- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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STORRS, Conn. -- Regardless of much UConn has pounded opponents the past two seasons, junior Maya Moore never sees herself as working with a sledgehammer. Her metaphoric set of tools would be an easel, brushes and a palette.
"Every game -- it's like an open canvas, and you have an art assignment," she said. "Maybe one day, you've got to use some color you don't want to paint with. But you have to make it work; you have to make it beautiful.
"And that's why you can always have fun. Because it's not just about 'We have to win the game.' Yes, you have to get it done. But how you get it done is unpredictable."
Does that surprise you? Perhaps you think when you're an elite athlete like Moore -- blessed with equal amounts of talent and desire -- that winning games is simply a matter of asserting yourself.
You're better than most people you've ever played with or against, and -- let's face it -- frequently much better. So isn't every game just about doing your thing well enough? Isn't it as simple as going out and being better than everybody else?
No, it's really not like that for anybody who resides at the pinnacle of whatever they do. It still takes constant honing and tweaking and ability to improvise. But not everyone speaks as poetically as Moore about that daily recreation of greatness that the best athletes find a way to achieve.
The player that the 6-foot forward Moore is naturally linked with because of their similar size and ability to take over games, to be extraordinary when situations demand it well, she wouldn't make analogies to painting. She'd more likely make a wisecrack.
However, Diana Taurasi knows exactly what Moore is talking about. She lived it at UConn and, as a professional ballplayer, is living it still.
Taurasi lost in the national semifinals during her freshman season at UConn, then helped the Huskies win three national championships. "Helped" actually would be the most chosen word for the first one in 2002, when she started along with four seniors. "Carried" would be the term more observers would use for 2003 and '04, although Taurasi herself would shake her head at that.
Not out of false modesty, but just because she knows it's too easy for outsiders to come up with a shorthand description of the process. It still took five players on the court doing what they were supposed to. It still took her figuring out what she wasn't doing well enough -- even when it seemed she was doing everything better than everyone.
Moore lost in the national semifinals as a freshman, too. Last year, she played with a senior point guard, Renee Montgomery, in a perfect season. This year she's playing with the center, Tina Charles, who is the program's all-time leading scorer and rebounder.
No one would argue that Moore is playing with a more talented and experienced team as a junior than Taurasi did. But is the process really any different? Isn't it still about five people on court doing what they're supposed to do?
Isn't it still about Moore recognizing what she isn't doing well enough? Of course it is.
Now, you might think when you're averaging 17.9 points, 8.3 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 2.2 steals for an undefeated team, you're already doing everything well enough. Moore would disagree.
"I thank that man over there so much," she said, pointing to coach Geno Auriemma, "for showing me how much more of the game that there can be."
Then she laughs almost ruefully.
"It's kind of well, not, ruined basketball for me," she said, "but I see so many more things now, that I can never be satisfied -- things that I can get better at every day. And yet that's been a joy, too, to learn the game that I love even more than I thought I could."
Alone or on court, Moore always analyzing
It's a couple of hours before a weekend game earlier this season, and Moore is walking along outside her "artist's studio," Gampel Pavilion.
She's alone. She doesn't have the iPod ear buds with which so many people now shut out the rest of the world. She's isn't in any hurry, but neither is she dawdling.
Nothing about this should seem notable -- it's just Moore walking up a hill to her car -- yet it's a vignette.
Maybe because you see her and wonder what she's thinking in regard to the upcoming game. Maybe it's because she's alone and appears so comfortable that way. College athletes in team sports don't seem to go many places -- other than to class -- alone. They're usually in pairs or groups, as if the bond that binds them of necessity on the basketball court becomes a kind of emotional security blanket everywhere else.
But Moore is not just OK being alone, she at times requires it.
"I struggle a little with talking about how I've grown -- maybe everybody does -- because you don't really think about it so much," she says of her three years in college. "But probably for me it's been putting myself out there a little more.
"Living with my teammates is a different experience. You don't live with your teammates in high school, of course, so here you really get to know each other and talk about things, get to know each other's families, your daily struggles. I guess I share more of myself than I would in the past.
"But I still value my quiet time and alone time. I'm definitely a person that recharges by being by myself. I do love people, though, absolutely. That's why I play on a team."
Two men are walking down the other side of the street as Moore passes on the opposite sidewalk. One says, "Hey, that's Maya Moore."
The other guy's head immediately swivels. Moore doesn't see them, but if she had, she would have smiled and nodded. It takes energy for introverts to do that, and Moore readily acknowledges her introverted nature. That's one of the ways in which she's most different from Taurasi.
Yet Moore came to UConn already understanding that she had to be more than just a basketball player. She had to be the perfect citizen, an excellent student, the face of the program. Even as an 18-year-old freshman she seemed like a much older person, someone with a vision of the big picture that supposedly only comes with experience.
That's why she makes the effort to listen to every reporter's question, to stop and think about her answer, to keep reaching for something besides the easy collection of clichés that can be slightly altered to fit each situation.
There are no "new" questions at this point, not when you're playing for the most chronicled women's basketball program in the world, and you've been to two Final Fours, and you're the one everybody wants to talk to.
But again, Moore gets this. Just like Taurasi got it. If you're an evangelist for your sport, which you realize has a limited spotlight in the grand scheme of things, you don't get tired of talking about it. You don't get tired of any aspect of it. For instance
"I don't understand people who play basketball and don't like to watch it," Moore said. "I love watching it. I am definitely a junkie. I know when to turn the TV off, for the most part, if I have to get something else done. But if I had to choose between doing something else for fun and watching basketball, I'm usually going to choose watching basketball and being around it.
"I'm happy to say at this point, I still love the game. Some people get to an age where they get burned out or don't love it enough to sustain them. Honestly, I could sit on the couch and watch basketball all day."
But the fact that she was recently named the women's basketball Academic All-America of the Year, as selected by the College Sports Information Directors of America, tells you she's definitely not just sitting on the couch all day staring at the television.
She has a 3.7 grade-point average -- and however you'd want to measure basketball smarts, she's at the top of that class, too.
"I would describe her improvement a lot the same as I would for Diana," Auriemma said. "They were already really, really good at the things that they were good at, and they wanted to keep getting better at those.
"My job is to make them get great at those things, but get really good at the things they don't want to be good at."
Then he amended that.
"No, I don't mean that. It's not that they didn't want to be good at them, it's just the things that are hard for them to be that good at. Take Maya; left to her own devices as a freshman, if you said, 'Maya, you're going to take 25 shots in this game, what do you want them to be?'
"She'd say, 'Uh, 24 3-pointers and a breakaway layup that I can dunk.' Now, who's going to keep her from doing that in high school or AAU? Nobody. But she gets here, and we said, after her freshman year, 'OK, for the next two weeks wherever you're playing, you're not allowed to shoot a 3.'"
Now, this tells you something right here, that Moore would follow such instructions implicitly even when just playing pickup. But Auriemma knew she really needed to learn this on her own.
"So she walks into my office after two weeks," Auriemma said, "and she goes, 'Wow, Coach, I didn't realize how much fun basketball could be.' I go, 'No [kidding] -- because there's other things than shooting 3s. There's pull-up bank shots, post-ups, little stuff around the basket that you never knew existed because you never had to do it.' So I'm preparing her for what happens when you start going up in class and they won't let you get that 3 off."
Auriemma then talked to Moore about how Michael Jordan piled up points at the foul line, which is the same thing he had told Taurasi.
"I say, 'That's how you get 31 a game. What do you think -- you get it all on jump shots?'" he said. "So now Maya's big thing is she wants to play a real physical, knock-down, drag-out, tougher-with-the-ball, try-to-foul-you out [style] and then take you outside and make a 3. Now because of that, she's fouling herself out. So maybe I've screwed her up instead of making her better."
It always comes back to the zinger with Auriemma, doesn't it? Of course, this bit of exaggeration is particularly hilarious because of the number of times Moore actually has fouled out of a game in her UConn career: zero.
Painting a masterpiece
UConn has won 72 games in a row, and now stands six victories from a second consecutive perfect season and the program's seventh national championship. The Huskies' NCAA tournament quest begins Sunday in Norfolk, Va., and Moore is enough of a student of the game to know that's the city where the first two women's NCAA Final Fours were held, in 1982 and '83.
The wins are how great players measure themselves in every sport. Moore understands full well that winning is the bottom line.
But it's not the whole book.
"Coach does help us keep perspective about how this is a game, and there are bigger things than the game," Moore said. "But for that block of time when we're together, you put everything you have into the game. Everybody comes in, puts all of their emotion, effort and concentration into something, and it works. That's exciting.
"The real satisfaction that you see at the end of the season is when you have taken chances, you've invested in your teammates and worked so hard physically -- for it to come together. When you're playing basketball the right way and you win, you get such a sense of satisfaction. But if you don't invest in each other and don't put yourself out there "
Moore pauses then. Because as she's explaining this, she's truly thinking about it.
"Which is still something I'm trying to do, really -- to always put myself out there," she said. "It's a process. I feel you get more out of your season when you do it that way. Not necessarily by putting all of your happiness on the win. Because the win comes and then it's gone. And then what are you left with? You're left with the people you're around."
And with that, Maya Moore -- who sees every basketball game as a canvas needing to be filled -- has verbally "painted" her self-portrait. It seems likely to be judged a masterpiece.
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.