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A man of contradictions

Basketball: 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.: JOE PACE: A MAN OF CONTRADICTIONS

January 22, 1999|By JERRY BEMBRY | JERRY BEMBRY,SUN STAFF

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 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.

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