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.