Published May 17, 2008
SEATTLE – Once the tables have been moved out of the way and the floor has been mopped, Joe Pace grabs a tan mattress off a stack, slides it into a corner and beds down at the Family and Adult Service Center on Third Avenue.
His feet hang over the edge of the mat, so he rolls up a blanket to support them. He shares the room with 60 people. He pays $3 a night for this privilege.
Thirty years ago next month, Pace slept in one of Seattle's finest hotels, though he can't remember which one, as a visiting pro basketball player for the Washington Bullets, sharing in an NBA championship won in this city at the expense of the Sonics.
A snack bar, room service and chocolate left on the pillow are no longer an option for this 6-foot-10 man, who is homeless in Seattle.
"Sometimes I don't want to wake up, I'm so sad," he said. "Sometimes I wake up crying and say, 'What did I do to be like this?"'
Instead of becoming a millionaire, Pace, 54, frequents the Millionair Club, another downtown facility for the destitute that provides meals and job leads. He sits at the front door as a security guard from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., wearing a gold badge and clutching a black walkie-talkie. He performs this chore more for something to do than as a source of income, regularly limping outside for cigarette breaks.
Pace spends the rest of his afternoons riding on buses, using a disabled passenger pass he bought for $8. He is afforded this right because he has degenerative disks in his back and is in need of surgery he can't afford on both knees. He takes trips to Woodinville and Tacoma, simply to kill time.
Then it's back to his homeless shelter. Pace usually is asleep by 8:30 or 9 p.m.
"NBA players are all looked at as millionaires, but a lot of guys back in those days didn't make it, and Joe is one of them," said Zaid Abdul-Aziz, a former Sonics forward. "The image of them as big, opulent people isn't always true. They take a fall sometimes."
Of all the things Pace longs for, the simple pleasure of soaking in a hot bathtub ranks near the very top. There have been the rare moments when he has paid for a hotel room just to turn on the water and give his aching, middle-aged body some needed relief. It beats the homeless shelter showers he considers risky at best in regards to good hygiene, especially when barefoot.
For that matter, he doesn't shake hands or exchange high-fives anymore with people he encounters in a similar situation, and he's friendly enough. Repeated colds and congested lungs have forced him to adopt this policy. Fist bumps are much healthier.
"That hand could have 5,000 germs on it," he said unapologetically.
Pace rode a bus to Seattle in 2002 on impulse after wandering aimlessly through his hometown of New Brunswick, N.J., and Baltimore, Charlotte and Atlanta for a decade, unable to thrive without basketball.
"It's where I played my last NBA game," he said of his current city. "It was like I can't do nothing wrong here."
Pace spent just two seasons in the league, appearing in 88 games for Washington, including a pair of playoff contests against the Sonics, drawing mop-up duty in Game 2 and Game 6 of the finals. He was paid $35,000 each year. The Bullets drafted him in the second round, as the 31st player overall, envisioning the big man as a future replacement for center Wesley Unseld.
The pros became enamored with Pace after he led Baltimore-based Coppin State to the 1976 NAIA championship and was named most valuable player, supplying 43 points, 12 rebounds and six blocked shots in a 96-91 title-game victory over Henderson State (Ark.).
"He was a very explosive, athletic player," said former Sonics center James Donaldson. "He could jump all day."
Impatient with his NBA progress — and unwittingly leaving himself one season shy of a receiving a pension — Pace took his game overseas. He got a good look at the rest of the world over the next 12 years. He played in Italy, Venezuela, Mexico, Panama, England, the Philippines and Argentina.
He was married twice, fathering a child each with American and Argentine spouses. He bought a Buenos Aires convenience store and sent money home to family members who never had much.
He became homeless after injuries and a haze of drugs and alcohol. Everything came undone for Pace in Argentina when he dunked and landed on his back, crashing to the floor when a guy grabbed his legs.
"I think they sent him in there to take me out," Pace said. "My legs went numb. I stayed in bed for eight months."
His problems multiplied after botched back surgery, a case of gangrene and the break-up of his second marriage. He left South America in poor health and without basketball or any other livelihood to count on.
"My wife said she wasn't going to stay married to a cripple who couldn't play basketball anymore," he said. "We had to close the store and there was no money. Her family was saying, 'Why don't you get rid of that bum?"'
Back in the States, Pace had few prospects. He started abusing alcohol and drugs, and eventually was forced to go through rehabilitation. He sold his NBA championship ring for $1,000 to a Baltimore pawnshop, his biggest regret. He started bouncing from city to city.
He's still living on the edge in Seattle. He receives a monthly $600 permanent disability check. He has $2 in a bank account. His name is on a long waiting list for subsidized housing.
"He's my baby," said Selina Daniels, a Family and Adult Service Center administrator. "My job is to try and help him obtain permanent housing. He's trying to do something but it's hard. You just can't take life for granted. We're all one paycheck from being homeless."
In recent weeks, the NBA Retired Players Association has publicized Pace's dire situation to its members, collecting clothing, toiletries and other nonperishable donations for him. The man wears a size 44 coat and 18 shoe, according to the organization's Web site.
Mitch Kupchak, Los Angeles Lakers general manager, has provided clothing and gift certificates to his former Bullets teammate and calls him a couple of times a month. Others have chipped in with coats and shoes.
Abdul-Aziz and Donaldson have stopped in to see him. Vester Marshall Jr., another former Sonics player and ordained minister, has been supportive.
Meantime, Pace rolls out his tan mattress every night. The makeshift bed is hard. The floor is cold. His mood is flat. He has significant hypertension and liver problems. He's trying his best to stay hopeful, to make a difficult comeback.
He's a long way from the NBA, though KeyArena, a place he used to frequent in uniform when it was the Coliseum, is less than a mile away.
"I'm surprised I'm still alive," Pace said. "I guess there's a purpose in life."