NBA superstar Jonathan Isaac knows a thing or two about defying the crowd.
In 2020, the Orlando Magic forward made headlines when he refused to kneel during the National Anthem or wear a Black Live Matters shirt while in the NBA bubble — the only player to do so.
Though his actions sparked a media firestorm, the 24-year-old ordained minister gave a simple explanation for his decision: The Gospel, and not a political movement, is the answer to prejudice, racial unrest and pain.
“I believe that Jesus Christ is the answer to all the world's problems,” Isaac told The Christian Post. “Any political structure or ideology doesn't, in itself, have the necessary tools for salvation, which I believe ultimately is what everybody needs.”
The athlete said the Black Lives Matter movement is “ultimately pushing an agenda” and attempting to serve as a “savior to the black race.”
“I don't think that they're qualified enough to do that,” he said. “As I look out into the world, I can see that racism is not the only thing that plagues the heart of men. But I know, based on what I've experienced in my life, that the Gospel is what changes the hearts of men. In the moment of standing in the bubble, I'm saying, ‘Look, I see all the things that you see, but I cannot think of a greater message or antidote for the times that we're living in other than the Gospel.’”
“I believe,” he added, “that if we can choose to love people the way that God loves us, which is despite our faults, in spite of our mistakes, despite our sin, and we can choose to forgive people the way that God forgives us, and ultimately get back to God in the first place, we can have the real change that everyone is aiming to get to, but are trying to do it by alternative measures.”
For Isaac, who shares his story in his new bookWhy I Stand, the journey to prioritizing God’s opinion — even if it means social ostracization — wasn’t exactly a smooth one.
The athlete recalled always struggling to fit in; an issue exacerbated when his parents split up when he was 10 years old, relocating him from a predominantly black community in the Bronx to the “really white” city of Naples, Florida.
“I started to develop a fear and anxiety about being rejected by people,” he shared. “And that even stems from my parents splitting up and not getting to see my dad anymore … I kind of walked around on eggshells all the time.”
It was in basketball that Isaac found his identity: “It pretty much became my world,” he said. “I found in it everything that I was searching for; the girls started to like me ... the fellas wanted to be around me, they wanted to play ball with me because I was so good. And so I just poured everything into it.”
But even after skyrocketing to fame — he was the top basketball player at Floria State and was the sixth pick in the NBA draft — Isaac still struggled internally with deep feelings of inadequacy and insecurity.
“Basketball really gave me that mask of, ‘I'm OK, I'm at peace, I'm doing great,’ but at the same time, I never wanted to not play well because I always thought that I was going to lose everything that I had worked for,” he said. “So it was always about just kind of working and needing to perform for the acceptance and the love of others.”
It was during an injury that caused him to be sidelined for 39 games during the 2019-'20 campaign that Isaac had a truly life-changing experience. While in an elevator, he met a man who told him, “I can tell you how to be great. You have to know Jesus.”
These words, Isaac said, took him by surprise because he thought he knew Jesus: “I grew up Christian,” he said. “But I was living my life; I was hell-bent on experiencing everything the NBA had to offer. I had that kind of cliche Christianity, where I go to church from time to time or when times get tough, I pray, but it wasn’t real or tangible.”
That encounter, combined with several instances where God undeniably intervened in his life, caused Isaac’s life to “completely flip around.”
“I got to the place where God revealed Himself to me through a set of circumstances that I finally said, ‘Wow, God, you love me for me. I don't have to work for it. I don't have to be perfect,’” he recalled.
“I was so used to doing that; I was so used to walking around with so much anxiety and trying to plan … because I didn't want anybody to reject me. And so it was the first time in my life that I could take a breath and be like, ‘Yo, I'm OK. Like, God loves me for me; I don't have to perform, I don't have to make a shot.’”
After dedicating his life to Christ, Isaac said he embarked on a journey of growing as a Christian and standing for his faith — a journey that’s been both fulfilling and difficult. The athlete admitted that choosing to stand firm in the face of pressure has gotten him some “flack and a lot of backlash." He made headlines again in 2021 for being the only Magic player to refuse the COVID-19 vaccine.
“I've settled on the fact that I'm going to be willing to stand up and share my opinions the same way that someone else is standing up or kneeling for the national anthem to share theirs,” he said. “It hasn't been the easiest thing to do. But I definitely have the right people around me. Again, I know what I'm standing for. I've been able to push through the weeds and keep moving.”
The athlete, who attends J.U.M.P. Ministries Global Church, a nondenominational church in Orlando, Florida, stressed that he never wants to demonize others for their beliefs. He’s the first to admit he hasn’t always said the right thing or handled situations flawlessly.
The athlete cited Romans 8:28 — “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” — and Matthew 10:32 — “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in Heaven — as verses that give him confidence in the face of criticism.
His goal always, he said, is to “lead with love” and “approach every situation gently and humbly and share my views and just have a conversation about it.” His favorite verse is 1 John 4:19, which reads, “We love Him because He first loved us.”
“It helps me, in my mind, reiterate when I'm speaking to people, when I'm dealing with people and just loving people where they're at, and letting God and the Holy Spirit ultimately do the rest,” he said. “You don't necessarily have to preach Jesus to people; you can be an example of Jesus to people.”
“We all fall short of God's glory,” Isaac emphasized. “We have all been at a place where we were outside of Christ. And ultimately, the only reason why we're Christians in the first place is because God loved us first … God didn't come after me. I wasn't checking for Him. … We have to almost be willing and have enough understanding to take a step back and say, ‘That's me, in the same way, because we all fall short of God's glory, and we all sin.’”
“I think so many people who are outside of Christ feel demonized; they feel that they aren't loved, and sometimes just meeting somebody where they're at, and loving them where they're at is a part of seeing them change.”
To others struggling with anxiety and feelings of inadequacy, the athlete offered the reminder that there’s always hope in Christ found in Christ.
“When I got to the league, and I was living my life and doing my own thing, I really thought that I was living; I thought I had what everybody wanted until I found Christ,” he said. “Now my life, not that it is exponentially better in a surface level way, [but in a] deeply profound way has become a life that I never thought that I'd be living.
He added, “I just hope that I can be a beacon of light and an example to all the kids out there that God ultimately does have your best interest at heart and He has a destiny and a plan for your life.”
Why I Standis available now.
Leah M. Klett is a reporter for The Christian Post. She can be reached at: email@example.com