Maya Moore returns to her hometown Atlanta on Sunday having changed the world of women’s college basketball.
A packed Alexander Memorial Coliseum is expected as her two-time defending national champion Connecticut Huskies take on Georgia Tech. They bring an unbeaten streak of 80 games, still alive after a one-point scare from No. 2 Baylor on Tuesday, and closing in on John Wooden/UCLA’s record of 88 wins.
Moore's power-forward game, honed at Collins Hill and gyms around Atlanta, has taken her to pickup ball at the White House, where she and President Obama share roots in the same Chicago neighborhood.
A straight-A student, Moore’s reach extends to NBC's "Today" show, the cover of Glamour magazine and USA Today. Beckoning is the first spot in the WNBA draft and possibly a Rhodes scholarship.
Moore may end up as her sport's best ever.
“If she walked away today, she would still be in the top three,” said Tech coach MaChelle Joseph, rating her with Teresa Edwards and either Cheryl Miller or Lisa Leslie. “No doubt she’s on track to become the greatest player ever.”
“She’s against a lot of competition with Candace Parker and that bunch,” said Atlanta Dream coach Marynell Meadors, who helped coach Moore to a gold medal in the world championships last month and will scout Sunday’s game. “She’s the great one coming out this year.”
Despite the accolades, attention and pressure, Moore remains grounded. Every week, she steals two hours to dial back to her roots in Atlanta. She gets out paper and pen, ready to take notes as her computer erases the 865 miles from Storrs, Conn.
Dominating her sport begins by clicking on a link to World Changers Church International.
“I rarely get a Sunday where I can catch the service live,” she explained by phone recently from Connecticut. “My faith is the core of who I am. I feel like everything I do stems from that.”
World Changers is a megachurch of 20,000 members based in College Park and televised to 150 countries. It has drawn questions from Congress and other critics for its lack of financial transparency.
For Moore and her mother, Kathryn, pastor Creflo Dollar presents a methodical approach to Biblical teaching expressed in the formula, “Simplicity +Understanding +Application = Change.”
This philosophy fits with their disciplined, no-nonsense view of life and basketball.
“The way he preaches is very classroom-like,” Moore said. “I write everything down anyway because it helps me remember it better, and I learn better that way. You can’t walk out and act like you didn’t learn something. It’s easy to learn something in the style he teaches, and after I started in middle school, it’s been a habit ever since.”
“We have a lot of teachers in my family -- both of my parents, my mother’s two sisters, and in-laws,” Kathryn Moore said in a phone interview.
World Changers “is not a church that has a whole lot of religion. It’s like going to class, and Maya likes that a lot.”
(Kathryn Moore’s parents taught school in President Obama’s Hyde Park neighborhood. When she mentioned this to him at a ceremony for the Huskies, Obama “was really tickled,” Kathryn Moore said. )
Moore’s education in basketball allowed for Sunday mornings spent studying at World Changers. Consistency became paramount on the floor and in the pew. In both hoops and church, she chased World Changers’ slogan, “In all your getting, get understanding.”
Her success can be seen as highlighting Dollar’s prosperity gospel, which exhorts followers to put faith into action and expect rewards.
“She represents our brand and the motto of what we stand for,” said Angela Dollar, 39, of Fayetteville, the pastor’s sister who played small forward in high school.
“She doesn’t just sit down and let it happen. She invests time in it. She is a student of the game and is always willing to learn and perfect what she does."
One reason Moore picked UConn is coach Geno Auriemma's emphasis on looking outside one's self as a teammate -- and as a person. "We do community stuff like visiting cancer-research places and things like that," she said. "This has been a good place to grow in my faith and as a person.”
As a senior leading a young team in a national spotlight, Moore lately has focused on grace, or unconditional acceptance. The only record she cares about, she said, is the team’s consecutive productive practices.
“I know my faith has helped me keep that mindset of being humble, to appreciate every day,” she said. “We are in an extremely unique situation, and I don’t want to waste a day.”
Because she’s so good, people don’t always see her shortcomings on the court, which connect with struggles inside her.
In the middle third of last season, obscured by all the winning, “there were things I wasn’t doing right that affected my whole mood,” she said. “I didn’t bounce back. I allowed them to consume me. I was kind of having a spiral effect where one mistake led to another. It was a little slump that was hard to see on the outside.
“On the court, I was letting my performance get me down, and I didn’t snap out of it until the postseason,” she said. “This year, I know I’m making mistakes because I’m having to lead in a way that I haven’t led before.”
To balance that intensity, Moore not only turns to World Changers, but meets regularly with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. She participates in summer camps and activities with Athletes in Action, dedicated to “building spiritual movements everywhere through the platform of sport so that everyone knows someone who truly follows Jesus."
She often signs autographs with the notation “Col. 3:23,” a Bible verse: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters.”
Her mother regards her success of her daughter, who was named for poet Maya Angelou, as a reward from God for “keeping her priorities straight.”
Kathryn Moore and about 100 family and friends will be among the crowd at Tech on Sunday. The game begins at 2 p.m., which means Maya Moore will miss church to prepare.
But she’ll tune in sometime this week, in between games, a habit that for her has become as challenging and repetitive as winning itself.