Maya Moore Makes One Girl's WNBA Wish Come True
MINNEAPOLIS -- Maya Moore knew they were out there. Even in her powerful April essay lamenting the drop-off in visibility from major college women's basketball to the WNBA, Moore was aware there was a passionate fan base, loyal supporters and children like Ariya Smith dreaming of one day joining their sorority.
But even the reigning MVP of the league can appreciate a reminder every once in a while. And when the child happens to be a 14-year-old girl whose sole desire was granted last month by ESPN and Make-A-Wish as part of the "My Wish" series on "SportsCenter" when she met Moore in Minneapolis, it becomes one of those full-circle moments.
Moore wrote about in her Players' Tribune piece, and has often referred to, the impact of her first interaction, at age 8, with former Houston Comets star Cynthia Cooper at a clinic in Kansas City during the 1997 Final Four.
"To hear Ariya's story and meet her family, it was a personal feeling that I'm still that 8-year-old kid and now I get to be here for that next generation of basketball players coming up," Moore said.
And make no mistake: Ariya Smith -- all 4-foot-9 of her -- is coming up hard.
Despite the onset two years ago of systemic Lupus, a life-threatening autoimmune disorder in which the body's immune system attacks its own tissues and organs, the kid from Thornton, Colorado, has continued to play the sport she fell in love with at age 5. And her dream remains the same:
To play professional basketball. To be like Maya Moore.
"I've been watching her a while," Ariya said. "She's just an amazing player. She's like the girl Michael Jordan."
All Ariya did upon arriving at the Lynx practice facility on June 10 and giving her idol a hug was shoot like a pro, draining nine shots in a row as she worked her way around the lane. And that was before accepting the gift of Air Jordans from the team and changing into Minnesota Lynx workout gear.
"First of all, her swag is ridiculous," Moore would later joke. "I asked her, 'Do you want to shoot around?' And she comes out and makes every one of her shots. ... I was like, 'OK, before you take my spot, let's stop.'"
Later, taking her place in the post-practice, midcourt circle, the recent eighth-grade graduate and starter-to-be on her high school's varsity team impressed Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve when she was asked for her favorite part of practice.
"Defense," she said quietly but without hesitation.
"Well," Reeve said with a grin, "you've always got a spot on my team."
Ariya's ready answer belied the emotions swirling inside ever since she found out she'd be meeting her hero via a video and personal message from Moore during her middle school practice.
"I was really surprised and shocked," Ariya said.
That shock segued into to "butterflies," said her mother, Renee Walker, when the family arrived in Minneapolis. And in the hotel, as they got ready to go to the practice facility for the first time, it turned into near terror, Ariya's stepfather, Howard Walker, said with a laugh.
"Before she met her, she told me, 'I don't want to go, I don't want to go,'" he said. "But she loosened up after."
Reeve invited Ariya to jump into any drills she wanted to at practice, and she joined the team for free throw shooting after their scrimmage. But a sore knee and fatigue, typical symptoms of Lupus, caused her to cancel an activity the next morning and served as a stark reminder of what she deals with on a daily basis.
"[You] just feel like you're old," she said. "You just can't really move, like your hands or your body."
Renee Walker must remind her daughter to tell coaches when she's tired and to not simply push through, as is her tendency. In addition to the multiple medications Ariya takes every day, including the steroids she hates because of the facial puffiness they cause and the fear the medicine will "affect my growth spurt," are the frequent blood draws and vigilance in avoiding germs and sun exposure.
"That's the thing with Lupus: It's not on the outside, it's on the inside," Renee Walker said. "It attacks the bones, the joints. Some days she's so sore, she can't get out of bed. But she doesn't let it affect her. Her team barely knows she's sick. She pushes herself harder than anybody. She's amazing."
She also possesses a maturity her mother said she sometimes wishes she didn't.
"She worries about us, stresses about our financials," Walker said. "She worries about us a lot ... I have to tell her, 'It's OK, we're all right.'"
After first experiencing symptoms at age 12, close to six months before doctors finally diagnosed her condition, Ariya feared she would have to stop playing basketball, her mother said.
"But as she was going through all this," Walker recalled, "she did say: 'I'm going to keep playing. And when I make it to the WNBA, I'm going to encourage other little kids that are sick that they can still follow through and accomplish all their dreams and goals.'
"I honestly believe that's what drives her more, that she wants to be an inspiration to other sick kids."
After a day with Ariya, Reeve reminded her players in pregame how fortunate they are. "Every day, if you look around, if you're aware, you see blessings all over the place, and our blessing this week was Ariya," Reeve said. "It wasn't just what Maya gave to Ariya, it was what Ariya gave to us, and that's perspective."
The realization that at 14, Ariya is five years younger than the WNBA and that teenage girls have never lived in a world without the women's pro league also brings home the level of influence players like Moore can have.
"Having interactions like this lets us know that what we're doing really does have an impact," said Moore, who spent most of her 26th birthday with Ariya, enjoying the casual conversation the most.
"To be honest, her challenges with her health have not really been a topic," Moore said. "She's awesome as far as how she carries herself and just continues to want to live and fight and enjoy and play and work hard in school. ... I can't speak to her struggle, I can't understand that aspect, but to be able to connect on the things we do have in common was really cool."
Ariya laughed when asked if, at 5-foot-5, Lynx guard Jennifer O'Neill gave her hope. But it's clear the hope is always there.
"Ariya always talks about being a basketball player," her mother said.
"But I think what this did," her stepfather said of the trip, "was give her the belief she can actually make it [to the WNBA]."
She already has a slogan when she gets there.
"Ball is life," Ariya said.
It's a message that resonates with her idol.
"That's me," Moore said. "I love to hoop, I just love to play and played all the time as a kid, so our inner passion is something we share. It's something you either have and can develop more, but it's hard to teach that inner drive and it's really cool to see in a younger person like Ariya."