The strum of a guitar and accompanying voice filtered down the stairs where ESPN cameras were filming an interview with Jonathan Irons. It was beautiful, but distracting, and director Rudy Valdez asked if they could turn the radio off.
“That’s not the radio,” Irons told the crew. “That’s Maya.”
An athlete showcasing musical talents isn’t atypical. But this is Maya Moore, casually cozy on the couch, opening up to cameras about a life she has kept entirely separate from her incredible basketball career. The four-time WNBA champion’s time away from the game over the past 29 months has been captured in headlines, but not until “Breakaway,” the latest “30 for 30” installment on ESPN (Tuesday, 9 p.m. ET), has the full scope of the story been told this way.
“It was amazing for somebody who is such a private person to say, ‘Listen, I’m willing to let this guard down. I’m willing to be open and honest and vulnerable in front of the camera,’” Valdez told Yahoo Sports. “Not for myself, not for a vanity project, [but] because I believe that this story is important and will help other people.”
The documentary is centered on the 32-year-old Moore, one of the world’s greatest basketball players, but she is merely a vessel for the larger focus.
'It's a human story'
“Breakaway,” produced by Rock'n Robin Productions, fills in the gaps between the headlines from Moore’s seemingly abrupt decision in February 2019 to step away from the Minnesota Lynx to a similarly surprising announcement in September 2020 that she had married Irons, the man she helped release from prison while away from basketball. His conviction on charges of burglary and assault was overturned with the help of Moore and her family, though he served 23 years of a 50-year sentence.
“It’s not a salacious story, it’s not a sensationalized story. It’s a human story,” Valdez told Yahoo Sports.
The family initially gathered footage in case they wanted to eventually use it. ESPN Films began seriously talking about the project in early 2020 and began production in June of that year, an ESPN spokesperson told Yahoo Sports. Valdez, an Emmy-winning filmmaker, came in shortly before Irons walked out of Jefferson City Correctional Center in Missouri a free man in July 2020.
Moore’s greatness, from high school to two undefeated title seasons at UConn to four titles with the Lynx, sets up the larger story. That success is put into perspective with scenes of former President Barack Obama joking how Moore has her own wing at the White House given how often she visited.
“We can talk about Maya being one of the best basketball players to ever play the game, her championships, her personal records, all of the things that she’s done,” Valdez told Yahoo Sports, “but at the core of this film it started with one human believing in another human.”
The film goes through the timeline of Moore and Irons’ relationship, which dates to 2007 when a then-18-year-old Moore visited him in prison while seeing her godparents, Cherilyn and Reggie Williams, back home in Missouri. The Williamses had taken interest in his case after first being introduced through Moore’s great-uncle, Hugh Flowers, who met Irons as a choir director.
None of that was known until Moore stepped away, even while Moore sent him their own inside messages during TV interviews at games.
Jonathan Irons, Maya Moore's story 'bittersweet,' director says
The story is one of chance meetings and a willingness to believe and fight over 23 years, which to put into perspective is nearly all of the WNBA’s existence. And their story is one of the few successes.
A Missouri judge, Daniel Green, vacated the conviction in March 2020 for a series of issues that included a fingerprint report that hadn’t been turned over to Irons’ defense team in what’s called a Brady violation. He wrote the case against the teenager was “very weak and circumstantial at best.”
“That’s something that I hope is not lost on people when they watch this because it’s bittersweet,” Valdez told Yahoo Sports. “Yes, Jonathan was in prison for 23½ years and was let go because of a Brady violation. That’s wonderful for him at that point. It’s not justice. He’s already lost 23 years of his life, his family lost 23 years with him, his community lost 23 years with him.
“But also there are thousands of other Jonathans still in there. There are so many people who don’t have the resources and the means to fight for simple justice in this country. So I think telling a story like Maya’s, it’s just a testament to how far we have to go, still, in our country.”
Studies estimate the rate of wrongful conviction in the United States is anywhere between 2% to 10%, and the Innocence Project details the impact. Valdez is familiar with the criminal justice system as his sister was incarcerated for 10 years. He told her story and the consequences of minimum sentencing through the award-winning film “The Sentence.”
“It all sort of played together in my approach and even in my ability to connect with Maya on this,” he said. “We have this sort of kinship in terms of we’ve both navigated the criminal justice system for many years and saw the flaws in it and wanted to say something about it."
At the core of any criminal justice issue is the human aspect, and that’s something Valdez said he believes viewers can take away from this film. There was a legacy in this family, pro basketball player or not, of saying, “I’m going to believe in you, I’m going to fight for you,” he said.
“We can all do that,” Valdez said. “You don’t have to be a WNBA and NBA, NFL superstar to do that. You can believe in people, and you can fight for people. Because there are a lot of people who deserve to be fought for.”
There was a part of Valdez who didn’t want to do the project because he would have to meet Moore, and he didn’t want to be disappointed. But the private basketball superstar “exceeded everything that I hoped she would be and she was so much more.”
“Maya is a phenomenal person, and I hope that people get to see another side of her in this. They get to see the passion that she has for life, for other people, for justice,” he said. “And also understand that she’s a person. She’s funny. She’s talented in so many other ways. I hope that they get to see all sides of Maya.”
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