With one announcement, a future gripping documentary became a Hollywood movie. Maya Moore, one of the greatest basketball players on earth with a closet full of trophies to prove the point, had left her career in her prime to pursue justice. Back in 2019, she shocked the world by turning away from the WNBA to take on our system of racist mass incarceration and focus on freeing a man named Jonathan Irons. At age 16, Irons was arrested for a crime that he said he did not commit, a home-invasion robbery in Missouri. There was no physical evidence connecting him to the crime, but he was still handed a stunning 65-year prison sentence by an all-white jury. As fortune and unimaginable luck would have it, Irons had been in the youth choir led by Maya Moore’s father. That relationship continued when Irons was locked away to be forgotten, just another number in a system that houses more people behind bars than any country on earth.
But the Moore family fought for his freedom and two years ago, inspired in part by the Ava DuVernay film 13 as well as her generation’s awakening to the fight for racial justice, she walked away from basketball to join the fight. As she told me in 2017, her family
really felt a connection and compassion to help Jonathan, who didn’t have a lot of resources, to stand up and give him a voice to speak out against his wrongful conviction. The more we got to know him, the more outrage our family started to feel, especially seeing what an awesome person he is despite his circumstances and how he’s grown and the things he’s trying to do to fight for himself and continue to be a light where he is.
Now, Jonathan Irons is free. When he breathed freedom for the first time since he was a teenager in March, he said of Maya Moore, “She saved my life. I would not have this chance if not for her and her wonderful family. She saved my life and I cannot say it better than that.”
If that were the end of the story, it would be gripping enough. No star athlete has ever walked away in their prime to pursue the aims of social justice. But we learned this week that the story has another wrinkle: Jonathan Irons, now 40, and Maya Moore are married. Speaking on Good Morning America, Moore said, “We wanted to announce today that we are super excited to continue the work that we’ve been doing together, but doing it as a married couple.” In other words, Maya Moore is going to continue her work fighting for the wrongly incarcerated, but now she is going into combat as half of a dynamic duo.
Moore first met Irons when she was 18 and he was 27. Moore was a basketball prodigy and Irons was “skeptical” whether Moore would remain in his life as she embarked upon an epic college career for the dynastic UConn Huskies. But she kept in touch by sending him books and letters, as well as visiting when home from college. They became like family. Now they are family.
In a year when everything is no unremittingly dark, their story is more than just an unlikely love connection forged in the fires of fightback against an unjust system. It’s a reminder that hope, even when it feels like just a gasping glimmer, still exists. It is also a sobering reminder: Jonathan Irons was meant to be buried by this system. He, by sheer happenstance, happened to be connected to a family of guardian angel activists, committed to fighting for his freedom. One must reckon with the fact that there must be thousands of Jonathan Irons behind bars in this country, living every day behind bars, their days defined by an absence of liberty. His story and the story of Maya Moore’s family should inspire us to redouble our efforts to fight for the wrongly convicted, fight for alternatives to prison, and fight for a country that doesn’t warehouse people who can’t afford justice.