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
When I called up, Issa’s mother emerged from a door across the street. The woman, probably in her 60s, introduced herself as Georgina, and I complimented her on her son’s fame. “Everybody in life has a gift,” she said with warmth, looking me in the eye and placing a hand on my shoulder. “Basketball is Issa’s gift.” We made arrangements for my return a few hours later, at around 9:30 p.m., when Issa would be home from work.
The Jerusalem sky went from light to deep blue, and a full bright moon made the limestone city look gold. At Issa’s front door, I pushed a small white button labeled “Kassissieh,” and the door creaked open without assistance. Removing my blue-and-white Chicago Cubs baseball cap, I walked down a few steps and found myself in a dimly lit vertical space, cool and damp, like an interior courtyard, with a tall, steep staircase separating the main level from the upper floor. The walls were all of light stone and as barren as the interior of a cave, aside from a small picture of the Virgin Mary that hung above a back doorway.
“Hello, Louie,” a deep voice said, in a Middle Eastern accent. A man materialized, whom I immediately recognized as the heroic-looking individual from the posters. Unlike in the posters, this person was clean shaven, and considerably shy of peak physical condition. While not fat, it was as though a Hollywood makeup artist had widened his face, beefed up his cheeks, and then tacked a few dozen pounds onto his torso. But as he approached I noticed that he carried himself with a certain self-assuredness and with a swagger that is common in athletes. He wore a nice button-down shirt and dress slacks, and his hair was carefully styled with gel.
“I am Issa,” he said, shaking my hand. His eyebrows slanted downward at a sharp angle, making him look permanently stern and all-business. We sat at a small table pushed up against a side wall; a lamp bolted to the stone illuminated Issa’s face, highlighting a scar above his left eye that had been undetectable in the weaker light. My eyes shifted from Issa’s old wound to the back of the room, to the Virgin Mary.
“I used to have a hoop in here, in my home,” Issa said. “Did you see my poster, Issa is the Name, Basketball is the Game? This is very famous. In July it will be my 25th year playing basketball,” he went on. “I love it. I say it’s good for me. Especially better than other things. I never drink alcohol. I never smoke. Some people say, ‘You are sick. Why you not do it?’ I don’t like it because I feel great. I feel happiness when I go partying without drinking.”
He left his seat and ascended the staircase, disappearing into one of the many upstairs doors. He returned about a minute later holding a binder, which he balanced on his lap. “Issa is the Name, Basketball is the Game” was written on the front. He scrolled through it. The second page had a picture of Jesus looking at the heavens; on others were news clippings in Arabic, some with photos of Issa in action. “I used to be in the newspapers a lot,” he said, more matter-of-fact than boastful. “Newspapers, magazines—they wrote articles on me.” He placed the album on the table and angled it to show me a photograph set at the court I’d visited earlier: It showed a skinny, buzz-cutted Issa, wearing a gold No. 6 jersey, gliding in mid-air, about to throw one down one-handed. Two teammates looked on, as did about 10 young boys, who were huddled together and crowded inside the concave indentation in the wall, just behind and to the right of the basket. The boys’ feet dangled off the edge, like they were taking in the action from a gigantic window-sill.
Issa skimmed across pages showing random basketball artifacts: There was an autographed photo of Hall of Fame NBA center Hakeem Olajuwan (“You know Hakeem?,” Issa asked. “I met him. He signed for me. You see? Look.”); a closeup snapshot of the number 6 shaved into the back of a human skull (“Look at my head. I used to be so crazy.”); a white printout titled “Jerusalem Peace League” showing Issa Kassissieh leading all scorers with 31.5 points per game (“I played with the Armenian team. I took the best player award”); a photo of the pope in Jerusalem with a home-made caption reading “Issa Welcomes Pope John Paul II”; and a political cartoon using a basketball metaphor to characterize the Camp David peace talks.
At age 16, Issa said, he became the youngest player in De La Salle history to join the men’s club team. After high school he said he had “two signed scholarships from the States”—one from Long Island University; the other from Indiana University (“You know Bobby Knight, right? I had a camp with him twice,” Issa said). But he turned down the offers to remain close to home, he said. At age 19, he signed with Hapoel Jerusalem of the Israeli League (that required too much travel, he maintained) and later with Olympiakos, the Euroleague powerhouse out of Greece, but neither stint lasted beyond a year, which Issa attributed to missing the Old City. “I cannot leave Jerusalem,” he explained. “In Jerusalem you feel something different. It’s best to be back here.” And so he spent the remainder of his career with De La Salle, a 5-minute walk from his house, and was picked “many times” for the Palestinian National Team. He retired in 2010, but even in the several years before officially quitting, his priority had become family, as he was married with a young son.
Issa asked me why I’d come to Jerusalem. “I have a lot of American Jewish friends,” he said. “They used to play with me in basketball at Liberty Bell Park. We used to play there every Friday. American Jews, Israelis, every Friday, we had fun. Basketball is for everybody. I don’t give a shit for politics or anything. It’s basketball, man.”
As he walked me to the door, he handed me a business card. It had a custom design similar to the massive banner on his house: One side featured the flying silhouette and “Basketball Coaching” in capital letters. And underneath his name, Issa Kassissieh, was a job title: Professional Basketball Player. The opposite side was orange with basketball laces and his personal slogan. “But there is more to this saying,” Issa insisted, just before shutting the door. “It should say, ‘Issa is the Name, Basketball is the Game, Jerusalem is the Fame, Peace is the Aim.’ ”
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