"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.
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 daugh- ter, 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."
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 Legend's 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 Legend's 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