As the legend goes, Issa Kassissieh was born in the Judean Hills, the son of a stonemason. His family lived on a narrow street inside Jerusalem’s ancient walled city, and although carving stone had been the trade of his ancestors, at age 9, in 1987, Issa realized he had another calling. He practiced his craft on a hoop attached to Jerusalem’s castle-like wall, a towering barrier erected by Suleiman the Magnificent in 1541. An olive tree grew on the opposite end of the basketball court, just inside the three-point line.
Issa had talent, and he worked tirelessly to develop it. He practiced for hours a day. People said he had basketballs coursing through his blood. Every so often tourists would appear at the top of the wall, about 30 feet above, as they shuffled across the ramparts. Sometimes they would notice Issa and stare down in wonder at a modern-day human living in this history museum, but more often they would aim their cameras at the Old City’s holy sites, or in the opposite direction, through gaps in the battlements, out into the valleys of the Holy Land.
By the time he reached high school, Issa was taller and stronger than his peers, with broad shoulders and powerful legs. But he was also nimble and athletic, and he built up an arsenal of post moves thanks to clever footwork and a soft touch around the rim. Even when not at the court, he would rarely be seen walking the cobbled streets without one or multiple basketballs, which he would control like big round yo-yos. Like a Middle Eastern Harlem Globetrotter, he dazzled crowds of pilgrims and locals with his ball-handling wizardry; his favorite bit of magic involved spinning five balls at once: two on his fingers, one on each knee, and one on a pen he held in his mouth. By his late teens, his name was known as far as Nablus and Bethlehem. He was 6’1″, just tall enough to be a power forward in the Palestinian League, and he could dunk. His name, Issa, is the Arabic word for Jesus.
In Jerusalem’s Old City, Issa gained a loyal and passionate band of followers, which included schoolchildren, some friends, and several cousins. He was one of an ever-dwindling number of Arab Christians still residing in the Old City, and he perhaps had sacred roots; his family name, Kassissieh, means “Belonging to a Priest.” To these fans, he was their Jerusalem hero, Jerusalem’s greatest basketball player. But he was also a cipher and, like the many great tales and myths to have sprung from Jerusalem, unresolved. And as the NBA prepares to crown another champion, its increasingly international presence sends echoes as far as the smallest alleyways of the Holy Land. This is how sporting legends are born.
Mysteriously, a poster bearing Issa’s image went into circulation. It depicted a goateed man, regal and resolute, levitating over Jerusalem’s majestic skyline at the crest of a jump-shot, an NBA basketball high above his head, like Air Jordan soaring above Chicago. In the image, he wore a black wristband and a white shirt reading “Issa 6” on the front. A caption at the top of the poster, in white capital letters, delivered Issa’s personal slogan: “Issa is the Name, Basketball is the Game.” In the late 1990s, Issa’s followers spread his message, plastering his posters on shop windows all over the Christian Quarter. They graffitied “Issa NBA” and “We Love You Issa” on Greek Orthodox and Franciscan buildings. The authorities removed most of the graffiti in advance of Pope John Paul II’s visit to the Christian Quarter in 2000, but Issa’s followers never stopped loving him, and they continued to write his name. Once an Old-City Christian archaeologist named Eugenio Alliata, who dons a flowing brown robe in the style of a Franciscan monk, told a visitor to his museum, “Issa is the most famous dweller in all the Christian Quarter. His name is on every door and every wall.”
My quest for Issa began on David Street, a thin and crowded downhill alley lined with colorful gift shops. At first glance the stores appeared to overflow with glimmering treasures of silver and gold—from jewelry to Aladdin-style oil lamps—but on closer investigation the items were nothing more than polished junk. I struck up a conversation with a man named Hassan Farah, who was standing idle outside his gift shop. He told me he’d never watched Issa play but “I saw his photos all over Jerusalem, and in the newspapers.” He remembered Issa as a prodigy: “To have a player like him, he was just 16 or 17 years old [when he became known], it was a unique story,” Hassan said.
When in 2012 I first saw the posters of Issa, they were weathered and torn, as if they’d been rotting for years after the Apocalypse. I’d been wandering around the Old City late one night in May and had spotted the mysterious signs on rolled-down shop windows alongside ripped posters of biblical scenes and Palestinian politicians. On crumbling alleyway walls, “Issa 6” had been inscribed in tiny letters.
Despite the fact that Issa is said to have once played in the Israeli League, sports editors of major Israeli newspapers didn’t know of him. And there was virtually no mention of an Issa from Jerusalem on the Internet, aside from a brief scouting report on Eurobasket.com, the world’s largest database on international hoops. Listed as a 6’1″ forward named “Issa Issa” for the team De La Salle Al Quds Jerusalem, it stated: “Issa is a very strong player. He has great under basket moves, unstoppable when he receives the ball. He also uses his strength and body to snatch several rebounds and helps his teammates with screens.” The bio noted that Issa Issa had once played for Olympiakos, in Greece, and included the headshot of a man not unlike the face from the Old City posters.
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.
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.’ ”
Louie Lazar is a journalist living in New York. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Grantland, and the Jerusalem Post.