Meet the Jerusalem Old City Basketball Legend Known as Issa 6
In search of an Old City street-ball legend whose hoop dreams were as knotted as the Holy Land
The Old City is dusty, chaotic, cramped, and tense—a labyrinth of passageways and ancient stairwells, and below that an underground maze of tunnels and caves where archaeologists battle over who can claim exclusive rights to Jerusalem’s history. “Here, more than anywhere else on earth,” wrote the historian Simon Sebag Montifiore, in Jerusalem, his biography of the Holy City, “we hope and search for any drop of the elixir of tolerance, sharing, and generosity to act as the antidote to the arsenic of prejudice, exclusivity, and possessiveness. It is not always easy to find.”
Just inside the New Gate I came across a street featuring several Issa posters. On a rusted iron door, ISSA THE BEST had been spray-painted, along with an arrow pointing down the road, toward De La Salle School, a tall stone building set back from the road and secured by a high stone fence and a locked blue gate. I went into a bodega-type shop across the street and asked the man behind the counter if he knew about Issa. “Issa was a great player, but now he is retired,” the man, Jack Habash, told me. “So, now we must wait for Issa’s son!” He said that Issa had once starred for De La Salle and that he could get me access to its basketball court.
I was brought to see a keeper of the gate, an old man who spoke no English but who pointed across a parking lot. I followed along a narrow path hugging the school. The court was spectacular. The city’s limestone wall soared over the blacktop on two adjoining sides like a medieval fortress and dwarfed the black-and-white backboard to which it was bolted. Behind the hoop and just to the right, about six feet off the ground, was a huge arch-shaped divot that the Turks had sliced out of the wall, revealing centuries of layers of Jerusalem stone. At the very back of this hole, a narrow slit—big enough to peek but not wiggle through—brought in a beam of white light from outside the Old City.
Two boys in their late teens were engaged in a playful game of one-on-one, and soon, I found myself shooting around with them. I asked one of the players, 19-year-old Jamir Khoury, a resident of the Christian Quarter, if he knew of Issa. Shooing sweat off his forehead, he nodded. “He is the best player in all of Jerusalem,” said Jamir. “People, they are all afraid to play against him.”
“And what makes Issa so good?” I challenged.
“He is so fast,” Jamir answered, again without emotion. “How he crosses over, how he shoots, how he defends.”
A tall, pretty young woman in a T-shirt and gym shorts walked on the court and stretched out onto the pavement, readying her sneakers. Her name was Nadine Sader, 18, from the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Hanina, and a center on the De La Salle women’s club team. Her team was about to prepare for a game at Bethlehem the next day, she said. When I asked if she knew Issa, she formed a goofy smile as if I’d mentioned a famous comedian, or a class clown.
He used to help out coaching, she said, and these days he stops by once in a while to scrimmage with her team. She described him as a “fun coach” who “wasn’t too strict.”
“They didn’t pay him,” she said. “He came because he wanted to.”
More young women arrived—Jamir and his friend had drifted away—and a stoic-looking man with a beard was now organizing a series of shooting and passing drills. I took a seat near the corner of the court, on a stone bench jutting naturally from Ottoman-built wall. The structure was so close to the baseline that my legs stretched well onto the court.
“I love this court.” A man in his mid-30s—tan, upbeat, and athletic-looking with slightly thinning hair—had joined me on the bench. “Although it sucks, I love it,” he said. He introduced himself as Tony Sabella, a longtime player and then head coach at De La Salle who presently worked as a school administrator. “Some of us would have made it to a higher level if we had a better chance,” he said, his initial enthusiasm having faded. Due to limited financial resources, the De La Salle basketball club—which includes a men’s team, a youth team, and a women’s squad—lacks indoor practice facilities. He said that up until a few years ago, the club couldn’t even afford to pay players or coaches—a major disadvantage considering that some of their Palestinian League rivals had the money to sign skilled players and experienced coaches from abroad. Due to travel restrictions from the West Bank into Jerusalem, all of De La Salle’s games are on the road.
I told Tony that I had come to find Issa and that I’d heard he is a basketball hero around here. Tony’s mood rebounded. He said he and Issa go “way back”; like Issa, Tony grew up just inside the Christian Quarter’s Jaffa Gate. As teammates they traveled together throughout the Middle East and sometimes to Europe, and Tony briefly coached Issa toward the end of his career. It was on this court, Tony told me, where Issa spent much of his life—“at least four hours a day.”
“Issa liked basketball from the very beginning,” Tony said. “He had his heart in the game. He was a hustler. A good defensive player. A fighter. He could make another team suffer big time.”
Above all else, however, Issa was a “character,” Tony said. He shared a story from a number of years ago, about a weekend night in which he and Issa went out with two girls and bought a bottle of wine. “Issa poured the wine but never touched it,” Tony recalled, noting that Issa, unlike most of his peers, wouldn’t drink, smoke, or do drugs. “He was hilarious that night; [by his behavior] you would imagine the guy drank the whole bottle. But he would be there just for the thrill of it.”
Just tall enough, with superior strength and resolve to overwhelm opponents in the Palestinian League, where he averaged 13.9 points and 10.3 rebounds a game, Issa lacked a good half foot more to compete as a power forward in Europe and Israel. “To succeed he would’ve had to change his whole game dramatically,” Tony explained. “He was a good shooter, but to play on the outside he needed to improve his shooting, and as a dribbler he needed to practice more. It’s over for him.”
A half block from the Rosary Sisters Monastery, at the intersection of Saint Peter Street and Latin Patriarchate Road near the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, stood a two-story house with a fancy, British-style balcony. Affixed to the building and above the balcony—and dominating the neighborhood—was an orange, stadium-sized banner with the words “Issa is the Name, Basketball is the Game,” printed on top. The sign had a basketball pattern and featured the dark silhouette of a player, skying upward with arm outstretched and basketball in hand, like a more athletic version of the NBA logo. Below the balcony and near ground level was a small sign with Crusaders’ style crosses that said, “Pray for the Priests of Jerusalem.” “Issa is the Name Basketball is the Game” had also been chiseled, beside the front door, into a small marble plaque.
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