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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

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."

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.

Pub Date: 1/22/99

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