January 18, 2023 12:46 PM EST

Eighteen years into a prison sentence for a crime he did not commit, Jonathan Irons made a rope. He tore the threads off a worn sheet, tied it up, and even tested that it would hold his own weight. For nearly two decades, Irons had lived with the physical and mental assaults of life in a maximum-security facility. He had fought an injustice with far too little to show for it and fallen in love with a woman—WNBA superstar Maya Moore—whom he could hug for only two seconds during her occasional visits to see him. But this latest indignity, another trip to the “hole,” to solitary confinement, was just too much. His cellmate had been found with heroin. Irons denies supplying it.

“You never got used to the hole,” Irons writes in Love and Justice, a new memoir he co-wrote with Moore, who played an instrumental role in getting his conviction on burglary and assault charges overturned after he spent some 23 years in prison. “The air reeked of body odor and urine and fecal matter.” A defeated Irons contemplated suicide. “I couldn’t take the pain anymore,” he writes. “They had broken me. Now maybe they were gonna bury me, too.”

Irons fell into a deep sleep. The slumber may have saved his life. He woke up vowing to fight on, and things soon turned his way. He was released from the hole, and continued exchanging letters and other correspondence with Moore, whom he had first met in 2007 at the Jefferson City Correctional Center in Missouri, through her godparents, who had taken an interest in his case. Irons was 16 when he was arrested in 1996 for a nonfatal shooting. Despite a lack of physical evidence linking him to the crime, Irons was convicted by an all-white jury in 1998 and was given a 50-year sentence.

When Moore met him, she was about to begin her college basketball career at the University of Connecticut. The duo clicked, and after a series of messages—many reprinted in the book—and conversations, they began to develop an intimate bond. Moore bankrolled a team of lawyers that would ultimately helped set Irons free. She stepped away from basketball in 2019, in large part to focus on and call attention to his case. The couple married nine days after his release in July 2020; their first child, Jonathan Hughston Irons Jr., was born in February of last year.

On Monday, Moore, 33, officially announced her retirement from the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx, the team with which she won four titles. “We knew this story is too profound to keep to ourselves, which would have been easily justified, in the sense that Jonathan has been through enough,” Moore tells TIME during a joint interview with Irons from a New York City hotel room. “He can just crawl in a hole and not talk to anybody, and everybody would understand. But he didn’t. He said, I’m going to go back to these hard places, because people need to know the truth in order to prevent things like this from happening again.”

For Irons, now 42, chronicling injustice proved painful at times. “It was extremely hard,” Irons tells TIME. “When we first started, I had to break and pause and schedule a session with my counselor. The reality is, I have a crater in my life that has been blown wide open. I’m not going to get that substance back. Twenty-three and a half years are gone. There were times when I was writing and editing, I had to reach out and feel Maya. Or look at the room, and remind myself continually, this is over. I’m not inside. I’m free.”

READ MORE: Maya Moore’s Fight For Justice Off The Court

For the first six years of their relationship, Moore and Irons developed a sibling-like friendship. But as Moore recounts in the book, during a 2013 phone conversation, Irons “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.”

In 2017, Moore talked about Irons’ case publicly, in an interview for the Players’ Tribune. But she made no mention of the romance blooming between them. The omission was intentional. Moore wanted media and fans to focus on the merits of the case, such as the fingerprint report that was never shared with Irons’ defense team at the original trial, indicating that there were additional people at the crime scene—and that Irons was not one of them. She did not want anyone questioning her intentions.

“There’s so many things going on in today’s attention economy, that I’m like, I’m not wasting any time stealing the thoughtfulness that Jonathan deserves on his fight for freedom,” Moore says. “I had to be very thoughtful and intentional about what I say publicly. I think presenting Jonathan to the world with the platform and the voice that I have, presenting him first as a person who has his own self apart from being my beloved, it was helpful so that people could establish Jonathan for who he was. And later on, it’s like, ‘Oh, it gets better. There’s more love to celebrate.'”

Once Irons was released, she saw that he had basic necessities, like shoes and a toothbrush. “I needed to make sure I’m well rested and in a good rhythm so that I can be my best self for him, to be open to whatever it’s going to look like for him to start healing,” Moore says. “That’s me—basketball-player preparation. What can I do to make sure that I’m ready, my team is ready, to be the best team for this next challenge? But we didn’t have a scouting report for this challenge.”

Basketball became secondary for Moore. For one, after winning two national championships and national player of the year awards in college, four titles plus MVP and Rookie of the Year in the WNBA, not to mention a pair of Olympic golds, a pair of Euroleague titles, and three championships while playing in China, Moore had nothing left to accomplish. “I had a ridiculous career,” Moore says.

Plus, even before she stepped aside from hoops to work on her future husband’s case, basketball left Moore a bit burned out. Like many top women’s players, she had to play overseas in the WNBA offseason to maximize her earnings. The near-year-round grind took a toll on her body and mind. Moore writes about having to shower with a hose in a hotel room in China; the water wasn’t even warm.

The recent imprisonment of Brittney Griner, Moore’s former teammate on the Russian club UMMC Ekaterinburg, shone a light on the inequities that compel WNBA players to play in countries with adversarial relationships with the U.S. “As long as the people invested in the industry are trying to push things towards being healthier, more equitable, more sustainable, you’ll see change,” says Moore. “The market is the market, but there are things that we can do to impact that market. And I think visibility and having people’s voices heard and seen is a huge part of making sure the market is as fair as possible.”

READ MORE: Brittney Griner’s Fight For Freedom

As Moore speaks, Irons rarely looks away from his wife. Jonathan Jr. is about to turn one; he just started walking this week. “If his mouth is a basket, he’s a basketball player and a half,” Irons says, through Moore’s laughter. “Because he puts everything in his mouth. Right in the hole.”

Since his release, Irons has started a family and a dog-training business, and been to both Disney World and Disneyland. He has supported Moore’s work with Win With Justice, the nonprofit she founded in 2017 that’s focused on prosecutorial reform. Still, reacclimatization has brought on tough moments. “One of the hardest parts was, I grew up with men and lived with them until my 40s and almost accepted that I would never go home,” says Irons. “Those men were my friends and my brothers. They committed crimes. But I knew them in a different way. They were really good dudes. And so I’m getting out, it’s almost like I’m getting locked up again, being separated from friends that have been tried and tested for decades.”

While Irons has made new friends over the past two and a half years, the healing process is ongoing. “Man, I’ll say this,” says Irons, his eyes watering. “Sometimes I’ll be having the greatest time, then I just think about all I lost. Not being able to spend time with my grandmother, old relationships. My friends from growing up, they’ve all got kids who are graduating from high school. I missed out on all of that, man. So much was taken from me. I can’t definitively say that I’m healed. But I’m not where I was when I first came home. I’m free. I can say that. But I still hurt, man. My heart aches.”

If you or someone you know may be experiencing a mental-health crisis or contemplating suicide, call or text 988. In emergencies, call 911, or seek care from a local hospital or mental-health provider.

More Must-Reads From TIME

Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com.

You May Also Like
EDIT POST