Before a war, there's always a lot of talking. And after a war, they always have peace conferences. So why don't we just eliminate the war in the middle?
—MARCO LOKAR, July 4, 1991
From our position high on a hill, beside the ruins of a 15th-century church whose name even some locals did not remember, we could see plumes of smoke left by a bombing raid. The previous night, on TV, we had witnessed the red glare of defense rockets, both antiaircraft and antitank. In the days before this Fourth of July, in Slovenia, just over the Yugoslav border from where we stood in Italy, yet another war for independence had been fought.
"They are slaughtering my people," said Marco Lokar, "and no one in the world seems to care." Although he is an Italian citizen, Lokar is a member of the substantial Slovene minority that has resided for centuries in the port city of Trieste and its surrounding hills. On June 25 the government of the Republic of Slovenia declared its independence from the Yugoslav federation, and since then Lokar's "people" had been pounded by Yugoslav planes and tanks.
Marco's older brother, Andrea, joined the Slovene army before the fighting broke out, and he hadn't been heard from since. Marco's love and admiration for Andrea are boundless, and Marco's commitment to the Slovene cause is as deep as his brother's. But the same bedrock philosophy of nonviolence that had made Marco a cause cèlèbre in South Orange, N.J., five months earlier, when the Persian Gulf war dominated the American consciousness, still prevailed.
"This is a much more difficult time for me," Lokar said. "My whole family is involved. I have passionate emotions for freedom and will support the Slovenes in any way I can, but I absolutely can never condone war." His intense eyes melted. Suddenly he was not there. "To do that would be to reject the teachings of Jesus."
You may recall Lokar as the Seton Hall basketball player who declined to wear an American flag on his uniform in support of Operation Desert Storm. Several weeks after his refusal, Lokar and his pregnant wife, Lara, returned to Trieste, driven away from the U.S. by threatening and obscene phone calls from anonymous "patriots" that kept Lara continually tense and caused Marco to worry about her well-being.
"I know you have to pay a certain price for taking unpopular positions during a war, but I never expected anything like what happened to us in America, a country everyone looks to as a house of individual freedom," Lokar said. One might think that the passing months, the events in Slovenia and the impending birth of his child would have taken some of the edge off his disappointment. They hadn't.
Seton Hall coach P.J. Carlesimo remembers Lokar as "a really great kid. Bright, articulate, fine student. At first, when he wouldn't wear the flag, it wasn't that big a deal. He played without it for a few games, and there were no problems. But before the St. John's game, the media picked it up, and that's when things got out of hand."
The date won't quite live in infamy, but it was Feb. 2, and Seton Hall was playing the Redmen at Madison Square Garden. The bombing of Iraq by the U.S.-led coalition was among the most devastating offensives in human history, and Saddam Hussein countered with Scud attacks against civilian populations in Israel and military targets in Saudi Arabia. There was no way then to know how the conflict in the Persian Gulf would be resolved and at what human cost.
Seton Hall, in visitors' blue, warmed up at the end of the Garden court away from its bench. "I heard something going on down there," recalls Carlesimo. "Sounded like some heckling, nothing major."
St. John's coach Lou Carnesecca remembers little about the affair. "I guess I turned off my hearing aid for that game," he says with a laugh. ("If that's the case," says Lokar, "how come he came over to me when I played against his team in Spain this summer and apologized for what happened?")
For Lokar the memory of the game is indelible: "They shouted insults I don't want to repeat. Also, 'Arab lover' and 'communist' and 'coward.' Being nonviolent is not being a coward, believe me. They were yelling that if I didn't like it here, I should get out. That I should take the first plane back to Italy. They didn't understand that it's war I'm against, not the American people."
With 7:16 left in the first half of the game and the Pirates down 26-16, Carlesimo brought Lokar off the bench. ("I had noticed that P.J. was playing me less after I refused to put on the flag," Lokar says. "Maybe he was trying to protect me.")
For Seton Hall, number 33, Marco Lokar. The boos were not overwhelming, but you couldn't miss them, either. When Lokar got the ball on the left side of the key, the boos got louder. He passed and got the ball back again—louder still. Each time he touched the basketball, more people joined in.
Normally an excellent long-range shooter, Lokar threw up a brick that barely caught the rim, giving the booers something to cheer about. "A bad shot, but I just wanted to shut them up," he says.
If it had remained a problem of heckling, no matter how fierce, Lokar is certain he would have weathered it. "I'd have survived because I believe in nonviolence just as strongly as others believe that war really settles things."
Then the phone calls began.
The first one came on the night of the St. John's game. Lara was home alone, and because her English is not perfect, she didn't fully understand the caller; but she couldn't fail to recognize his threatening tone. After the game, the phone rang often. Marco told Lara not to answer it when he wasn't home, and she, already displaced in a strange land, became increasingly isolated and scared. Marco heard most of the death threats, the obscenities, the haunting silences on the other end of the telephone lines. "Lara got so tense, it was impossible for her to sleep, to do anything but worry," he says. "The FBI said they'd give us protection, but they couldn't guarantee anything. Any crazy nut could try to kill us. I could take responsibility for my own life but not for Lara's and our baby's."
One idea for a compromise was tempting: Marco could wear a yellow ribbon in place of the flag to indicate that he supported the troops if not the war. He talked it over with Lara, who in public wears her timidity like a cloak, and the force of her response was surprising: "The troops are there to fight the war, Marco. You must be a man and make a true choice." As he recalled her words, he looked at the smoke rising over Slovenia and shook his head. "Lara is a very strong woman."
"We talked to Marco about various possibilities," says Carlesimo. "Maybe we could send Lara home. Or they could both leave and come back next year after Lara had the baby. The thing would have blown over eventually." Perhaps. But for Marco and Lara, it was already over. They decided to leave.
Lokar, a solid-A student majoring in philosophy, prepared a carefully reasoned statement for the press in which he said, in part: "From a Christian standpoint, I cannot support any war, with no exception for the Persian Gulf war."
After the Lokars left New Jersey, an editorial in The New York Times asserted: "It is saddening when even a few Americans use the flag as a license for persecution. Yet persecution is the word that most captures the trials of Marco Lokar.... Just last year the Supreme Court rebuffed those who tried to set the flag above the Constitution.... The dark patriotism to which Mr. Lokar was subjected is a troubling reminder of other efforts to extort conformity in a nation built on free speech and diversity. Though Mr. Lokar was persecuted by a rabid few, he is due an apology from all Americans who love freedom."
Lokar didn't read the editorial until the Fourth of July, when, ironically, his people were under attack. His refusal to conform, to approve of war, had nothing to do with the Constitution. It was simpler than that: "It is what my heart and my reason tell me as a Christian."
Lokar was disappointed most by the reaction of his teammates, or rather their lack of reaction. "When you're someone's teammate, you make a commitment to them," he says. "It's like you're brothers—at least that's how I feel about it. But not one of them came to me, not even to ask me why I was doing what I was. Probably because all they were worried about was not creating problems, getting their minutes, having a shot at the NBA.
"Some guys hurt me more than others. [Seton Hall forward Arturas] Karnishovas really disappointed me. He was a Lithuanian, someone who should really understand about being independent, but he went along and wore a flag that wasn't even his own. I wonder if he would have worn a Soviet flag if the government had asked him to."
Not all of Lokar's South Orange memories are unpleasant. Throughout the bad times there was professor Antonia Malone. Her popular Contemporary Moral Values course in the department of religious studies had drawn Lokar in the fall semester of 1990, when the public debate over preparations for war in the gulf was growing. "Marco was unforgettable," Malone recalls. "You don't get many students like him. One focus of the semester was on alternatives to violence. Marco spoke his mind: He questioned values; he got everyone engaged one way or another. He never had any trouble communicating what was in his heart, but it was always on his reading of Scripture that he based his arguments. That, and his ethic of life—he believed all life was sacred. So he opposed anything that threatened any part of it."
On two occasions Marco was invited to speak at a mass in the campus chapel. This young man, who as a teenager had been attracted to the priesthood, who found strength and direction in meditation and the Bible, who read the writings of the Christian mystic Thomas Merton, said that all human beings and their souls are treasured by Jesus and that we ought to lament Iraqi deaths as profoundly as we do American ones.
"The worst part of the matter as far as this campus is concerned is that when Marco took his position regarding wearing the flag, nobody came to his support," says Malone. "Since it happened, I've sought out some of his former teammates in my course. In their hearts they know what he did was morally right, but they're angry with him and not quite ready to forgive him. They may be ashamed of themselves, too."
The coach has also been doing some soul-searching. "Yes, I'm embarrassed for Seton Hall," Carlesimo says. "I'm embarrassed for our country. Would I do things the same way again? I'd be a moron if I did."
Lokar's mother, Laura, is a professor of botany at the University of Trieste, where his father, Al‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√ë¢s, is a professor of economics. Laura was philosophical about Marco's brush with the dark side of patriotism. She drew slowly on a cigarillo and said in world-weary Italian, "Of course it would be better if the whole thing had never happened, if Marco had stayed and gotten his degree. But it did happen, and as a result, Marco had the opportunity to find out who he really is. Not such a bad thing, eh?"
The war for Slovene independence gave Marco further opportunity to find out who he really is. It did the same for Andrea, who, in the second week of lighting, still had not been heard from. What if something happened to him?
"Would I feel outrage?" Marco said. "Of course. Would I fight to avenge him? I cannot."
The Lokar family mirrors the polyglot history of Trieste, which at various times in this century has belonged to Austria, Yugoslavia and Italy. Marco's mother speaks Italian with him but mostly Slovene with her husband. Al‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√ë¢s speaks Slovene with Marco but teaches in Italian. Marco speaks Slovene with his wife and her family; their child will speak both languages and, Marco hopes, English.
Everywhere Marco goes in Trieste, people recognize him. Some know him from the fuss in the Italian media caused by his steadfast refusal to wear the U.S. flag. Others recall that he once scored 62 points in a junior game. The 41 he got for Seton Hall against Pitt on Feb. 20, 1990, was splashed across Trieste's papers too. People also know Lokar as a former member of Stefanel Trieste, the local Division I professional team he joined when he returned in February.
On the street, he small-talks mostly in Italian, but in Slovene neighborhoods he shifts into the gliding diphthongs and Slavic rhythms of Slovene, the preferred language for extended schmoozing. On the basketball court during a celebratory pickup game the night after a cease-fire was called in Slovenia, Italian was his language of choice. When the game got close, however, Lokar told a teammate in Slovene to set a pick for a long jump shot. Lokar made the three-pointer and ran off five more.
The cease-fire held for the next few days. Then agreement was reached on a truce of three months, after which the two sides—Slovenia and Yugoslavia—would try to resolve their differences. (In neighboring Croatia, however, the war between Croats and Serbs continued to flame.) The planes and bombs and rockets in Slovenia had been silenced. Marco was grateful, for Andrea's sake.
It was Andrea, Marco recalled, who had stimulated his interest in basketball, probably because his older brother had needed someone to play one-on-one with. Marco suddenly broke into a rare smile. "I can tell you now. Andrea had another reason for rushing off to war. He wants to be a writer, so he's living an Ernest Hemingway life."
To an outsider, the passions aroused by ancient ethnic hostilities can be bewildering, but they are an integral part of life on the Italian-Yugoslav border.
Because of differences he had with his coach, Lokar didn't re-sign with Stefanel. He signed with Napoli Basket in Naples and, in so doing, put his ethics to the test again.
In addition to believing in nonviolence, Lokar aspires to a simple, nonmaterialistic life. He often quotes the Biblical warning that it is impossible for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven—"A camel has a greater chance to pass through the eye of a needle."
About the size of his contract with Napoli, Lokar would only say, "It would be the equivalent of NBA money for a second-round draft pick if you allow for the fact that we play only 30 games a year." Still, it amounts to several hundred thousand dollars.
"We know the money can create problems," Lokar said. The intense eyes went dreamy again. "Lara and I have talked about it a lot. Prayed for guidance." The smile flashed. "You know, a family that prays together stays together. I once saw that written on a wall in the Bronx.
"We will set up a charity for people who need help. For the people who've been bombed in Slovenia. We'll just keep what we need to live. And for the baby's future. One thing is for sure—I'll never drive a BMW."
Lara gave birth to a healthy daughter, Alice, at the end of July. Andrea came back safely from Slovenia, and yes, he has written a book about his experiences.
As of October, Yugoslavia had withdrawn most of its troops from Slovenia but had not recognized its independence.
Lokar is playing well these days. He drives a small black Mazda—madly, so as to make himself indistinguishable from everyone else in Naples.
For someone as deeply spiritual as Lokar, basketball is, at best, a transitory pleasure. What he does after life on the hardwood will be more significant. What will that be?
"If I told you," he says, "you'd think I was crazy."
He is promised that will not happen.
"Well, the truth is, I'd like to try to live like a saint."