Maya Moore answers questions in long paragraphs, and you have asked her about a topic she has thought about often: How do you define winning?
Her response is far from simple.
“The answer can be very deep depending on your perspective and how you are measuring success, how you are measuring failure and how you are measuring winning,” says the 6-foot forward for the Minnesota Lynx. “I think it takes different types of winners to maintain a winning culture.
“You have to have some winners who know how to win people, to [keep] people together with vision and perspective. Then you have to have toughness and resiliency because sustained excellence is way harder than it looks. You have to be able to bounce back and deal with disappointment, failure and weaknesses, and a lot of that happens behind the scenes for teams that are very successful.
“I think a winner has to be a master of preparation, they have to be a master of connection, extremely competitive and have really high standards for themselves and the people around them. They have to be willing to put in that emotional energy to hold each other accountable. They have to have a lot of passion—sustained excellence takes conviction and passion and focus. When you are dealing with a team sport, you also have to be willing to adapt and be flexible.
“Hopefully, that is a pretty reasonable definition.”
If anyone is an expert on the subject, it’s Moore, the greatest winner in the history of women’s basketball. Her accomplishments make for quite a résumé:
Collins Hill High (Suwanee, Ga.) | 2003–04 to 2006–07
• Three Class 5A state championships
• National championship in 2007
• Overall record: 125–3
UConn (Storrs, Conn.) | 2007–08 to 2010–11
• Two NCAA championships (2009 and ’10)
• Four Final Four appearances
• Overall record: 150–4
Minnesota Lynx | 2011–Present
• Four WNBA titles (’11, ’13, ’15, ’17)
• Six-time WNBA finalist
• Overall record: 222–71
U.S. National Team | 2010–Present
• Two Olympic gold medals (2012, 2016)
• Two FIBA Women’s World Cup gold medals (2010, ’14)
• Overall record in world championships and Olympics: 31–0
Other Professional Teams | 2011–2016
• EuroLeague women’s championship (2012)
• Liga Femenina championship (Spain, 2012)
• Women’s Chinese Basketball Association championships (2013, ’14, ’15)
• Gold medal: 2009 World University Games
• 2007 FIBA U19 world championship
• 2006 FIBA Americas U18 championship
Moore is the Sports Illustrated Performer of the Year not only for leading the Lynx to their fourth WNBA title in seven years but also for her sustained success for more than a decade at every level, all around the globe.
“The thing that was obvious to me the first day she stepped into our training camp is she has very contagious winning behavior,” says Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve, who took over the team in 2010, the year before Minnesota drafted Moore with the No. 1 pick. “It’s the little things: the way she communicates with her coaches, the way she communicates with her teammates, the work ethic she applies to her craft. She is constantly in pursuit of perfection.”
Moore says that the 2017 championship was the toughest of her career, a five-game thriller against the Los Angeles Sparks, who had kept the Lynx from the title in ’16. In the fourth quarter of the decisive game on Oct. 4 in Minneapolis, the Sparks made a frantic 9–0 run in 1:57 to cut Minnesota’s lead to 79–76 with under a minute to play. What followed was a near turnover that Moore made into the WNBA play of the year.
With 35 seconds left, Moore inbounded the ball from the right sideline, but her pass to shooting guard Seimone Augustus bounced toward the backcourt, a potential violation. Augustus saved the possession by leaping over the half-court line and flinging the ball to the 6' 5" Sylvia Fowles, who had flashed above the three-point arc. With her post player far outside her typical scoring range, Moore hustled over to Fowles, who stuffed the ball into Moore’s gut. Moore took two dribbles along the left sideline and then slashed toward the lane, splitting defenders Candace Parker and Riquna Williams. A step behind the foul line Moore released a runner. There were 26.5 seconds left when the ball splashed through the net, sealing the 85–76 victory.
“The degree of difficulty in that moment was really high,” Reeve says. “But everything she did on that play was Maya Moore—bailing us out of a tough situation where we were not handling their pressure well. Maya did not feel the pressure that the other players were feeling. She just has a great belief in herself that she can do anything. That is the greatness of Maya.”
It was the kind of play she’d been trained to execute since her practices under UConn coach Geno Auriemma. “I was totally in the moment and playing on instinct,” Moore says. “I did not make the best inbounds pass to Seimone, trying to lead her away from the defense. But Seimone had my back and adjusted. Anytime Syl has the ball outside of the scoring area for her, I am going to go get the ball to try to make a play. My instincts took over. I got the ball, was going downhill and made a read and a reaction to get to my favorite spot on the floor—the lower defensive area. No thinking. I’m just playing. Obviously if the ball does not go in, this is a different conversation.”
Aside from basketball, family (she was raised by a single mother, Kathryn Moore), faith and music are the dominant forces in Moore’s life. She is learning to play the acoustic guitar—she started teaching herself from the Internet in May—and has the calluses to prove it. She has also become more vocal about social issues. In July 2016 she and three of her Lynx teammates (Augustus, point guard Lindsay Whalen and forward Rebekkah Brunson) held a pregame press conference to discuss police violence in the wake of the shooting deaths of Philando Castile (by a Minneapolis-area officer) and Alton Sterling (by two officers in Baton Rouge). Last month she cowrote an op-ed in USA Today with Mark A. Dupree Sr., a district attorney in Wyandotte County, Kans., and Miriam Aroni Krinsky, the executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution, a national network of elected prosecutors, that called for sentencing reform in the criminal-justice system.
“The summer of 2016 propelled me in a direction to be more comfortable in sharing my heart and my journey when it comes to bigger issues,” Moore says. “We are in a world where people are understanding that athletes and entertainers are citizens too. Some of us want to leverage our platform for good, and I want to be someone who is thoughtful and real about trying to influence people in a way that will lead to healthier communities and a better nation.”
Whalen, her Lynx and Olympic teammate, says Moore is at her best in late-game situations because “she doesn’t waste energy and therefore she is fresher than other players at the end of the game. Every day she is prepared and she does what she needs to do nutrition-wise and strength-wise. When you have that mentality, it lends itself to a lot of success, especially when you are as talented as she is. I have played with everybody—Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird, Tamika Catchings—and it’s fun to have the debate on who is the GOAT. I would say it is close, but she is for me. I think what she has done is special.”
Asked if it is important for her to be known as the best ever, Moore says, “I honestly don’t think about it a lot but it is in the back of my mind because of everything that has taken place in my career so far. My mind-set is: Maximize every day, every year, every season that I can because this is a gift—the people that I play with and the organization we have.”
Reeve likes to push her players to learn new roles on the court. To that end she plans on giving Moore significant time at shooting guard next year—which would make the Lynx very big and even tougher to guard. “Cheryl knows I love to be challenged and for my game to grow,” Moore says.
At 28, Moore is in her athletic prime. The best is going to get even better.