When Maya Moore met Jonathan Irons, her presence brought him to tears. “She was so warm and loving and kind and she looked me in the eye,” Irons says. “It stirred something in my heart because I was not used to that.” At the age of 16, he’d been charged with burglary and assault, and at 18 was sentenced to 50 years in prison for crimes he did not commit.
Moore was just 18 at the time they met and had learned of Irons’s story through her godparents, who’d become close with him through a prison ministry. She had yet to go to the University of Connecticut, where she would win more games than any player in college basketball history. She had yet to become the number-one draft pick in the WNBA, where she would lead her team to four championships. She had yet to be called the “greatest winner in the history of women’s basketball,” bring home two Olympic gold medals, and ignite a new wave of athletes fighting for social justice when she and her teammates on the Minnesota Lynx would become among the first athletes to wear Black Lives Matter T-shirts on the court.
After she left the prison that day, Moore and Irons stayed in touch, and the meeting would prove to shape their lives in profound ways, changing the way we think about athlete activism and raising the collective consciousness of prison reform. But on that first day, she was just a kind family friend who sat down with Irons to play checkers. Moore won.
When we conducted our interview over Zoom in April, as Moore, now 32, and Irons, 41, settled into their new house in Georgia, the warmth of their home and their marriage felt tangible even through a screen. “That’s my best friend, my bestie,” Irons says, smiling at his wife.
Moore began speaking out about Irons’s case in 2016. “I had no real understanding of the reality of prison or criminal justice until I heard about Jonathan’s story as an 18-year-old,” she says. As her list of athletic accomplishments grew, so did her friendship with Irons and her understanding of his case: “My whole motivation for learning about criminal justice reform came from my relationship with Jonathan and knowing him and caring about him as a person. You want to help. And so I utilized my resources in the sports world, which connected me to people who’ve been in this space for a long time, and I got educated.” She learned that though the U.S. makes up just 5% of the world’s population, we’re responsible for nearly a quarter of the world’s prisoners (“It’s just embarrassing,” Moore says) and founded Win With Justice, a social action campaign designed to advocate for prosecutorial reform.
At the same time, Moore’s game was changing the face of women’s sports. As a six-time WNBA All-Star, with four WNBA championships and two Olympic golds to her name, she earned rightful comparisons to Michael Jordan. Professional athletes have power, as Moore knows deeply, and so she used her platform to help ignite the modern era of activism the WNBA is so well acknowledged for today. “I understand people look to sports to relax and escape the realities of life,” Moore says. “But there’s suffering going on around us. And if I see something and I don’t do something or say something, I am becoming less human.”
So while it might not have been all that surprising, it was significant when she announced in 2019 that at the age of 29, she was stepping away from the legacy she’d built in basketball to focus on “living out my purpose.”
“It’d be hard for me to talk about this without acknowledging I am trying to follow the Lord and where I feel like I’m supposed to put my presence,” she says. “That’s not always easy or understandable.” Faith is at the core of Moore’s story—it’s what makes her tick. It guides the decisions that have defined her life. So it’s impossible to understand what would drive the champion of a generation to walk away from her sport at the peak of a Hall of Fame career to help a family friend without understanding her unshakable faith in God and the desire to live up to her calling. “That helps me be more authentic,” she says. “It’s hard for me to explain my path without laying that foundation.”
What Moore didn’t say right away, at least not publicly, was that she was going to devote her time, her energy, her presence, to Irons’s case. “[Criminal justice reform] is such an overwhelming space. And it’s easy to get paralyzed when you’re overwhelmed,” Moore says. She dove into her work with Win With Justice, focusing on educating voters about the importance of prosecutorial reform. In the United States, most prosecutors are elected by the people, and also have absolute immunity, meaning they can’t be sued for misconduct in the courtroom—even in cases where they’ve presented falsified evidence or coerced a witness—and it’s easy to imagine prosecutors who are most concerned about maintaining a high conviction rate. Who is elected to those positions, in other words, is vitally important to the effectiveness of the criminal justice system and in determining whether justice is really served in cases like Irons’s. “Prosecutorial reform is one of the spaces that has one of the biggest impacts because you can actually go do something,” she says. “We have to act and use the power we have as voters.”
Moore’s decision to step into her purpose paid off—in March of 2020, after 23 years in prison, Irons’s conviction was overturned.
After that first game of checkers, Maya and Jonathan continued to talk in letters and emails and on the phone. “We just continued to grow and learn each other and get even closer,” Irons says. “And it was like, ‘Man, we really like each other. We’re good friends.’ That was the foundation of our relationship—being good friends.”
Developing a friendship with a prisoner while you’re in college is not exactly easy. “Nothing is ever simple in the prison system,” Moore notes. Finding time for a simple phone call to catch up was an ordeal. “I would have to fight to get into line, like coordinate [with the other prisoners] because there were only four phones for 72 men. You’d have to negotiate, develop friendships with people that you normally wouldn’t deal with to try to coordinate,” Irons says. “People would jump the line when they weren’t supposed to or stay on the phone too long, so we developed this unofficial committee basically to try to be considerate. But it was hard. I saw people get assaulted for the phone—it was a serious thing.”
She couldn’t call into the prison, and it wasn’t like Maya Moore—one of the best basketball players in NCAA history with a schedule packed with classes and games—could pick up a call at any time either. “Our friendship wasn’t just a ‘pick up your iPhone and call whenever,’” she says. “It was work.”
I ask when, in the midst of this decade of intentionality and deepening care, their relationship evolved into something beyond a friendship. Moore and Irons smile. “It’s a wonderful question. I don’t know if I’m ready to talk about it yet,” Moore says. “All in good time,” adds Irons.
Publicly, Moore always maintained a focused professionalism about their relationship, expertly keeping interviews focused on his case and the bigger issues of criminal justice reform, rather than any personal motivation. But privately, the personal relationship Irons had developed with Moore and her family was transformational. “There were times that I was ready to give up and just push everybody away,” Irons says. “But their love for me just kept me going—so much that I studied law while I was in prison. I learned how to read it and write it, I helped other prisoners, I helped advocate for rights within the prison. And I was able to write my habeas petition, the first draft of which led to my freedom.”
In September of 2020, months after the news of Irons’s court victory and his eventual release from prison in July, the couple announced they’d gotten married over the summer—the secrecy ensuring the press would focus solely on the importance of Irons’s and Moore’s activism without the distraction of a love story, and that the couple would have a few months of privacy to navigate their happy new reality.
And what a transition to navigate. Moore and Irons went from being separated by the criminal justice system, fighting for every phone call and living with the constant uncertainty of whether they would ever actually see justice, to finally living together—in a quarantine bubble. “Our experience has been a journey of navigating extremes,” Moore says.
In the early days of their marriage, in addition to their joy and their long-overdue chance to start making new memories, they’ve had to address the trauma of a 23-year wrongful imprisonment. “They teach staff [in prisons] to basically dehumanize you. So we’ve been working together, working on the trauma,” says Irons. “We’ve been going to counseling because we’ve never been married before. At times it’s very difficult. But one thing I’ve noticed is that there is a desire in our heart that compels us to continue to fight to get to each other.”
When Moore was playing professional basketball in China during the WNBA off season, the couple’s already difficult phone calls became even more of a challenge. Irons would wake up at an ungodly hour in order to catch Moore before she went to bed. “Sometimes we couldn’t even talk to each other because the cell signal was so bad we would have to yell: ‘WHAT...ARE...YOU...DOING? I...LOVE...YOU.’ What? ‘I said, I...LOVE...YOU!’” Irons says. “We would make a game out of it just to take the edge and the frustration off of it. That’s how we pursue life—leaning in in the difficult times and taking time to just have fun.”
That spirit has gotten them through what has been, in truly every way imaginable, a life-altering year. Irons’s conviction was overturned just as the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S., and—even though a judge had already determined he’d been wrongfully imprisoned for the past 23 years—it took another four months of waiting for him to be released. “We’re dealing with all of the extreme emotional trauma of [all of] that, while wanting to start our life and our family,” Moore says. “We’re working it out, but it’s work.”
Moore’s story is about doing the work—especially when it comes to sacrifice and having the conviction to sit in, as she described it, “uncomfortable tension.” It is not a story about a woman fighting to free the man she loves (that’s too simple). But relationship—not just theirs but the very concept of being in relationship with people—is of foundational importance to understanding the work that she is doing.
“One of the key messages I pray that people get from Win With Justice is that you need to be in relationship with your neighbor—preferably your neighbor that’s not exactly like you,” she says. “That’s how you learn to love more deeply and get out of your comfort zone.”
“None of what you see in front of us happened because either of us stayed comfortable,” she adds.
Irons release was “a miracle,” says Moore. “What happened is literally a one-in-a-million kind of situation—people in his situation don’t come home. But we’re trying to make that reality more attainable. It’s only one-in-a-million if people don’t care.”
And so the work continues, starting with sharing their story, which they hope will inspire and encourage. Moore and Irons are the subject of a new documentary, produced by Robin Roberts, which will air on July 13 as the latest in ESPN’s 30 for 30 series.
Their legal battle also continues. In March 2021, Irons sued the Missouri law enforcement authorities who, per a lawsuit, he says framed him as a teenager. “It’s never just about one person. When you dehumanize a person, it’s always more far-reaching,” Moore says, explaining that they’re seeking justice for the entire community impacted by Irons’s wrongful imprisonment. “We want to take our megaphone and make this an example that this cannot continue. People matter too much, communities matter too much,” she says. “We have to make sure that we have power and a voice. We have to stand up and say, ‘Enough.’”
More than anything, the couple hope their work inspires people to care enough to act to reform the criminal justice system—even in the smallest of ways. “I like to look at the analogy of a scale,” says Irons. “Say 100 people have a small stone and on one side of a scale, there’s this massive unbelievable weight. If each person takes a stone”—which could be a conversation with someone from a different community, a donation to an organization fighting for reform, a social media post, a vote—“and throws it on the other side of the scale, it starts to balance it out.”
In the meantime, after years of fighting to get to each other, the couple is finally making up for lost time. “So what’s next? Goodness gracious,” Moore says with a laugh. Irons chimes in with a smile: “Plenty of love.”
Originally Appeared on Glamour