Lynx’s Maya Moore proves even the best can get better

MINNEAPOLIS — There are few more intriguing phenomena in sports than witnessing the best somehow get better.

Now in her third season with the Minnesota Lynx, Maya Moore always possessed the physical gifts. The intangible intricacies of her game date back to her early childhood, too.

But for the first time in her life — even after accomplishing every meaningful team milestone women’s hoops has to offer — she’s fusing them compositely, a synergy of body and mind birthing her best basketball since mom first tacked that hoop onto their apartment door.

How does someone who’s reached the summit climb even higher? Balance.

“I think we’ve seen her evolve,” Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said. “I think what she’ll tell you is that year three, she feels really comfortable.”

Comfortable enough to frequently take over in clutch moments. Comfortable enough to claim charge in redirecting Minnesota’s season, which at one point began floundering. Comfortable enough to wrap a hand around the lower back of a veteran teammate twice as tenured and offer guidance between plays.

Pre-2013 Maya Moore was formidable. This Maya Moore has been unstoppable.

“The great ones have the knack,” Seattle Storm coach Brian Agler said after Moore dropped 30 points on his team Aug. 31. “They can really elevate their game. She is obviously in that groove right now.”

Moore leads a group featuring three fellow All-Stars, all of whom can carry any given day, with a career-best 18.6 points per game, good for third in the league. She is making over half her shots and shooting 3s at a more efficient clip (45.8 percent) than ever despite the WNBA moving back its 3-point stripe. During Minnesota’s current five-game winning streak, she’s surpassed 30 points twice, including a 35-point hailstorm Aug. 24 against defending champion Indiana — the league’s best individual scoring output this season.

After playing power forward for the bulk of her career, Moore has adjusted to life on the wing, often guarding opponents’ top scorers and exhibiting a Lindsay Whalen-like penchant for generating turnovers (team-high 1.7 steals per game).

She’s become faster, more aggressive and more vocal, all while remaining as down-to-earth and unassuming as the 10-year-old girls she stops and signs autographs for after every game.

Although it’s a seemingly natural progression for a basketball player on pace to rival the best in history, Moore’s continued ascent is no passive fancy. It began when she was one of those youngsters herself, and attention to the finer details of her existence as well as a stark challenge from her coach have vaulted Moore to this current stage of efficacy.

Cooking, her teammates call it.

“She was in the kitchen cooking,” Seimone Augustus said after the Storm game, “and I was waiting in the dining room, just waiting for dinner to be ready.

“You let her do her thing.”

Learning to lead

If not for the large, domed state capitol building dominating the flat horizon, it’d be easy to drive right by Jefferson City, Mo., without noticing.

It’s as plain of a state seat as there is, sitting in nondescript obscurity smack dab in Missouri’s rugged, rural geographical center. It’s watered by the Missouri River, which juts east from Kansas City to St. Louis before flowing into the Mississippi.

This is where Moore spent the first 11 years of her life, long before the bright lights of Atlanta exposed just how unique a talent she was.

Moore grew up an only child, raised solely by her mother Kathryn Moore. It was Kathryn who infamously erected a door-mounted children’s hoop in their home, hoping to keep her rambunctious, 3-year-old daughter confined to a centralized location.

The laps around the apartment ceased when Maya had that miniature ball in her hands. The energy level only increased.

“I was one of those kids that couldn’t sit still, in trouble because I was talking or moving around,” Maya Moore told “I was just a very energetic kid. I try to pay back my mom every day for my childhood. I was wild sometimes.”

Organized hoops beginning at age 7 and four seasons on the Jefferson City Basketball Club AAU team taught Moore to channel her enthusiasm. So did helping take care of about a dozen cousins from her mother’s tight-knit family, of which Maya was the oldest.

“I became the big sister,” she smiled. “Everything was my fault because ‘You’re the oldest, you should know better.’ So I kind of grew up with that sense of (being a) big sister more than anything, even though I got to go home and be an only child.”

At home, it was just Maya and mom. Her father, Mike Dabney — a guard on the 1976 Rutgers men’s basketball team that reached the Final Four — is a topic she rarely addresses, and wasn’t a big part of the picture.

Maya had no choice but to practice independence.

“Part of the way I was born, I’m a very intense person,” said Moore, who graduated high school with a 4.0 GPA. “Not necessarily, like, weird-intense; like whatever I’m doing, I do it. I’m an all-in kind of a person. So (my mother) never really had to tell me to do my homework, to go to practice. I wanted to do it.”

When Maya was in sixth grade, Kathryn accepted a position with Sprint in Charlotte, N.C. The move was hoped to provide better financial opportunities for the pair and connect Maya with a more high-profile AAU program, but the job fell through. The two stayed in Charlotte for a year.

Then came the family’s well-documented move to Atlanta, the national high school player of the year honors at Collins Hill, the top college prospect rankings, the NCAA-record win streak, the national collegiate player of the year accolades, two national championships, status as Connecticut’s all-time leading point producer, and selection first overall by Minnesota in the 2011 WNBA Draft.

But it all started in the place Missourians simply call “Jeff,” where Moore’s hardworking mother instilled focus and her many younger family members forged leadership.

Both were necessary as Maya hiked up the women’s basketball ranks. By the time she became Geno Auriemma’s right-hand man on those undefeated Husky teams, she knew full well the gravity of being looked up to as a role model.

“She’s just one of those great athletes who is able to block everything out except what’s important — ‘My team needs me to do this tonight,'” Auriemma said in 2010 after UConn won its unprecedented 89th game in a row. “And she sets her mind to it and she does it.”

Staying humble

Little has changed in that regard since Moore first came to the Twin Cities.

She made an immediate impact on the Lynx’s 2011 championship team, scoring 13.6 points per game and earning WNBA rookie of the year recognition. The next summer, she won gold starting on Team USA at the London Olympics. An overseas season in China this past winter during which she averaged 38.7 points and 12.6 rebounds a contest helped her branch out culturally and rekindled her spirit for serving as a team’s No. 1 scoring option.

That spark came back to Minneapolis with her this past spring, and the resulting flame has her in the thick of the league MVP race.

But Moore’s not as interested in that as she is in avenging Minnesota’s 2012 WNBA Finals defeat. “MVP awards, whether it’s in the playoffs or Seimone getting it (in the Finals) my rookie year, it’s all icing,” she said. “We want it to be an icing-on-the-cake kind of a thing.”

There’s that trademark Maya Moore humility, perhaps the one trait that surpasses her overall skill. Sit down for a few minutes and talk with her, and only her lean, muscular, 6-foot frame exhibits a professional superstar with a six-figure salary.

She stays down to earth by recalling her upbringing and practicing her Christian faith, she says. Time taken out of her schedule to work with children lends continual perspective, too.

Moore is on Twitter but does her best to avoid parsing through it. The only MVP updates she receives come from those around her. She acted surprised when reporters told her of Bill Laimbeer’s comments that she “should’ve been hurt” when playing late in a Lynx blowout win over New York earlier this month.

“I don’t look for it,” said Moore, recently named the Western Conference player of the month for August. “It’s definitely something you have to actively work at, in our society where it’d be very easy to take on the mindset of enjoying to be worshiped.

“It happens. It’s so easy. There’s so many ways that people can tell you their opinions and how great you are.”

She has, however, taken it upon herself to lend more advice to her comrades this season. Even Augustus and point guard Lindsay Whalen need a word of encouragement or instruction at times, and Moore can often be seen providing it.

Part of it is making an increased effort. Part is simply who Maya Moore is, her mother said.

“I learn more from her than she does from me, really,” said Kathryn Moore, who bears the same exact facial structure and gives the same thoughtful, drawn-out responses to questions as her daughter. “She’s been like that since (she was) a very young child, so honestly, I think I really do learn more from her than I have taught her about leadership.

“It’s just a natural thing that she was born with.”

The right kind of fuel

They like their red meats down in mid-Missouri.

Barbeque ribs. A nice ribeye. Staples of the typical Midwesterner’s diet. The South may be even more of a hotbed for delicious-yet-not-so-nutritious sustenance.

Moore wasn’t exactly inhaling beef by the pound as a youngster; she paid closer attention than most to her nutrition habits, her mother said.

But, Kathryn adds, “She was a normal kid. She liked to eat.”

Maya Moore still does — who doesn’t? — but attributes much of her third-year dominance to a new nutrition program she adopted during the offseason.

The difference in her energy level and endurance was almost immediately palpable, according to her coach.

“You saw her come back here with nutrition on her mind; that’s always exciting when a young player makes that transition into understanding how to take care of your body,” Reeve said. “Usually, it takes them longer, but Maya’s a smart, attentive player and listens to veterans, so Maya embraced that, and I think that’s why she’s feeling as good as she is.”

The Connecticut Sun’s Kara Lawson, an 11-year WNBA veteran and an international teammate of Moore’s, offered Moore advice on how to best feed her body. The two trained together before preseason camp opened and took tandem trips to Whole Foods, where Lawson introduced Moore to plant-based protein and natural agave nectar, among other natural-ingredient foodstuffs.

“(I’m) making sure I’m putting, instead of the regular gas, putting the most expensive gas in my body is the way I like to think about it,” Moore said after a recent practice, chewing on a vegan, chocolate-flavored VegaSport energy bar between sentences.

That means more greens, more water and less refined sugar, for starters. More sleep, too.

It makes for more at-home cooking and a heftier grocery bill, but the results have been “unbelievable,” Moore said.

“I’m only 24, so this is gonna, I think, pay huge dividends for the rest of my life,” Moore said. “It’s been cool to see other people inspired by it.”

That list includes some of her teammates, who have heard plenty of health lectures from No. 23’s locker this year. She emphasizes healthy diet choices at most of the youth clinics she’s involved in, too.

Moore and her mother — a season ticketholder who’s often in Minneapolis during the season — still take advantage of some built-in “cheat days,” usually to down a piece of cake or two.

But not nearly enough to keep Maya from playing at a few pounds less — she weighs 176 — and looking more muscularly toned than ever. That’s allowed her to play more small forward and match up defensively with smaller, swifter scorers.

“It’s not that she doesn’t like to eat now,” Kathryn Moore said. “She’s just changed the type of things that she does eat.”

Health, head and harmony

When Moore returned in May sporting an ultra-impressive physique and considerable zeal for her third season in Minnesota, Reeve greeted her not with praise, but with a challenge.

The demanding but vindicating coach identified four more rungs on Moore’s ladder to maximizing her potential. Reeve expected her to traverse two of them this year.

Defense and decision-making. Done and done, though not all the way.

“I am pleased with one of the steps that was at the forefront of our minds — not so much everybody else’s, because defense is more boring for everybody else — but I think that her progress defensively has been really helpful,” Reeve said. “And then the second step has been her offense, being able to play in the open court, being able to make one-on-one moves, and I think you guys can see that she’s done that pretty well.

“I’m not ready to say that she’s eclipsed anything yet but will say she’s on target.”

Indeed, the journey is far from complete. Heck, Moore could face 10 more years of trying to best the previously unattainable — especially if she remains as mentally and physically disciplined as she is presently.

But first, she’s intent on helping the Lynx in the short term. That means winning at least two of their final four regular-season games to lock up the West’s No. 1 seed, then a third straight trip to the Finals.

Another return appearance would represent the truest barometer of Moore’s progress — can she again shine as luminously as she has on every other stage?

That’s the plan, individual commemorations and external laud be damned.

“I just never want to stop working, stop getting better, stop being hungry,” Moore said. “That’s when you’re not respecting the game. You’re not respecting the moment. I love living in the moment, and after the season’s over, there will be a time to reflect and enjoy things.

“But I want to make sure that I don’t miss anything in the present because I’m getting comfortable with what the outside is saying.”

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