In late July, during the third game played in the NBA bubble in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, one player’s unprecedented move took the nation by surprise and drew criticism from some in the media. Standing in his warmup pants and jersey, while the rest of his team in Black Lives Matter T-shirts took a knee, was Jonathan Isaac. At 6-foot-11, the Orlando Magic’s 2017 first-round draft pick and the sixth overall selection that year was hard to miss.
With Isaac’s contract up for a possible extension, it would’ve been easier for him to kneel with his teammates to protest racial injustice during the national anthem.
But when the moment arrived, the 22-year-old didn’t think twice.
The Bronx, New York, native told Decision that his choice to stand was intended to send another message altogether: that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the only thing that can change a person’s heart—and ultimately a nation.
Isaac has experienced this transformative power as God has worked in his own life.
Growing up with four brothers and a sister in a home where church was prioritized, Isaac was surrounded by Christians, but wasn’t quite convinced of his need for Jesus. “It was just something that I was familiar with,” Isaac said. “It was tradition. It was just what we did.”
After his family moved to Naples, Florida, when he was 10, Isaac took up basketball.
At first, it was just something he did for fun in pickup games at the rec center. “I honestly really didn’t start having that desire to play or even the knowledge to play basketball professionally until my late high school years,” Isaac said. “That’s when I realized, Wow, I can do this. People actually think I can play.”
After drawing national attention as a high school star and playing just one year on the college level at Florida State University, Isaac was good enough to be a “one-and-done” freshman and soon was a top NBA prospect.
When the Orlando Magic took him in the first round of the draft, Isaac thought he’d find ultimate fulfillment and purpose, but something was missing.
“In my early days as I got to the league, I was definitely living for myself,” Isaac said. “I tell people I had ‘Jesus in my back pocket.’ I would pull Him out when I needed Him.”
But as Isaac began to settle into his career, reality followed.
“It took getting in the league for me to realize everything I thought it was supposed to be wasn’t what it was,” Isaac said. “The money wasn’t, the fame wasn’t, and I kind of got to that place where I was saying, ‘Something’s not right.’”
A coincidental conversation only confirmed Isaac’s suspicions.
“I was on the elevator one day and this man stops me and says, ‘I know what’s going to make you great.’ And I said, ‘What?’ And he said, ‘You’ve got to know Jesus.’”
Isaac and the man shared a few more elevator interactions, and one night they even crossed paths in a movie theater parking lot.
“I go to pull out of the movie theater, and this guy is pulling in,” Isaac recalled. “And our cars meet perfectly. I look over into his car and I roll down my window and I tell him, ‘Look—you and me—breakfast tomorrow. We’re going to breakfast because I need to talk to you.’”
After that breakfast, a friendship began to form between Isaac and the man, Durone Hepburn. Isaac began spending more time with Hepburn and decided to join him in a food outreach event for the homeless.
“There was a church there. At the time, I had hurt my ankle, and Hepburn says, ‘Let’s just go into the sanctuary.’ He began to pray over my foot and I just saw the love. I saw the Gospel. And I went home that night crying.
“I was like, ‘God, You’re real. … You’re really real. Not just real in the sense of tradition or what I grew up on. You’re really real, and You desire me for some reason that I don’t understand, that I don’t know; You desire to walk with me.’ And I made a decision that night. I was like, ‘You know what? I’m going to go all in.’”
Hepburn invited Isaac to attend church with him, and as Isaac sat in the pew that Sunday, eager to see who the pastor was, it was Hepburn himself who walked out to the podium.
“I’m like, ‘What in the world?’ He never told me he was a pastor,” Isaac said.
Hepburn is founder and lead pastor of J.U.M.P. Ministries Global Church in Orlando, where Isaac has become heavily involved over the last 2 1/2 years. In that time, he has become an ordained minister, has worked alongside the church’s community outreach ministry Project Life, and has launched a broadcast platform called Judah Nation to engage with young people.
Isaac says the earnest love Hepburn showed him from the very beginning changed everything. With Hepburn pouring into him, Isaac found his faith growing rapidly.
“He’s like a sponge,” said Isaac’s close friend Takita Thomas, adding, “Any information that someone gives him, he takes and applies it. It was only natural for him to start growing really fast, and it blows my mind to see how quickly he surrendered and dove in.”
Not every Christian athlete, coach or leader agrees with Isaac on the kneeling issue, and Hepburn explained Isaac wasn’t trying to shame his fellow players. He was simply obeying what God told him to do.
“When Jonathan stood, he made it very clear he was standing because of his faith,” Hepburn said. “He was standing on what helped him. He didn’t fuss with anybody who kneeled. Why fuss at somebody who stands? He stood on what he believed.”
“When that opportunity came,” Thomas said, “because Jonathan genuinely spends time with God, he stood with no question. He trusted God and he stood without a shadow of a doubt.”
And in a nation divided and distracted by chaos, Isaac knows the foundation he’s built his life on—the Gospel—is the answer.
“It would change everything,” he said. “It would bring the healing that’s needed. If we want to heal racism or anything in our country, we need to turn toward Jesus. And that’s the conversation that’s not being had. And that’s exactly what America needs. That’s exactly what the world needs. Jesus is the answer.”
Referencing 2 Chronicles 7:14, Isaac points out that the Gospel targets individual hearts.
“It’s not a collective thing. It’s not a country thing,” Isaac said. “It’s one person at a time that changes and then one person turns into a family, a family turns into a community, a community a city, a city a state, and a state a country. …
“I know what God has done in my heart with the Gospel and I know that is the real answer for what’s going on,” he continued. “It’s not a Band-Aid. It’s not a temporary fix. It’s a new creature that God can produce. It’s a heart of stone into a heart of flesh. It’s being born again. It’s the answer.”
Knowing the answer is what moved Isaac to stand rather than kneel during the national anthem.
“I don’t believe that wearing a T-shirt and kneeling go hand-in-hand with supporting black lives. I believe the greatest support for any life—black, white, whatever race—is the Gospel of Jesus Christ because we’re all made in the image of God and we all deserve respect. But it doesn’t get there until the Gospel is dealt with.
“The root of all the problems that we see in our country, not just racism—there’s murder, there’s adultery, there’s abortion, there’s all these different things—at the crux of it is sin. The hearts of men and women are inherently sinful, and we don’t like to talk about it. It’s a lot easier to point a finger at somebody else than to point a finger at yourself. When you get down to the bottom of it, sin is the issue. And how do you combat sin? You combat sin with the Gospel.”
Isaac, who’s writing a book about why he stood, said he leans on the fact that “all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28).
And as he recovers from a season-ending ACL injury that many critics called “karma” because of his decision to stand, Isaac’s trust in God hasn’t wavered. “God has been so good to me,” he said. “He’s shown me how good He is even through this injury; every single day there’s encouragement that He’s sending my way. …
“I think the greatest thing that God is teaching me now is that He’s faithful, that He’s with me. … God has been faithful throughout all this and He’s not going to stop. He just wants me to trust Him and continue to walk with Him.”
Despite backlash and criticism, Isaac refuses to be quiet about his faith.
“For me, the end-all, be-all is God’s Word and being led by His Spirit. It informs the decisions that I make, period. I want to be right with God before I’m right with anybody else. My desire is to please Jesus first and foremost, and if that doesn’t please everybody else, then that’s where I have to stake my flag.”
The Scripture quotation is taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version.
Photo: Ashley Landis-Pool/Getty Images