LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Jonathan Isaac stood, and stood out.
Most players and coaches, but not all, are kneeling while pre-recorded versions of the national anthem are being played at the restarted NBA season. Isaac became the first player to not kneel when he stood before he and the Orlando Magic played the Brooklyn Nets.
In a later game, Popovich — a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy, and coach of USA Basketball’s national team in addition to his longtime duties as head coach in San Antonio — stood with his arms at his sides before the Spurs played Sacramento.
Hammon, one of Popovich’s assistant coaches, also stood. She draped one arm over the shoulders of Spurs assistant Will Hardy, kneeling to her right, and the other over veteran San Antonio guard Patty Mills, kneeling to her left. Popovich and Hammon both wore “Black Lives Matter” T-shirts, as almost all players and coaches have for warm-ups and the anthem.
“I’d prefer to keep that to myself,” said Popovich, when asked what went into his decision. “Everybody has to make a personal decision. The league’s been great about that; everybody has the freedom to react any way they want. For whatever reasons I have, I reacted the way I wanted to.”
Isaac did not wear the shirt. He wore his white Orlando jersey instead, standing with his hands behind his back, the ordained minister praying silently as the song played.
“Kneeling while wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt doesn’t go hand-in-hand with supporting Black lives,” Isaac said.
Isaac’s decision was not a surprise to his teammates; he revealed it in a team meeting earlier in the week. Isaac expected there would be some critical reaction, given how the kneeling is part of a statement against racial injustice and police brutality following the deaths of, among others, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd in recent months.
“That’s a personal decision,” Magic coach Steve Clifford said of Isaac’s choice to stand. “We’re all supporting each other in this. And if guys are not comfortable kneeling and they want to stand, nobody has a problem with that. I support him. His teammates support him. The organization supports him. That’s part of living in our country.”
Isaac has a history of being active with various charities and churches.
“We all support him,” Magic guard Evan Fournier said.
Players and teams at the restart at Disney have elected to kneel for the playing of the anthems, doing so along the sideline nearest their benches — which also happens to be the one where “Black Lives Matter” has been painted onto the playing surface.
Popovich, who often speaks out on political and racial matters, has been vocal in recent weeks about the opportunity that the platform of the NBA restart at Walt Disney World provides. Television ratings for the first two games Thursday night were massive; Turner Sports, which aired the doubleheader on TNT, said the average of 3.4 million total viewers “more than doubled the network’s average viewership” for regular season games.
Popovich has said these games, and the eyeballs that will be on them, provides “a tremendous opportunity” to spark change. He said the NBA is committed to emphasizing a need for change for the rest of the season, including the playoffs.
“We’re hoping that we can keep everybody’s mind on that,” Popovich said. “A lot of things go on in this country day after day after day. … Things get lost sometimes and we don’t want this to be one of those things.”
Isaac, in his first game since January because of a knee injury, played well. He had 16 points on 6-for-7 shooting in 16 minutes, helping the Magic to a 128-118 victory.
“I don’t think that kneeling or putting on a T-shirt, for me personally, is the answer,” Isaac said.
The NBA has had a rule since the early 1980s saying players must stand for the anthem. But Commissioner Adam Silver said Thursday night, when players from New Orleans, Utah, the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers all knelt for the anthem, that he was relaxing that policy in these times when a desire for equality and social justice is at the forefront of many conversations in this country.
“Listen, the national anthem means different things to different people,” TNT analyst Charles Barkley said in televised comments Thursday. “I’m glad these guys are all unified. But if people don’t kneel, they’re not a bad person. I want to make that perfectly clear. … He should not be vilified.”
The National Basketball Players Association did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Isaac’s decision.
Isaac received the Magic’s community service award last year. He has donated money to feed children affected by the coronavirus pandemic, led a Hurricane Dorian relief effort and has raised money to help organizations promote literacy for children in Central Florida.
“We all sin and the answers to all of the world’s problems, not only racism, is the true Gospel of Jesus Christ,” Isaac said.