Jonathan Isaac: The NBA’s Last Man Standing
The NBA’s Jonathan Isaac hasn’t played a game since August 2020 — but people are still talking about what happened at the last two he did. It was the height of the George Floyd riots, and the league was in full-on social justice warrior mode. Thanks to COVID, the season had rebooted in a bubble — and for most pro-sports, it was an intensely political time. Almost every team had plastered “Black Lives Matter” across courts, jerseys, warm-up hoodies. And yet, three games into the abridged season, Isaac still did what no other player had the courage to: he stood for the national anthem.
At 6’10,” it would have been hard not to notice Isaac under normal circumstances. But on this July afternoon, he was the center of the sports world’s attention. Until this moment, not a single NBA player or coach had refused to kneel. After the game, reporters grilled him on whether he, as a black man, even cared about black lives. “Absolutely,” he explained. “A lot went into this decision,” he tried to tell them. And now, almost two years later, the country is getting an inside look at the faith that fueled that moment in Isaac’s new book, “Why I Stand.”
“...[E]veryone was trying to figure out what was the right way to respond for them,” Isaac told Joseph Backholm on Friday’s “Washington Watch.” “And so as tragic as George Floyd’s passing was ... and all the things that are going on in our society — even today — I try my best to take a step back and say, ‘What is the best way for me to respond in a way that would bring the most change?’ The same way that people who decided to kneel or wear that t-shirt in that moment decided for themselves what was going to be best for them. But for me, I just didn’t agree.”
As far as Isaac was concerned, “anger only begets anger, and hate only begets hate.” “I didn’t want to join into a fight,” he explained. “... And so I just looked at my life and said, ‘You know what? The Gospel of Jesus Christ, the love of Jesus Christ, is what has changed my life ... And I can’t think of any greater antidote for the times that we see today — not just racism that plagues our society, but all the things that plague the hearts of men. ... And so stepping into that moment, I didn’t want to just go along with it with what everybody else was doing or go along with the crowd.”
Isaac had his sights set on something bigger. If standing for the national anthem was going to prompt a lot of backlash, then he decided to redirect it to something more important: his faith. “I’m going to have the opportunity to share what I know is the truth,” he remembers thinking, “which is the gospel.”
That doesn’t mean it was easy. Other players were angry at his decision and questioned his loyalty to the black community. “It was tough,” Isaac remembers. He thinks back to the team meeting afterward, where things got “pretty heated.” By the end, he says, “we were able to kind of agree to disagree and leave out by saying, ‘Look, you guys know for what you believe in. And I stood for what I believe in.’”
But as much heat as Isaac took, there was also a deep appreciation for his decision to show respect for America when so many in pro sports refused. “It was such an emotional time. ... [P]eople kind of did get swept up into the movement Black Lives Matter or the phrase ‘Black Lives Matter.’” But at the end of the day, he said, there was an outpouring of encouragement from people who said, “‘You know what? I agree with your message. I believe in it, and you’re giving me the courage to stand for myself and my beliefs.’ And so, I was inspired myself that so many people agree with me and wanted to hear my story.’”
More than a year and a half later, things have calmed down. Like the other major sports leagues, the NBA came to the realization that its obsession with politics was hurting their brand. Tired of the league’s woke agenda, Americans had started turning off games and refusing to buy gear. Now, the NBA is slowly starting to put those controversies in the rearview mirror and win back the fans it lost in its high-stakes standoff.
Already, ratings for this year’s playoffs are up 53% from 2020, at the height of the George Floyd protests. As the Athletic’s Joe Vardon points out, “‘Black Lives Matter’ decals are gone from the court. There are no social justice messages on the backs of jerseys, and no one is kneeling during the playing of the national anthem.” But that doesn’t mean the league has abandoned its unpopular crusades. Today, the bulk of the NBA’s activism is happening off the court, in a brick, two-story office in Washington, D.C. That’s where the league is trying to “institutionalize” the social justice movement and make it “sustainable.”
Fortunately, though, more players will feel free to respectfully disagree with the NBA because Jonathan Isaac showed them how. “It’s only been because of my relationship with Christ [that] I’ve been able to grow to the point where I’m able to stand on my own. And when I ... [stood] by myself, I know that I wasn’t standing alone. I know that I was standing on God’s word.”
Suzanne Bowdey serves as editorial director and senior writer at The Washington Stand.