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