WNBA star Maya Moore recalls when her relationship with a prisoner changed from friendship to love
A new book with her now-husband, Jonathan Irons, tells the story of how they won his freedom
Love and Justice, A Story of Triumph on Two Different Courts, a new title from Andscape Books, is available in stores today. In this excerpt, Maya Moore Irons recounts when her friendship with the imprisoned Jonathan Irons became something more.
In a foreign land, I held the red, pink, and white teddy bear in my hands and looked at the note accompanying it.
Happy Valentine’s Day!
I couldn’t help smiling as the bear with bright, inquisitive eyes beamed at me.
Why is he sending me a Valentine? We’re not dating.
The gift was unexpected, especially since I was now living in Valencia, the third-largest city in Spain. Located on the east coast, the city had miles of sandy beaches and boasted over 300 sunny days every year. I had arrived in January and was currently playing for Ros Casares Valencia, the Spanish professional basketball team competing in the EuroLeague. After a busy 2011 of finishing at UConn and joining the Lynx to win a championship, I was now looking at an even busier 2012. I had a chance to win four potential championships: the EuroLeague, the Spanish league, the WNBA, and the Olympics. I was taking one day at a time, adjusting to yet another new team and also a new environment. Thankfully my mom had come with me on my first trip overseas; we were living in a nice apartment in this quaint 2,000-year-old city.
Even though it was winter in Spain, the weather was beautiful. I went to the beach a couple of times, and despite it being cold, I was still able to get out and see it. There was a lot to see in Valencia. They have a really cool aquarium in the city along with many great restaurants. We worked hard on the court, but the experience was incredible. My mom didn’t stay the whole time, but when she left to go back to Atlanta to look after the house, I spent some good time with my awesome teammates. We were super loaded with talent, with Spanish player Sancho Lyttle, Lauren Jackson from Australia, and Ann Wauters from Belgium. Once again, surrounded by supercompetitors, our team only lost two games the whole season and won its first EuroLeague championship game. I played well, stayed healthy, and enjoyed an amazing start to my overseas career.
While in Spain, I was able to watch church online and read a lot to keep my rhythm of spiritual growth. I also managed to keep in touch with Jonathan and others after I got a Skype number. When I first told Jonathan that I would be spending several months in Spain, he assumed the obvious.
“Well, I guess I ain’t gonna be able to talk to you,” he said.
“No, I’m going to get a Skype number,” I told him.
“A what number? What is that?”
“Skype,” I told him. “It’s like a phone system over the computer.” “Oh, okay.”
There was a seven-hour time difference between Missouri and Spain, but we still found a way to talk on the phone. Jonathan wrote to me and gave the letters to Cheri, who would end up emailing them for him. So our friendship continued. Of course, when I received the Valentine’s Day bear, my heart felt a jolt of romance, but I wondered how much romance he intended me to feel. The more I thought about it, however, the more I figured he was just being sweet like a big brother.
It’s okay. He’s like family.
I had known him for over four years, and we both knew that we were good friends. I had been going back to Missouri a couple of times each year, and when I did, I visited him. Our relationship was growing, and even when I wasn’t with him, I continued to see his character through our phone conversations and in his letters. I hadn’t written to him, and he understood. Every time he told me he was going to call, he called. I tried to think through my schedule and give him a window when I’d be available, and Jonathan always came through.
There was a comfort in knowing there was someone else you could confide in despite everything happening in both of our lives. Jonathan would encourage me and motivate me, and he always made me laugh. He listened. He let me know pieces of his past, and he allowed me to take time in sharing mine. Things between us felt normal even if our lives were far from that.
At the core, we were two humans who had connected with each other and who found a common bond. Like everything in my life, I approached our friendship in a thoughtful manner, always trying to stay in the moment, open to where God was leading. Our respect and admiration for each other was growing.
It was only natural for our friendship to develop into something more.
On July 3, 2013, I found myself in another pleasant phone conversation with Jonathan. We had been talking for the past hour about everything — his case, my third season in Minnesota, his life in prison, my life on the road. So far, the Lynx were 7–3. We were playing well but knew we needed to do more after last season. I still had a sour taste in my mouth about how we finished.
We had entered the 2012 season as defending WNBA champions and dominated to reach a 27–7 record. We made it to the finals only to lose to Indiana three games to one. It was hard to accept that we had been the best team in the league but still didn’t take care of what we needed to do in the finals. Indiana played us extremely tough, and we felt like we couldn’t put it all together. We wanted to use this as motivation to improve on last year, but I knew how far off a championship could be. We couldn’t think too far down the road and get ahead of ourselves. We had to take care of each day. Our team didn’t need to change things dramatically; we just needed to be who we were and crank things up a bit.
The period of 2012 to 2013 had been a blur. I had gone from helping to win the EuroLeague and Spanish league championship in 2012 while I was playing for Ros Casares Valencia, then ended up winning an Olympic gold medal with USA Basketball in London that summer. We lost in the WNBA finals in October 2012, and then I went straight to China for my first year in the Chinese Women’s Basketball League, where I played for the Shanxi Flame. We won the club’s first WCBA championship, and I played out of my mind, scoring 53 in Game 1 of the finals in February!
It had been a grueling past year-and-a-half, but winning three out of four championships was gratifying. But I wasn’t finished. We weren’t finished. The Lynx had unfinished business after last season.
I shared this with Jonathan as we talked, then changed the subject to my family. We never ran out of things to say to each other. One day, I had come and seen him at the prison, where we spent the maximum time of four hours together; then he had called me later that evening, and we spoke for two more hours. We just loved talking to each other, especially when we could be there in person enjoying each other’s company.
There was something a little different about Jonathan’s mood and vibe this day on the phone. He seemed extremely relaxed and comfortable, almost like he forgot he was enduring prison. The truth was that I noticed Jonathan acting more forward than usual, and I thought, Dude’s being real flirtatious. . . . Where’s this about to go? As he was sharing a story and reached an important part, he teased me with a joke that made my heart jump in my chest.
Hold up. That’s not something a brother says to a sister.
This flirtation had not really been a part of our conversations before, so as Jonathan continued to talk, I had to interrupt him.
“Hold up,” I said. “First of all, what was that?”
I was calling him out in a gentle and friendly way. I was at a point in my life where I was confident with putting the truth out there, especially with a close friend like Jonathan.
I repeated his comment and said, “Were you flirting with me?”
Maya Moore was putting Jonathan Irons on the spot. And he didn’t shy away from it.
“Well, yeah,” he said with his inviting tone. “That’s what I said. And I meant it.”
He was owning up to his flirting, so I had to be honest as well. “Really? Well . . . I didn’t hate it,” I said.
And just like that, the relationship had changed. Of course, suggesting that we all of a sudden decided to jump into something deeper was the equivalent of calling a champion an overnight success. Most overnight successes take years of toil and trial and work. For Jonathan and me, our intentions had always been to be friends. No one was trying to matchmake us. Our relationship simply evolved into this moment. We had taken our time to get to know each other for years. For six years, we had stayed in touch and cheered each other on, so an intimacy started to develop. We got to spend so much time building a foundation of friendship and love, so a natural next step—if it was an appropriate place to go—was to make it the most intimate of relationships.
At the same time, both of us were realistic. We knew Jonathan was fighting for his freedom. There was always something in the works, so we were always kind of hopeful. Jonathan was always finding something to focus on to move his case forward, and that gave us hope for his future. But I knew we needed to talk about our current status.
“We’re going to have to have a DTR,” I said.
“A DTR? What’s a DTR?” he asked.
“We’re gonna have to have a ‘define the relationship’ talk , ’cause what just happened—we can’t go back. We gotta talk about it.”
For those of you who know me, this sort of response probably doesn’t surprise you. I’m very good with boundaries and defining things, regardless of what area of my life they’re in.
So we had that conversation, one where we basically admitted that we had feelings for each other and then asked the question of what we were going to do. What was the best way to move forward knowing what the situation was, because this was not normal. Jonathan was hesitant and so was I.
“This is a new path,” I admitted. “I don’t know what to do.”
So we talked and figured out what to do.
There had always been a mutual appreciation and respect for one another, and perhaps the attraction was always there. Little by little over the years my attraction had grown. When Jonathan wrote my mom in 2009 to be authentic and tell her that he was corresponding with me and meant her no disrespect, I couldn’t help admiring that. He was basically telling my mom, “I care about your daughter, but I am not pursuing her and I want her to be focused. If there’s any point you’re uncomfortable, I will stop talking to her.” The letter also encouraged my mom to get to know him, to not cut him off before she really saw him for who he was. That was something that endeared me to Jonathan.
Over the years, I felt that I wasn’t going to let myself go somewhere if I knew I couldn’t go there. So for a while, developing a relationship with Jonathan always felt off-limits. As someone who is super private, the more I got to know Jonathan, the more relaxed I felt about our friendship and the more vulnerable I became. We had reached a natural place in our story.
So we decided we were going to find a way. We were hopeful. We didn’t know how long it would take for us to truly be together, but we believed that one day it would happen. We said we were going to try to and growing friendship. But now with some flirtation sprinkled in. We could be more honest about more of the fullness of how we felt for each other. And we were going to allow ourselves to express it.
We weren’t going to let this moment pass us by.