The Baltimore Sun: The Tragic Life Of Joe Pace (1999)

Joe Pace (No. 44, top row, third from the right) played on the Washington Bullets championship team in 1978

A Man of Contradictions

Joe Pace was supremely talented on the court, but even more troubled off it. Instead of becoming a rich NBA star, the ex-Coppin State center sank into homelessness.

By Jerry Bembry

At the 20th anniversary reunion of the Washington Bullets’ 1978 NBA title team, Joe Pace looked like a champion.

Pace (back row, third from the left) joined his former teammates for a 20-year reunion

The former Coppin State star arrived in a stretch limousine. He wore a blue, double-breasted suit with red pinstripes that seemed tailor-made for his 6-foot-11 frame. He came alone, but happily embraced his former teammates and complimented their wives and girlfriends.

Still lean at 44, the 12th man on that title team appeared as if he could still hold his own on the court.

The image, however, belied reality. The limousine, as well as his hotel room, was paid for by the Washington Wizards. The suit Pace wore was a hand-me-down. Afterward, he had to borrow money to get to the airport.

His luxurious weekend last June sharply contrasted with his existence at the start of 1998, when Pace was homeless.

Hungry and in despair in North Carolina, he passed the nights in abandoned buildings or under bridges. Sometimes he slept on park benches or went to shelters, and tried to bathe in gas station restrooms.

That he sank so low is a tragedy, for Pace possessed skills that should have made him wealthy. On the court, he was a rarity, a coordinated big man who could dazzle crowds and score from anywhere on the floor.

But his talents were often outweighed by self-destructive behavior and severe learning limitations. Educators let him down repeatedly as he slipped by with little intervention. Basketball has been one of the only constants for Pace, who depended on it in his youth and even now, as he approaches middle age, finds himself buoyed by his ties to the game.

“I’ve coached a lot of different kids in my career,” said former Bullets coach Dick Motta, “and he was probably the saddest case of all.”

STARTLING CONTRADICTIONS

As a junior at Franklin High School in Somerset, N.J., Pace once scored 35 points and grabbed 30 rebounds in a state playoff game, yet his numbers on standardized tests at the age of 16 indicated his learning skills were no better than a first-grader’s.

At Coppin State, Pace averaged 30.0 points during the team’s NAIA national championship tournament run in 1976, yet earned mostly C’s or D’s in classes and did not graduate.

During his two years with the Bullets, Pace could snatch a hook shot by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar out of the air, yet he also routinely missed practices, even games.

Pace went to two colleges in four years but obtained no real education. He has five brothers, one sister, two ex-wives and two children, yet lives as if he has no family.

That he found himself homeless and penniless was of little surprise to those that knew him.

“I remember we had him in the car before we drafted him,” said Motta, recalling that Bob Ferry, then the Bullets’ general manager, asked Pace, “‘If you don’t make it in the NBA, what would you want to do?’

“Joe thought for a long, long time, put his hand on his chin and said, ‘Be a janitor.’

“I couldn’t believe this came from someone with four years of college,” Motta said. “I don’t think he was a bad kid. I just think he was befuddled by his environment.”

A SILENT CHILDHOOD

On a tree-lined street in Somerset, Josephine and Herbert Pace raised five boys and one girl.

One roof. Eight people. And, as Joe Pace tells it, zero sense of family.

“My father would come home from work and drink gin and beer, and my mother, she liked to drink vodka,” Pace recalled. “They didn’t see it as a problem. They’d have arguments, and we’d be scared to come downstairs.”

Pace is unclear today how much that atmosphere contributed to his childhood problems. But his tendency to refuse to answer questions, to sit long stretches without speaking, led his mother to seek medical advice. The result: placement in special education classes during elementary school.

“It was for slow learners, and it was really boring,” Pace said. “You had people in those classes who were really out of it. We were called all kinds of names like ‘retarded’ and ‘low bridge.’ I didn’t think I belonged there.

“I was just scared of people.”

There was no such fear when it came to basketball, the game that a lanky, 9-year-old Pace took up after being challenged by recreation coach Walton Young.

“He said he didn’t like basketball, so I gave him a ball and told him I wanted to see him bouncing it every time I saw him,” Young said. “I told Mrs. Pace, ‘You got a million dollars walking around there.’”

Pace, finally, had something to embrace. His joy: a bag of bread, a jar of mayonnaise, a jug of Kool-Aid and an entire day on the basketball court.

LEARNING PROBLEMS

That ability to express himself on the court did not transfer to the classroom. As a freshman at Franklin High, he performed miserably in his subjects (his highest grade was a D in physical education) and on standardized tests.

On the Lorge-Thorndike tests, his verbal abilities were typical of a 7-year-old’s, his nonverbal abilities, typical of a 6-year-old’s. (His scores were interpreted at The Sun’s request by Dr. Edward Drahozal, vice president of the Riverside Publishing Group, which publishes standardized tests.)

Tutoring didn’t help. And Pace was often absent, missing 261 days, or about a third of the four years of high school instruction.

So Franklin’s tallest player didn’t play varsity basketball until his fourth year. Even then, Young often had to scramble to find Pace to prevent him from being late.

The youth had such a short attention span that he couldn’t comprehend most plays.

“With Joe, the less complicated you made things, the better,” said Kerry Davis, then coach at Franklin. “I wouldn’t refer to what we did with Joe as concessions. It was more in terms of good judgment. You don’t have to run double screens when you have a [6-11] guy who could go over people.”

Pace ran the floor like a gazelle, leading Franklin to the state tournament and setting the school’s single-season scoring record.

He also left Franklin without a diploma.

“I didn’t go to class,” Pace said. “They passed me just to play basketball.”

Three decades ago, high schools and universities were not bound by today’s strict rules to prevent athletes from neglecting their studies. Pace not only played at Franklin, but also gained acceptance to college and went on to play for two basketball programs despite his academic flaws.

DESTINATION: UMES

The miracle of 1972 took place at Rutgers University. Pace somehow made up an entire academic year there while taking a heavy course load in the Summer Upward Bound program. By receiving an A, two B’s and three C’s, Pace earned a basketball scholarship to the University of Maryland–Eastern Shore.

Young, the recreation coach, was hoping that UMES coach John Bates could become a father figure, partly making up for Herbert Pace’s departure when Joe was 13.

As a freshman, Pace held his own in several notable battles against Morgan State and its star, Marvin Webster. As a sophomore, Pace helped the Hawks become the first historically black school asked to the National Invitation Tournament.

Pace won a national title at Coppin, where he transferred his junior year.

Pace left Princess Anne to transfer to Coppin State as a junior at the request, he said, of Bates, who had just taken the Coppin coaching job. “He told me if I stayed [at UMES], my grades wouldn’t let me play,” Pace said.

At Coppin, Pace played despite a 1.21 grade-point average his first semester and a GPA of 0.79 the next, while taking Ceramics I (D), Sculpture I (D), Photography I (D), English Composition (F), Modern Industry (F), Seasonal Team Sports (B) and a recreation course (D).

Bates, when reached by phone, responded: “If it’s concerning Joe Pace, I have no comment.”

Calvin Burnett, who was Coppin State president then and now, said he had no idea Pace’s grades were so low.

“I don’t go into the grades of our athletes, or any students for that matter,” Burnett said. “I just assumed things were going well with him.”

Pace’s explanation: “The classes I liked, I went to. The ones I didn’t like, I skipped.”

But Pace wasn’t skipping the night life. The naive newcomer admits to hanging with “pimps, drug dealers and numbers runners.”

“Because he was a star, they latched onto him,” said Don Evans, who was then a teammate. “Had Coppin failed him so he couldn’t play ball, maybe we would have never heard of Joe Pace. [But] the system gave him a break. Some people can grasp it and take advantage. Joe was a big country boy, and just got lost in the shuffle.”

Said Leon Love, a former Baltimore high school standout who befriended Pace: “Living in the Eastern Shore for two years was real slow, but coming here for Joe, it was like Vegas.”

PILLAR OF THE TEAM

Despite the partying, Pace was all business on the court.

In March 1976, entering the semifinals of the 32-team NAIA tournament in Kansas City, Mo., Coppin State had won 28 straight games. Then came a scare against Marymount (Kan.), when Pace—with the Eagles leading by five—crumpled to the court in pain with a severely sprained left ankle.

Michael Freedman, a Baltimore attorney who would become Pace’s agent, followed him into the trainers’ room. “He’s literally fighting the trainers so he could get back on the court,” Freedman recalled. “He knew that, without him, they weren’t going to win.”

Pace returned, telling Bates, “Don’t worry,” as he checked into the game.

All season, he had dominated opponents in the low post, but with time running out and Coppin trailing by one, he had the ball 25 feet from the basket. With perfect form, Pace lofted a jumper. The ball swished through the net, the game-winning shot in the 81-80 semifinal win.

Pace scored a career-high 43 points the next night and earned the tournament’s MVP award as Coppin won the title.

Drafted that year by the Washington Bullets, Pace signed at the going rate for second-round picks: $30,000.

He thought he should have been picked higher and paid more. “I was supposed to get at least $350,000,” Pace said.

Bob Ferry, the Bullets general manager who drafted him, disagreed.

“Someone as talented as Joe, you knew something was wrong, irregular about him because, if there wasn’t, he would have gone in the first round.”

Pace immediately earned a reputation for being late—or not showing up at all.

“I was young and wild,” Pace said. “Sometimes, I just didn’t want to get out of bed.”

Teammates offered him advice. “We told him, ‘Joe, this is an opportunity that only comes around once in a lifetime. Don’t be late, don’t miss any more practices,’” said Kevin Grevey, now a restaurant owner. “You could see the coaches getting annoyed.”

After two years with Washington as the third-string center, Pace became a free agent. And the Boston Celtics wanted him.

Grevey, one of Pace’s closest friends on the team, recalls being worried. “The best place for Joe was in Washington. When he had to go away, I knew there was going to be less tolerance and less patience for his problems.”

TANTALIZING FUTURE

That summer, shortly after the Bullets won the 1978 NBA title, Pace’s agent, Freedman, was marveling about how wonderful life was as he drove up to his client’s Northwest Baltimore apartment. Pace was about to sign with the Celtics. It was just a simple matter of getting him to Boston.

Freedman knocked on the door.

“His friend lets me in, and Joe’s in bed sleeping,” Freedman said. “He didn’t want to go! I said, ‘Joe, you’re going. If I have to drag you and dress you, you’re going.’”

In Boston, Satch Sanders was preparing for his first full season as coach and eagerly awaiting Pace’s arrival.

“I figured I’d have a really outstanding center to play with Dave Cowens,” Sanders said. “The man who reminds me the most of Joe—take away the offensive skills—is Hakeem [Olajuwon]. He had that timing and smooth play about himself.”

The offer: three years, $300,000. All Pace had to do was attend a one-week summer camp.

Pace made it to Boston, but he didn’t make it through camp. Midway through the week, he vanished without explanation.

“I had a bad back and a bad ankle,” Pace said. “I kept getting hurt because I couldn’t rest my ankle. I felt like I was going to get cut, so I just walked away.”

His walking away may have had a major effect on three lives.

Sanders was fired 14 games into the 1978-79 season, when Boston started 2-12. His coaching stint of 62 games, which included 48 the previous season, proved to be the shortest in Celtics history.

“Joe was going to make that team,” Sanders said. “He would have been an imposing figure in the NBA.”

For Freedman, the local attorney, it marked the end of his career as a sports agent.

“To have a starting center with the Celtics as your client,” Freedman said, shaking his head. “The whole agent game is getting the right kid and being smart enough to build off him. Joe could have been my guy.”

For Pace, whose college sweetheart, Paulette Neal, was pregnant at the time, it proved to be the final act of a brief NBA career.

His son, Joe Jr., was born that fall as Pace stepped down to the Continental Basketball Association, where he played the 1978-79 season with the Baltimore Metros. He never got another chance in the NBA.

THE WRONG MOVE

“I made the wrong decision,” Pace said. “I needed someone behind me saying, ‘Stay in there.’ But I was by myself. It was a bad move, and I paid for it.”

Asked to offer reasons for his undoing, several who were close to Pace voiced the same suspicion.

“I think his biggest problem was drugs,” said Evans, the Coppin teammate who is now a Baltimore fireman. “When Joe came here he was a clean-cut guy, just slow. But then he got with the wrong people. And that’s when the problems started.”

Young, the recreation coach who kept in touch with Pace while he was in college and the NBA, had similar thoughts. “I heard the rumors about drugs, but we didn’t see them and he didn’t say anything about it,” Young said.

Then-Bullets coach Motta said: “The first thing when someone varies from normal, you think he’s on drugs and wonder what’s the problem at home. We weren’t allowed to test [for drugs].”

If not addiction, perhaps Pace’s inability to learn and the lack of help in addressing his academic shortcomings played a role.

“Somehow, he spent four years in two colleges and someone let him slip through the cracks,” Motta said. “You’d like to help him, but we got the end product. You have to wonder how he was able to skip through 16 years of schooling.”

Pace blamed alcohol for his problems. “Drinking, yeah, was a problem when I was young,” he said. “She [Paulette] even thought it was drugs. I wasn’t hooked on drugs.”

He vehemently denied using drugs except during one incident a year later in Pesaro, Italy, where happiness seemed within his reach.

Playing for the Scavolini team there, he had a luxury apartment, a $65,000 salary and a tremendous following that embraced his above-the-rim style.

THE BEST TALENT

“He was like a god for us,” said Lutio Zenca, who was an 8-year-old fan when Pace played and is now the team manager for Scavolini. “He had, maybe, the best talent that played in the entire Italian championships. He was spectacular.”

Not consistently spectacular—but Pace’s play in stretches was better than much of what Italian basketball had to offer. And that allowed Scavolini officials to overlook the times Pace was late or missed games and practices.

In January, Paulette arrived for a two-month visit, and the two were married.

“She was a nurse, she had a career and she was great for Joe,” said Love, the Baltimore friend who lived with Pace in Pesaro. “[Scavolini was] going to give her a job as a nurse, money, anything. But she didn’t want to stay. She had a career.”

Paulette Pace had no comment for this article, declining to respond to phone calls and letters.

After Paulette left for Baltimore in late February, Pace became depressed.

A month later, after a night of heavy drinking, an acquaintance placed a line of white powder on a table in Pace’s living room. Pace remembers dropping to his knees, lowering his face—his nose nearly touching the marble surface—and snorting.

“It felt like somebody had hit me upside the head, like a bat,” Pace recalled.

He said he thought he had snorted cocaine. The substance was a mixture that included pure heroin, which left him in a coma.

He recovered to face trial two weeks later in a Pesaro courthouse, as fans outside chanted, “Free Joe Pace!” Signs in his defense were plastered on walls throughout the city.

Although Pace was convicted on charges of possession and distribution of drugs, his 20-month sentence was suspended. He was a free man, but he was off the team.

Pace went on to play on other teams abroad before a second encounter with the law in Baltimore in 1986. He pleaded guilty to breaking into Paulette’s home and assaulting a man there.

Argentina-bound

Pace was placed on probation. And once again, basketball provided him a break: His probation was lifted in May 1987 to allow him to play professionally in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Divorced from Paulette, Pace remarried there and had a daughter, Sylvia. He said he continued playing, earning $6,000 a month until back surgery in 1993 ended his career and sapped his savings.

After returning to the United States the next year, Pace became homeless for the first time in 1995. He went to a shelter in Columbus, Ohio, after he said a home construction opportunity there went bust.

Someone sent a story about Pace’s plight to Wes Unseld, general manager of the then-Bullets, who in turn called Coppin State’s president.

“We sent for him,” Burnett said. “He’s one of ours.”

He offered to waive tuition and fees so Pace could try to earn his degree. But he said Pace told him he was too old and declined. Instead, the former star did volunteer work at the college.

At a low point, Pace pawned his NBA championship ring for $500.

“The ring didn’t mean anything to me because I didn’t help them win it,” said Pace, who played little during the finals. “I went to a pawn shop downtown. Before I went, I drank a six-pack. I had to do something so that I wouldn’t change my mind.”

Pace said Baltimore had become a painful reminder of his life’s failures.

“People would say, ‘There goes that junkie,’” Pace said, glumly. “Everybody messed with me, always saying, ‘You should have stayed in the pros.’ So I left.”

HOMELESS AGAIN

Blindly hoping for aid from ex-Bullets forward Elvin Hayes, Pace went to Houston in 1996. Instead, he became homeless.

“I thought my life was over,” Pace said. “I couldn’t shower, and sometimes the wait to wash your clothes at the shelter was so long you’d wear the same thing for weeks.”

A television station aired his story, prompting Mel Davis of the NBA Legends Foundation, which assists struggling former NBA players, to fly to Texas.

“He definitely wasn’t the man I remembered in 1978,” said Davis, a former NBA player. “His grooming, his appearance, his weight. I could tell he had gone through some rough and humbling times.

“I took him to my room so he could bathe, and gave him some fresh clothes,” Davis added. “You could tell he hadn’t eaten in some time. I thought, ‘Here’s a guy with a championship, going through this.’ I felt bad for him.”

The Legends Foundation helped Pace get a job at a restaurant and a place to stay. Yet by December 1997, he had moved on to Charlotte, N.C., looking for Muggsy Bogues. Pace was unaware that the former Dunbar High School star had been traded from Charlotte to Golden State.

“I was hoping he could open some doors,” Pace said.

The only open door Pace found was that of another homeless shelter. He entered with sparse belongings that included a paperback book.

The title: “How to Play the Game of Your Life. A Guide to Success in Sports—And Life.”

Sadly, it was a game that Pace was still trying to learn to play.

GETTING TO WORK

After reading about Pace, a family in Jacksonville, N.C., took him in and gave him a job in its thrift store. By March, he had accepted another job with the Durham, N.C., parks department, working in recreational camps and giving inspirational talks.

Pace has had his ups and downs. Some Durham residents complained about his full-time position with benefits. He stopped meeting with a tutor to improve his reading. And at the start, he was sometimes late for work.

“I spoke to him,” said Herb Sellers, leisure services coordinator. “He has to understand he’s in an area where he can prosper. It’s on him.

“The reason he was brought to Durham was to see if he could touch some of these kids’ lives,” Sellers said. “By coming from an average background, getting thrust into the professional arena and then the problems, he can relate to the youngsters.”

Although Sellers called his employee “a natural with kids,” Pace has had little contact with his own children. He said he has written his ex-wife and daughter, now 7, in Argentina but hasn’t had a response recently.

During visits to Washington in 1998, he did not try to reach his son, who lives in Baltimore. “I haven’t seen him in three years,” Pace said. “So there’s really not a lot I can say to him.”

Joe Jr. played basketball at Poly and Essex Community College, but his dad never saw him play.

He has no contact with his siblings, hasn’t seen his mother in a decade and doesn’t know her whereabouts, he said.

“I once told her that when I became a basketball player, I’d buy her a house and anything she wanted,” Pace said of his mother. “I think I broke her heart.”

BASKETBALL TIES

Watching Pace work the room during the Bullets’ anniversary dinner last summer, there was no sign of the sheepish individual who was reluctant to speak.

“As dramatic as I’ve ever seen a change in a person,” Ferry said.

During the event, Pace received numerous offers of assistance. Mitch Kupchak, a Bullets teammate who is now general manager of the Los Angeles Lakers, has supplied T-shirts and trinkets from his team for Pace’s camps. As a fallback, Grevey has offered a position at his Virginia restaurant. Unseld has said he’d do whatever he can.

Pace, through all his foul-ups and misfortunes, has never been short of chances and opportunities—most linked to basketball. Perhaps Pace is now mature enough to take advantage of them.

“I feel like I’m on the right path now,” said Pace, who recently turned 45.

“I want to work with kids, try to help them and become a big brother. And if I can do that I can go home, kick off my shoes and feel happy because I did something positive.”

JOE PACE TIME LINE

December 1953: Joe Pace born in Somerset, N.J., to Herbert and Josephine Pace.

June 1969: Pace finishes his first year at Franklin High School in Somerset with just one passing grade—a “D” in physical education. Pace has to repeat ninth grade.

December 1971: Pace, in his fourth year at Franklin, plays varsity basketball for the first time. By the end of his junior season the 6-foot-11 Pace is the school’s all-time single-season scorer and has led the team to state tournament.

June 1972: After four years at Franklin, Pace does not graduate. He does attend the Summer Upward Bound program at Rutgers University, where passing grades in all six courses make him eligible to play at UMES.

March 1974: As a sophomore, Pace helps UMES become the first traditionally black college to be invited to the NIT.

1974: Pace transfers to Coppin State.

March 1976: Pace scores 43 points to lead Coppin to 96-91 win over Henderson State and the NAIA basketball title. Averaging 30.0 points and 13.8 rebounds for the tournament, Pace is named MVP.

September 1977: Pace disappears from the Washington Bullets training camp, missing two practices.

December 1977: Pace, for the second time in his second pro season, disappears from the Bullets.

June 1978: Pace is a member of Bullets’ NBA championship team.

Summer 1978: Pace, with a three-year, $300,000 contract on the table, leaves a Boston Celtics minicamp. He would never play in the NBA again.

Fall 1978: Pace’s son, Joe Jr., is born.

October 1978: Pace signs with the Baltimore Metros of the Continental Basketball Association.

November 1979: Pace signs with Scavolini team in Pesaro, Italy.

January 1980: Pace marries Paulette Neal, his college sweetheart.

March 1980: Pace is hospitalized and in a coma in Pesaro after a drug overdose. Eleven days later, Pace is convicted by an Italian court on charges of drug use, possession and distribution. Pace’s 20-month sentence is suspended.

November 1980-1986: Pace plays in various leagues in Venezuela, England and Mexico.

1986: Pace pleads guilty to breaking into Paulette’s Northeast Baltimore home.

May 1987: Pace’s probation is lifted to allow him to play professionally in Argentina.

1991: Pace, divorced from Paulette, marries a second time and has a daughter in Argentina.

1993: Pace injures his back while helping construction workers build his home, ending his basketball career.

1994: Pace returns to the United States, leaving his second wife behind.

1995: Pace is homeless for the first time in Columbus, Ohio.

1996: Pace is homeless for the second time in Houston.

December 1997: Pace leaves Houston for Charlotte, N.C., where he winds up homeless again.

January 1998: A family in Jacksonville, N.C., reads his story, takes Pace in.

March 1998: Accepts full-time job with Department of Parks and Recreation in Durham, N.C. where he has worked since.

© 1999 The Baltimore Sun

A Man of Contradictions”— Second place, feature: Professional Basketball Writers Association

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