In recent years, professional athletes have become increasingly vocal about their political views. The murder of George Floyd marked a new era of politics in sports, with basketball and football players kneeling during the playing of the national anthem.
Initially, a symbolic gesture against racism, taking the knee evolved into a collective action expected of all team members. Orlando Magic’s power forward Jonathan Isaac chose a different path. Throughout 2020, he made a choice not to take a knee or wear a Black Lives Matter shirt. This placed him among the few pro athletes who opted to stand during the national anthem.
However, Isaac went a step further. Earlier this year, he launched UNITUS, an apparel brand that champions faith, family and freedom. Last month, UNITUS released its inaugural shoes: Judah 1. These sneakers are first of its kind, displaying visible Bible verses, selected by Isaac.
Isaac, 26, spoke with Jovan Tripkovic, an editorial fellow at Religion Unplugged about his new sneaker line and the purpose behind this initiative. He also discussed his faith journey, basketball career, and future aspirations.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Jovan Tripkovic: Describe your relationship with Jesus during your childhood?
Jonathan Isaac: I grew up in church. My dad had us in church almost every day. But I didn’t understand what faith in Christ meant. We went to church because my parents told us to, and we followed the suit of what everybody was doing. But it wasn’t a real tangible relationship with Jesus.
Tripkovic: As a middle school student, you developed anxiety. How did faith and knowing Jesus help you cope with it later in life?
Isaac: It taught me to find my identity in God rather than in basketball. The root of my anxiety was caring about others’ opinions and solely identifying myself through basketball. When I played well, I felt like a good person, but if I played poorly, I didn’t. Having a foundational relationship with Jesus has helped me learn to confront the lies of the enemy and find my identity in Him. This has been facilitated by the people whom God has blessed me with: my pastor, my family, my wife, and my church family.
Tripkovic: What is the role of faith in your professional life?
Isaac: Oh, man, it’s even bigger than my professional life. It’s the No. 1 role in my life. I can’t even dissect it to my professional life. Professionally, I try my best to lead authentically as Jonathan Isaac. I aim to build lasting relationships with guys I encounter and to be a beacon of light.
Tripkovic: Discovering faith in the NBA is quite intriguing. In one of your interviews, you mentioned that the life of an NBA player revolves around access and excess. How common is it for players to discover faith during their careers?
Isaac: It’s seldom. I think most people don’t. They usually learn about Christ after they finish playing. They reach a point where they’ve done everything and been everywhere, and they conclude that it’s not satisfying. I was able to make that observation early in my career. A life that revolves around money and material things is not satisfying. I am thankful to God for leading my footsteps and connecting me with the right people.
Tripkovic: What is your message to young athletes struggling to stand for their faith in the increasingly secular society?
Isaac: My advice would be what my pastor told me the night before I decided to stand in the bubble: “You cannot stand for God and God not stand for you.” So, my advice would be that God is on your side. His word is true. He is the right choice. Believe in Him, trust Him, and know that He has your back. He won’t let you fall.
Tripkovic: Your promising basketball career was interrupted by several injuries, and during one of the recovery periods, you became an ordained minister. Do you believe that God used these injuries to guide you toward spiritual growth?
Isaac: God has used them for that specific purpose. At the end of the day, God allows what He allows to happen. I’m thankful for the people that I had around me who helped me keep the right perspective. I’ve seen significant spiritual and personal growth in my life due to having some downtime from the injuries. Now, being able to come back and play has been amazing.
Tripkovic: What was the purpose behind launching UNITUS, and what are your goals with both UNITUS and now Judah 1?
Isaac: Our society, along with many sports companies, is moving farther away from godly values and constitutional principles that serve as the baseline for a prosperous society. I strongly believe in these values and principles. I know that there are a plethora of people who share these beliefs. I wanted to create a brand that they could feel good about purchasing from. A brand that stands for them and their values.
Tripkovic: Riley Gaines (a former competitive swimmer) recently became UNITUS’ first brand ambassador. What was the reason behind choosing her, and what qualities or contributions do you hope she brings to the UNITUS family?
Isaac: She’s awesome. Riley is a beacon of strength when it comes to standing up for what she believes in. I know her story very well. I believe that what happened to her, and many of the other swimmers during that time, was unfortunate. I don’t believe that men belong in women’s sports.
Protecting women’s sports is important, and Riley is a staunch advocate for that cause. Our values align, which is why I wanted her to be a part of the UNITUS family. She brings strength and unwavering commitment to standing up for her beliefs, regardless of opposition.
Tripkovic: The UNITUS brand celebrates American values: faith, family, and freedom. How do you respond to critics who accuse you of spreading hate and capitalizing on these values?
Isaac: I have tried my best throughout my career to engage people with humility and love. Just because I believe in certain values and others disagree with me doesn’t mean I have to hate those people. It doesn’t mean that I have to speak ill of them. I never do it. I believe that America is a great country, where we can freely express our beliefs and engage in civil discourse. To those who suggest that I spread hate because I believe in godly values and constitutional principles, I wouldn’t say the same about them.
People are free to believe what they want to believe. While there are people actively trying to bring division and spread hate, I’m not one of them. I just want to offer a brand that stands up for what people believe in.
Tripkovic: You’re open about sharing your faith and political views, and some on the left label you as a culture warrior. How does the cancel culture movement affect your ability to convey your message?
Isaac: It’s difficult. Cancel culture is something that has risen over time and lots of people have been affected by it. I try my best to simply move in the direction that I feel God is calling me to. At the end of the day I let the chips fall where they may: if it’s being canceled, if it’s people maligning my character or lying about me in any way, shape or form, it is what it is. I feel like I have a purpose. I am trying to execute it the best I can. At the end of the day, the chips will fall where they may.
Tripkovic: You recently launched the Judah 1 brand, featuring five colorways paired with five Bible verses. Why did you choose these five?
Isaac: The first shoe is named Triumph and features the blue colorway, referencing 2 Corinthians 4:9: “Persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.” I chose this Bible verse because of my personal experience with injuries and encounters with the media. There was an incident where Rolling Stone published an article about me, misrepresenting my stance on not taking the Covid-19 vaccine. I’ve faced challenges with fake news, injuries, and setbacks. Despite it all, God has remained faithful by my side. I want to share this resilience with others.
The second shoe is named the Lion of Judah, featuring the orange colorway and referencing Proverbs 28:1. This verse highlights that the wicked flee when no one pursues, while the righteous are as bold as a lion. Striving to embody this boldness, I place my faith in God, understanding His call for me to be courageous. My aim is to inspire others to embrace that same boldness and courage.
The third one features a black colorways paired with red, named Exodus, referencing Exodus 3:14. This verse pertains to God’s words to Moses, “I am who I am. Say this to the people of Israel.” This color scheme signifies strength and boldness, symbolizing God’s will to send us into the world as lights to effect change.
The fourth shoe is Ruach, referencing John 14:26. According to this verse, Jesus mentions that we will be given the Holy Spirit to remind us of all truth. It speaks to the presence of the Holy Spirit with me on the court and in people’s everyday lives. Apart from having the Holy Spirit within them, wearing these sneakers enables them to carry the essence of the Holy Spirit on their feet.
The fifth one is called Unconquered. It’s white, blue, and red. It has Roman 8:37 on it, which says, we are more than conquerors through Christ Jesus. Wearing these sneakers signifies to people that they are more than conquerors with God. He has granted us the strength and spirit to overcome any obstacle.
Tripkovic: Is your favorite Bible verse among these?
Isaac: Yes, the second one. Proverbs 28:1: “The righteous are as bold as a lion.”
Tripkovic: What feedback have your fellow players given you about the Judah 1 brand?
Isaac: My teammates have been super supportive. They love the look of it ever since I started wearing them in the summer. And they’ve all made comments about how they look. We’re in the process of signing our first NBA player. His name is Matt Ryan. He plays for the New Orleans Pelicans. He’s been wearing the Judah I all season long.
Tripkovic: Where do you see yourself after the NBA? In 10 years, will I be speaking with Jonathan Isaac: the pastor, congressman or basketball coach?
Isaac: It might be all three. I have no idea. I’m taking this one day at a time, following wherever God leads me. I try my best to be obedient and continue to move forward. I am open to whatever God desires.