons in mind, she began speaking out on a single issue: reforming the criminal justice system, with an emphasis on changing the way prosecutors do their jobs.
Lawyers and judges, she came to believe, needed a better understanding “that black and brown bodies are more vulnerable because of our country’s history, that our justice system has historically operated from a racist spirit.”
“It is true,” she said, “but not an acknowledged truth.”
Moore can’t say when she will return to basketball.
Her turning point in basketball came in 2018.
Moore remembers calling Cheryl Reeve, the Lynx coach, late in the regular season. She told Reeve that her relentless schedule had sapped her desire to keep playing. She battled feelings that she was letting the team down. She said that Reeve, who declined an interview request for this story, convinced her that she did not have to be perfect all the time.
Hearing this, Moore said, helped her realize that it was O.K. to step away.
Some fans have speculated that Moore is trying to force a trade to the Atlanta Dream. Or that she is trying to get the W.N.B.A. to raise salaries from a ceiling of roughly $120,000 per season.
She denies seeking a new team. W.N.B.A. players, she says, do deserve far better pay, but Moore’s sabbatical has included forgoing a big salary from an overseas league. Money is not why she is out of uniform this year.
So when will she return to basketball?
“The word ‘uncertain’ is the safest answer, the one I feel most comfortable giving,” she said.
Is there a chance you won’t come back?
“Right, that is the uncertainty. The uncertainty is another year off, or potentially … ”
“That is a possibility,” she said, “but I don’t want to speak too soon.”
Her life is much simpler now. No exhausting churn of travel and high-pressure games. Moore spends most of her time at her Atlanta home. She sleeps in, visits her cousins, practices her acoustic guitar and volunteers at a neighborhood center in a former crack house. She attends Bible study and sings in a choir at Passion City Church.
When she can, she watches the Lynx on TV, but the old urge to get out on a court isn’t there.
‘We’re still in the fight.’
Moore is contributing to the fees for one of Missouri’s top private defense lawyers to work on Irons’s case. The lawyer is guiding what Irons sees as his final shot at freedom: a request to reopen the case that would rely largely on a fresh look at fingerprint evidence and on new expert testimony.
This is what led Moore to Jefferson City in May — to the prison, and then to the stone-faced courthouse.
Judge Daniel Green was expected to rule on whether to allow an evidentiary review this summer.
Irons was not permitted to be present. Moore sat near her family in a back row, wondering if the judge would reject the request on the spot. She listened to one of Irons’s lawyers build his argument. She heard a prosecutor say there should be no review because Irons had already exhausted his remedies.
Judge Green granted another hearing for August but not to focus on whether Irons should be freed. First, the judge wanted to hear arguments about the prosecutor’s claim that the case should remain closed.
As Moore and her family left the courtroom, they looked dazed.
“At least we still have a chance,” she said. She urged her family to persevere and believe, just as they had during her championship runs.
“We’re still in the fight,” she said, adding: “We are going to have to be patient. We’re going to have to wait to find the answer.”
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