Maya Moore won her third WNBA championship as a member of the Minnesota Lynx last fall. Those go along with her two national championships at the University of Connecticut, her two World Championships golds and an Olympic gold from London in 2012.
Before all that and her WNBA Most Valuable Player award and two college basketball Player of the Year trophies, Moore was the American Family Insurance ALL-USA Girls Basketball Player of the Year at Collins Hill High in Suwanee, Ga., in 2007.
She is one of the most prominent faces of women’s basketball in the United States and has become a international star in China as well. Five years ago, she became the first woman selected to endorse the Jordan Brand. She has become an ambassador for the girls Jordan Brand Classic, which has its second installment April 15 at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.
But she’ll always remember that hoop in her yard that faced out to the street where her love of the game began as a third grader.
As part of Girls Sports Month, USA TODAY High School Sports spoke to Moore about her love for the game, the trend toward specialization, her work with the Jordan Brand and finding balance.
Q: What role sports has played in your life?
A: Sports has been one of the most permanent contexts through which I’ve learned so many life lessons. I can’t think of a time in my life where I wasn’t involved in sports, either officially as part of a team or in my neighborhood making up games and running around with my friends. Unstructured or structured, it’s been a big part of shaping me and a lot of the people that I’m close to today.
MORE: See our Girls Sports Month coverage
I remember the excitement of going outside to play, whether it was my basketball hoop that I got for my ninth birthday that pointed out to the street or when we’d play baseball, softball, touch football, roller hockey or running games that we’d make up. It is a big part of my memories growing up as a kid.
As I got older, I learned a lot about myself and team work, sacrifice, working hard and perseverance. All those are things that sports can teach you. I was fortunate to play on some teams at a very high level with some very good coaches and learn those things throughout the season. I’m grateful to have a safe environment to learn a lot of life lessons growing up.
Q: When did you know that basketball was going to be your sport?
A: There were two moments in my growing up that it was clear to me. I’m pretty sure it was around the third grade, there was a day when it was time to go to practice for another sport, and my mom was like, ‘OK, Maya, time to go to gymnastics’ or whatever practice it was. After calling me two or three times, I said, ‘I want to stay here and play basketball.’ … I enjoyed doing that more than going to another sport’s practice. She said, ‘You’re going to have to choose and not spend money to sign up for these other sports.’ I vividly remember at that that I really enjoyed and loved basketball more than any of the other activities I was exposed to.
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I played a little volleyball, softball and I had done track and field in middle school and going into high school. In my sophomore year, I decided to exclusively do basketball because I didn’t have the time. I wanted to take AP courses and keep up with my grades and do well academically and I also wanted to be one of the best basketball players in the nation. I had to give up the other sports. My sophomore year through graduating, I played basketball.
Q: More sports, and basketball especially, have become year-round with AAU events and camps and clinics. What’s your view on specialization, particularly for the younger athletes?
A: I’m not a fan of that mindset. There is plenty of time for that once you become an adult and have to go to work all day. The youth learn what life is about and sports can be such a great teacher about what’s important. I think if you present sports in a certain way it gives them an idea of how they view themselves, but not when you make the play aspect of sports not as important as we got to work, we have to be better, we have to specialize to be the best. It’s one thing to talk about work ethic and finding and a balance, but it doesn’t have to be about exposure camps and training, it can be about enjoying.
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There needs to be time for pursuing other things in childhood and figuring out what your passion is. But if a kid is passionate about something, go ahead and let them play. But to have a system where kids feel like they have to take this track in order to succeed, I don’t think that’s a wise culture to set up for youth sports at a time when kids are learning the rhythms of life.
Q: You are approaching five years since becoming the first woman spokesperson for The Jordan Brand. What was the significance of it then for you and what does it mean for you today?
A: It was a very exciting time back in the 2011 when it become official that I was the first female basketball player on the Jordan Brand. It continues to create conversation about the game of basketball for girls and boys in terms of how big and awesome the game is.
The Jordan Brand also continues to be a place where when you think about basketball and its history that you can find that as a fan. I think a culture resonates with the Brand as far as the game, the winning, the work ethic, the striving for excellence, being a team player, doing things in the community. Those are things I really connect with and it’s cool with the Brand to those things starting get more momentum and also growing the girls’ game and women’s game.
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People are excited about it and want to see what’s next. I always here, When is this coming out, when is that coming out, when are we going to see some new clothes and all the wider cultural things that come with the fashion. I’ve been playing in China the last four seasons and basketball is big there and so is the Jordan Brand. The recognition that I see in people who connect me with the game and the Jordan Brand. … It’s exciting to see people invested in what’s going with the game I’m playing.
Q: While other pro sports leagues for women have struggled to gain traction, the WNBA keeps on going strong. Why?
A: That answer is worthy of several interviews over several days, but the visibility that comes from women’s basketball being on TV is a huge part of the reason the league is continuing to be successful and moving forward.
Once people are exposed to the awesome things that are going on in the sport, they fall in love with it and want to follow it. There’s also lots of attention on the women’s college game and fans want to see those women become the best players in the world at a pro level.
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We’re striving for our sixth gold medal in a row in Rio this summer. All of us play in the WNBA and that’s another huge part of why the league is so successful. We have best players in the world and the marquee faces of the game.
There is a lot of support from different partners and adding more and more every day. The NBA being behind us is an awesome help. They provide the long history of the NBA and the shoulder of NBA family, plus all the women who came before in the ABL, the earlier leagues that were started and the players in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s.
We’ve got some great fans as well; they’re very loyal. They came become a part of the WNBA family and they tend to stick. The relationships the players have with the fans is a special one. That’s a big reason why people are so drawn to the game after they experience it.
Q: What advice would you give to young female athletes, not specific to basketball, but in general?
A: I would say if you have the opportunity and the ability to choose what programs or schools or environments you’re going to play in, surround yourself with people who are doing what you want to do one day. People who are successful with good character first. One of the saddest stories you can hear is when someone with a lot of talent and potential got mixed up with wrong people and become distraction to reach their goals. Surround yourself with quality people. Don’t be scare of doing somewhere great. I wanted to go somewhere with great players.
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Continue to have balance in your life, focusing on school and being a good friend, a good family member, a good person in the community and on the team you’re on.
I’d also say enjoy the ride. Don’t always think about how someone can help or serve you. Think of how you can add to the experience of the bus ride or dinner with that team. Add energy, add fun to whatever situation you are part of.