Maya Moore returns from Brazil, gold medal in hand, and directly into the teeth of the WNBA. There are eight games remaining in the league's schedule, about a quarter of the regular season, and after a record 13-0 start, Moore's Minnesota Lynx currently sit at 21-4, a half-game back of the equally impressive Los Angeles Sparks. Their spot in the playoffs secure, the Lynx will be looking to successfully defend their title for the first time in team history.
Moore wasn't the only Minnesota starter in Rio—Lindsay Whalen, Seimone Augustus and Sylvia Fowles all won gold there, as well. But come Friday, the medals will go in their cases and the Lynx will get back to work.
For these players, jumping straight from one gig to another is nothing new. To crib from Beyoncé, they love the grind. They don't really have a choice. When it comes to making a living in professional basketball, the women grind from Monday to Friday, then work from Friday to Sunday.
The average WNBA player made $75,000 last season, with maximum individual salaries capped at $107,000—a fraction of what their counterparts in the NBA earn. So, many players will supplement their income in the offseason by playing overseas; there, according to ESPN's Michele Steele, "a typical seven-month contract starts at $40,000." For many players, the net result is year-round basketball for which they're paid a little more than the average middle manager.
Moore's superstar status hasn't completely exempted her from this grueling schedule. For the past four years, she has spent her offseasons in China with the Shanxi Flame, whose fans call her Invincible Queen; after signing with the team in 2012, she told the Star Tribunethat they offered "significantly more than double her rookie contract," which paid just under $47,000. Moore led the Flame to three straight championships from 2013 to 2015. This year, however, she played only half the season, and Shanxi was eliminated from the playoffs at the beginning of February.
"I've chosen to take less money and take more rest," Moore said after a Lynx practice earlier in the year. "I'm fortunate to be able to have that as an option, as well as having my mind and my body ready to go a little bit more. It's challenging living in three places, two different continents—Olympic years and World Championship years more than that. It's really ridiculous when you think about it, but a lot of women don't get that offseason. They play from October to April [overseas] and then May to October [in the WNBA]. They're just resilient and it does take a toll on the body and the mind, but unfortunately you kind of have to if you want to maximize your career as far as making the most that you can while you have the talent."
Making the most of what you have while you have it has never been a problem for Moore. "When I was in elementary school I just did anything that included running around or doing something active with a ball," she said with a laugh. "My mom was like, 'We're putting you in something structured because you have a lot of energy and we're going to figure this out. Now I'm very good at focusing."
It's a common solution for parents, pouring their children's excess energy into the structured environment of sports. But for young girls, the foundations of those structures are not always so well laid, nor are the role models so visible, as Moore wrote for the Players' Tribune last year.
"I could tell I was different when I was younger because I really enjoyed being active, more so than most of the girls at my elementary school and middle school," she said. "Being an athletic female growing up was more of an anomaly than a norm, so I did notice that, but I didn't really know how to think about it. It was kind of confusing and hard to understand: Where do I fit in as a girl who likes to play sports?"
Fortunately for Moore, her young basketball career coincided with the beginning of the WNBA, which is celebrating its twentieth season this year.
"I started playing on a YMCA team when I was in second grade," she said. "Then the next year, I started playing AAU and the WNBA started. So I remember pretty vividly those first four years when the [Houston] Comets were really hot. I was a huge Comets fan and there was no WNBA team kinda close to Missouri where I was growing up at the time, so I just hopped on the Houston Comets train and Cynthia Cooper was my favorite player. I think when I was nine years old, for Christmas, my uncle bought me my first official WNBA indoor basketball and outdoor basketball and I carried one of those basketballs around with me everywhere, every tournament until I was 16."
Now 27, Moore is one of the faces of the league, and an integral part of a legit dynasty. The Lynx have had four finals appearances and three championships in the last five years, but more than laurels, they have a culture built largely around a veteran core and head coach Cheryl Reeve. "She is all of our mentor with how she teaches the game and the things she wants us to look for and the details that it takes at this level," Moore said. "I've tried to soak in all that and do a lot of listening when I was younger. A lot of those things now are instinctual for me."
In person, Moore is thoughtful—and generous with those thoughts almost to a fault, like you can't imagine a person being this good at what they do while also being so willing to talk openly about it. What you hear over and over is the pattern that's been repeating itself since she first picked up a ball: drive leads to work leads to learning leads to achievement leads back to drive. Even after an Olympics run that saw the U.S. women earn their sixth straight gold medal and extend their undefeated streak to 49 games, Moore gave more credit to resilience than sheer skill.
"I think it's just a matter of us wearing teams down," Moore told reporters after the U.S. defeated Japan, 110-64, in the Olympic quarterfinals. "We play at a high level. We try to play at a high level for 40 minutes. It's not going to happen perfectly."
That might sound like the mantra of a perfectionist, but perfectionism is inevitably bound up with a kind of frustration that Moore doesn't evince. It comes out most clearly in Moore's most-repeated conversational tic, the simple word "OK." Talking about the time she played fourteen straight months of basketball between Europe, China, and the WNBA, she says, "Month eleven came and I said, 'All right, I want to go home for Christmas and I can't. OK.'" About her local role models as a female athlete growing up she says, "Having older girls in my neighborhood who also were on a team or played and then watching women on TV and in the WNBA helped me to understand, 'Oh, I'm like her. OK.'" When I mention my daughter's first season of T-ball, she remembers her own: "Whacking the stick more than the ball and then it just drops and you're like, 'OK, let's try this again.'"
It's an acceptance and an affirmation, an acquiescence and a challenge, all rolled into one. The Olympics are over, the last quarter of the WNBA season is in front her, and Moore and the Lynx want badly to repeat as champions, the one thing that's eluded them as they've built their dynasty. OK.