ESPN documentary tracks Maya Moore’s quest for justice

ESPN documentary tracks Maya Moore’s quest for justice

The opening scene of ESPN’s “30 for 30″ documentary “Breakaway,” which chronicles basketball legend Maya Moore’s fight for justice, is one of her lying on the couch. She’s playing the guitar and singing in an angelic voice most would not expect from a four-time WNBA champion and one of the greatest to ever play the game.

The moment signifies the beginning of what’s ultimately a 75-minute intimate dive into Moore’s private life, specifically focusing on her ongoing sabbatical from the game so that she could help overturn the wrongful conviction of a family friend, now her husband, Jonathan Irons. Irons spent 23 years in prison before he was freed in the summer of 2020.

The film, which premiered Tuesday and is now available on ESPN+, documents Moore’s meteoric rise to basketball superstardom, and how an initial introduction to Irons evolved into a calling to prove his innocence. The through-line in both Moore’s journey and Irons’ story? Champion humanity above all else.

Irons met Moore in 2007 just before she started her UConn career. He was serving a 50-year prison sentence for a 1998 burglary and assault. Not only has Irons maintained his innocence, there was no DNA, fingerprint or blood evidence linking him to the scene.

“For years, I felt like my soul had been ripped from me,” Irons said of his time in prison.

It was Moore’s family — first her great uncle, then her godparents, then Moore herself — who showed Irons his life mattered.

Moore and Irons kept in touch throughout college and her professional career. Moore visited Irons when she could.

“She was chomping at the bit,” Irons said. “She was like, ‘Man, what can I do? Put me in,’ like she was on the bench, on the sidelines, and she’s the best player of the game, like, ‘Why you got me on the bench? Let me do something.’ ”

Minnesota Lynx forward Maya Moore, left, drives to the basket against Los Angeles Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike during the first half in Game 4 of the WNBA basketball finals, Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Alex Gallardo)

Moore said the Minnesota Lynx’s stand against police brutality after Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were shot in the summer of 2016 gave her to courage to put basketball on hold and start a social justice campaign called Win with Justice that seeks to eliminate prosecutorial misconduct.

“You see injustice, you have to act,” Moore said. “And sometimes it’s just as simple as I don’t know the solution but I’m going to keep moving to try to love this person who is worthy of love, because they’re a person.”

Moore’s godfather, who investigated the case, ultimately discovered the exculpatory evidence that led a Missouri judge overturn Irons’ conviction last year: A fingerprint report not shared with Irons’ defense team containing a print belonging to neither Irons nor the assault victim.

The film follows Moore and her family through the agonizing struggle to get Irons’ conviction overturned, the euphoria when the judge finally ruled in their favor, Moore’s anxious excitement the hours before he was released and the moment he walked out of prison a free man.

“We all have power in different levels, different proportions, and that’s OK,” Moore said. “We have gifts and abilities to be able to manage more power than others, certain people. But there’s a certain level of human dignity that that’s the minimum. I can’t hold my power so much that this person isn’t receiving human dignity.”

Through it all, Moore came to care so much about Irons that she eventually married him.

Irons and Moore are now just over a year into their new chapter. They are learning to deal with the joys and challenges of married life as Irons acclimated to a world of freedom he spent the entirety of his adult life without. The film tags along with Irons as he shows Moore where he grew up and visits the final resting place of his grandmother, the woman who raised him, to tell her he’s finally home.

“You can’t give him back these 23 years,” Moore said. “But you can try.”

Aside from a continued dedication to pushing for criminal justice reform, there’s no indication of what the future holds for Moore when it comes to basketball.

“Breakaway” compels the audience to accept that her fight, her life and her identity is far bigger than sports.

“When you are a high-profile athlete, there’s a sense of your humanity that’s kind of stripped and altered,” Moore said. “You become this kind of superhero, fake thing to fans. What I’ve tried to do is fight for my humanity by connecting with humanity.”

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