Texas two-step: How WNBA's Imani Boyette and her NFL draft-prospect husband power through
When it comes down to the work of maintaining a successful long-distance relationship, Imani and Paul Boyette Jr. have had some practice. She is the 22-year-old center for the WNBA's Chicago Sky, a 6-foot-7 menace in the paint. He is a 23-year-old NFL draft prospect, a 6-2, 300-pound defensive tackle space-eater out of Texas. Together, they make a cute couple... one with athlete power couple potential.
They will certainly have a shot at that title during the next few months. When the NFL draft opens Thursday (ESPN/WatchESPN 8 p.m. ET), it marks the beginning of Paul's professional journey. Five days later, Imani tips off the 2017 WNBA preseason. Just before the draft, the Boyettes spent two weeks back in Imani's native Los Angeles, bracing themselves. Paul calls the time "a little bittersweet" with the reality of having to be separated again looming.
"And it's not even a vacation," Imani said. "He's been coming with me to my workouts."
Few notions in sports are as romantic as the athlete power couple. Steffi Graf and Andre Agassi, Mia Hamm and Nomar Garciaparra, Gabrielle Reece and Laird Hamilton, Sanya Richards-Ross and Aaron Ross -- they seem to have it all figured out, having thrived on their own terms professionally as much as together personally. But the reality is something else: hard work.
Paul had feint sense of this when he logged on to the Texas athletics' web portal to set up an email account and got sidetracked by a story about the women's basketball team's prized recruit named Imani McGee-Stafford -- the daughter of women's basketball Hall of Famer Pamela McGee and the sister of über-talented NBA center JaVale McGee.
"I was very intrigued," Paul said. "I was like, 'I would love to meet her.'"
A few hours later, there she was in the flesh, moving in three doors down. But they weren't formally introduced until later that evening after Paul bumped into her at a party. "I think what really drew my attention was her smile and her eyes," he said.
But the chance meeting almost wasn't. Imani wanted to stay home. "I didn't bring any clothes to go out my freshman year," she said. "My teammates dressed me up and made me go. I was wearing completely borrowed clothes. Now that I think back on it, it was kind of crazy how we met. But we just talked the rest of the night."
She took Paul's lead. He asked her to tell him something about herself -- something he might not already know from scanning the Longhorns' homepage. Breaking down, she gave him the scoop: how she languished during a custody battle that left her estranged from her mother for years; how she reckoned with sexual abuse and depression; how she had even attempted suicide a few times. A regular counseling and journaling habit had been key to her survival.
Paul didn't flinch.
She added him to her phone contacts as "Football Paul." She called him anytime she needed groceries or other household goods. (Paul had access to a car, you see...) They progressed to other domestic activities: eating, sleeping -- but, no, it wasn't like that. "You're so tired and so busy that sometimes you've just gotta take a nap and be in each other's presence," Imani explained.
As for how they became an item, "She likes to say I hustled her," Paul said. "But I don't think I hustled her. I'll let her tell you that."
"So we were playing basketball," Imani starts. "And we played two games and I won. Easily won. And then the last game he was like, 'Alright, if I win this one, I get to date you.' And he magically started hitting every shot. Threes -- everything. And I'm like, 'Are you joking?'"
Paul, as it turns out, is a serious baller. Basketball was his second sport growing up. Being that he's from the apropos named Humble, a Texas town stuck in Houston's long shadow, he doesn't like to brag about it. Also, he comes from sporting stock. One uncle, Garland Boyette, played linebacker for the Houston Oilers. Another, Ernie Ladd, was a defensive tackle. Both were named to Pro Bowls. Daunting legacies? Paul and Imani could definitely relate.
Still, more than a few wondered if these Longhorns should be together given all that they both had to live up to. "She and I had been talking a lot about marriage because we knew we were very in love," Paul said. "We didn't care what people were telling us about us. We both wanted to pursue professional careers and we were like, 'Well, we only have a year-and-a-half left of college together, so we might as well start talking about just getting engaged.'"
Not surprisingly, there was a fair amount of hustling involved in that effort, too. It took a couple of months for Paul to get the necessary approvals (from Imani's parents, from Longhorns coach Karen Aston) and to plot out the scene -- a January tilt at home against Texas Tech, which happened to be Family Day. Paul got some of Imani's kin to fly in special. Some of his came, too. He dressed up. And then he nearly ruined it all by showing up late to his assigned seat for the game.
Imani's quite superstitious about such things. "I noticed," she said.
"I think I came at halftime or something," Paul said. "She gave me one of those looks. The eye. I said, 'Uh oh, I'm gonna be sleeping in the doghouse tonight!'"
At the final buzzer, he sprang into action. Once Imani and the rest of her teammates repaired with their guests to the women's practice gym for a banquet, Paul set his plan in motion. He waited for Imani to be introduced.
"Normally, you go by class, but they put us in a weird order," she said. "The juniors went last. Every time I would try to go, my senior-year teammates would jump in front of me. I was like, 'Why are you guys being so weird?'"
When her turn finally came, there was music. One of her cousins found her under the rim and handed her a bouquet of roses. Then Paul barreled down the lane and dropped to one knee, ring in hand.
Imani and Paul jumped the broom in July and two days later it was back to the grind. "We got married on a Saturday, and he started training camp that Monday and had to go stay in the dorms for two weeks," Imani said. "We would see each other once a day for like an hour. When he had his break, I would drive up to campus."
Off campus, they shacked up for six months. And then with the No. 10 pick in the 2016 WNBA draft that April, Imani was selected by the Sky. She had hoped that Dallas or San Antonio might have picked her so she could be closer to Paul who stayed in Austin for a fifth year to raise his draft profile, complete his degree in kinesiology and explore a nagging curiosity with the nursing home business. (He hopes to launch a franchise one day.)
Chicago, while a fine town with an ascendant team then led by league MVP Elena Delle Donne, was not deep in the heart of Texas.
Heaven knows how the Boyettes would survive without an unlimited data plan. "We FaceTimed a lot," Imani said. "He would send me good luck texts before my games, but it definitely was really different for me. If I was playing bad or something was going wrong in my college games, I would always just look up in the stands and find his face, and he'd be like, 'You know you got it.' Or, 'This is what you're doing wrong.' I kind of have to do that for myself now."
Eventually, she mined her own inner inspiration, worked her way into a starting role and wound up among the leaders in field goal percentage (55.4), rebounds-per-game (5.6) and blocks (1.3) for a Sky team that finished just one round short of the WNBA finals. Then not long after her rookie season was over, she was off to Israel to hoop some more.
Alas, there's typically no rest for professional women's basketball players. Playing overseas is how many make the bulk of their living -- sometimes at risk to their safety. This past New Year's Eve attack at an Istanbul nightclub was a reminder of this with a number of WNBA players next door at the time. And while Israel isn't the hotspot that Turkey is currently, the nation has of course known its share of conflict.
What's more, there's an eight-hour time difference between Herzliya -- the central coast city where Imani played -- and Houston, where Paul trained six hours a day in preparation for the NFL draft. During his traffic-snarled commutes to and from the gym, he would connect with Imani. Even after they would hang up, Imani maintained a connection, retreating to Google to download all the information she could about her man's pro prospects.
It's a lot on our plate right now, but the dream is there at the end of the day. We just have to go get it.Paul Boyette Jr.
They could be better. Because of Paul's redundant physical attributes and modest on-field production (18.0 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks in 42 career games, eight of them starts), Paul projects as a Saturday pick in the seventh round, if he's drafted at all. This likely deals a blow to Imani, who very badly wants Paul to be selected so she doesn't have to play overseas again. But that's not to say that there isn't interest. Paul said the Packers, who are overdue for defensive reinforcements, have been sniffing around, or he could always be picked up as an undrafted free agent.
If anything, this has added a sense of urgency to his training, what with the missus pushing him and all. How do they keep the egos in the household from getting bruised? "I'll let you answer that," Paul said to his wife.
"I think since I'm winning the competition, I don't know how to answer that," Imani said.
She's currently back on the court as the draft kicks off, in camp with the Sky. So they're again a long-distance couple, which for young athletes with high ambitions is simply par for the course.
"I mean, we both know what we're getting into," Paul said. "It's a process. We're not where we want to be. She wants to retire whenever she wants to, and I want to play for a long time. I know it's very important for both of us to grind right now in our early years, especially in our professions, so when we have kids, when we have a beautiful family, we can take family vacations and really enjoy each other.
"It's a lot on our plate right now, but the dream is there at the end of the day. We just have to go get it."
Andrew Lawrence is a freelance writer based in Beaufort, South Carolina. Formerly, he was an award-winning Sports Illustrated staff writer. His Twitter handle is @by_drew. Follow him.