September 1, 2023 : By Ryan Klinker - Office of Communications & Public Engagement
Orlando Magic forward Jonathan Isaac used the Convocation stage Friday morning at Liberty University to share his story of how God has transformed his life and career into a journey of standing boldly for Him and pursuing His purpose, even when others may encourage the opposite.
Isaac acknowledged that many likely know him as the first player to stand during the national anthem in the NBA bubble in 2020, a decision that was followed by support from some and backlash from others. Dealing with an injury at the time, Isaac was still with his team as they entered into the bubble (a COVID-19 quarantine for players to continue their season despite the pandemic). Following the death of George Floyd, teams across the league were kneeling during the national anthem and wearing Black Lives Matter T-shirts, and the Orlando Magic were no different. Every time the topic was brought up, Isaac said he would insert Jesus into the conversation, but he was repeatedly told, “This is not the time for that.”
In a team-only meeting, all of Isaac’s teammates saw no alternative to the decision to wear the shirts and kneel for the anthem. When asked if he would participate, Isaac told his team that he saw the movement differently.
“I found myself in this moment not really understanding my place in it,” he said. “I started to explain to them, ‘I see the problem, I just have a different solution. We all fall short of God’s glory, and I don’t want to point fingers at an individual person — or an entire race for that matter — because I need grace and mercy just like (everyone does).’”
That night, he called his pastor and explained his concerns about taking this stand for his views; Isaac said his peers would denigrate him, the public would tear him down, he would lose out on other opportunities. His pastor simply told him, “You cannot stand for God and God not stand for you.”
At the next game, Isaac did just that. He stood for the national anthem and did not wear the shirt, making national headlines and getting “plastered” online.
“The heartbeat of what I was trying to do was (share) that I believe that we all fall short of God’s glory, and if any of us are throwing stones at any person or anything, we are throwing stones in a glass house,” he said. “If we would love each other the way that God loves us, which is in spite of our sins and shortcomings, there could be real change between white and black people, for all people.”
“The reality of what I’m talking about this morning is that I am the unlikely person; I’m the unlikely person to stand, I’m the unlikely person to get up on this stage and talk to you because of my background and journey,” he added.
Born in The Bronx, Isaac moved to Naples, Fla., in middle school, and he struggled to fit in due to standing out as a tall, black student among mostly white classmates. He developed anxiety, which would continue into his college career and early NBA years. Middle school was also when Isaac began playing basketball at a high level, and he formed his sense of self by his status on the court.
“I put everything that I had into creating this identity as a basketball player, to the point that I was the No. 1 player in the state of Florida, but what nobody knew was that I was struggling so much behind the scenes with anxiety,” Isaac said. “This thing on the inside of me was growing. The more and more people expected of me, the higher I got as a basketball player, I was having this dichotomy of working so hard for love and trying so hard not to lose it by playing badly.”
“For me, it speaks to the reality of having a relationship with Jesus Christ,” he added. “Finding my identity, my strength, my confidence, my purpose, and my trust in Him, and allowing Him to lead my life for moments like the bubble, moments that I’m known for.”
Isaac grew up in church, but he didn’t have a relationship with Christ when he entered the NBA in 2017; he said he was living for himself. As a rookie, one of his teammates invited him to a chapel, and the chaplain started the message with Luke 6:46, which says, “Why do you call me Lord and not do what I say?” Isaac felt convicted, but he didn’t fully change. Through the persistence of Christians around him who sought after him, Isaac eventually found a new purpose: the one God has for him.
“I was so used to working for love, I was so used to clinging to the perception that other people had of me and striving to be loved, (but) I started to rest in the love that God has for me. The reality of a transformational relationship with Jesus Christ is real, and I know that because I’ve lived it and I’m walking through it. I’ve had so many ups and downs, I’ve been injured, I’ve trusted God, I’ve walked with God, and there are a few things I know to be true. I know that the world is changing, and the necessity of you being able to stand up for your faith is only going to become more paramount, (yet) harder to do.”
He charged the students of Liberty University to stand up in their own ways.
“God is trying to equip each and every one of you with purpose, and you’re going to carry out something for the Kingdom of God. It’s going to be a stand in one way or another, if it’s before the Lord or in your everyday life, and you’re going to have to do it or you will not be who God has created you to be.”
After Convocation, Isaac said he hoped that the students will take his words to heart, and he explained why he wanted to visit Liberty.
“I hope that they’ve been encouraged to stand up for what they believe in and understand that God can, and will, use anybody who is willing, no matter what you struggles are or your background. Coming to a Christian college was important to me because this is the body (of Christ), and so having the students be able to hear my story and take something away from it is important. Them being planted here and having this community is so special.”
“I thought it was so cool that he stood for his faith and that, whenever people were hating on him and his decision, he kept standing for what was right,” said freshman Hayden Hyman.
Isaac took time to take photos with the women’s basketball team and some students after Convocation, and he is scheduled to meet with the men’s team on Saturday.
Prior to Isaac’s speech, Flames Football Head Coach Jamey Chadwell was accompanied by the drum line of The Spirit of the Mountain marching band as they encouraged students to attend the Flames’ home opener against Bowling Green, which kicks off Saturday at noon.