Joe Pace Is Using Papier-Mâché Robots and a Three-Rimmed Backboard to Get His Life Back on Track

The formerly homeless ex–professional basketball player's last NBA game was defeating the Sonics for the championship.

The most important thing in Joe Pace's life is a 7-foot-4-inch talking elephant named Rudy. A work in progress, Rudy's skin is papier-mâché, his innards wooden, and his eyeballs photographic—the product of an ongoing Dumpster dive by his resourceful 53-year-old owner, an incidental sculptor if there ever was one.

Rudy is just one of several half-finished "robots" that crowd Pace's small, publicly subsidized University District apartment. Here, the robots vie for shelf space with a dozen scavenged television sets and at least as many similarly acquired stereo speakers. There is barely room in the apartment for Pace to sleep. Then again, Pace doesn't sleep very well anyway, his back permanently pained by the wear and tear that a nearly two-decade career in pro basketball affords.

At 6-foot-11, Pace is perennially clad in dark sweats and pearly white sneakers, except when he puts on one of his suits. Most of these clothes are hand-me-downs from his former Washington Bullets teammate Mitch Kupchak, who is now the general manager of the Los Angeles Lakers.

Some five years ago, Pace put on one of Kupchak's suits and headed to Morton's Steakhouse armed with a $100 gift certificate (also courtesy of the Lakers GM). After his meal, he was approached by a shoeshine man. When Pace declined his offer to shine his shoes, explaining that he didn't have any money, the man looked at him in disbelief. What the shoeshine guy didn't realize was that, at the time, Pace was "the best-dressed homeless man in the world," in the words of former KOMO-TV reporter John Sharify, who produced a documentary on Pace that aired in late 2002.

A college superstar who claims that his "secret weapon" was munching on flatulence-inducing foods before games so as to distract his opponents, Pace was a reserve on the 1977–78 Washington team that defeated the Sonics in seven games to claim the NBA title. The Bullets' decisive victory came on the Sonics' home floor, where Dennis Johnson suffered through his worst game as a pro, shooting 0-for-14 from the field. (The Sonics would turn the tables on the Bullets the following year by claiming their one and only league championship. Johnson was named series MVP.)

That game in Seattle would be Pace's last in an NBA uniform. After a long sabbatical playing professionally in ports all over the world, Pace found himself back in the States in the '90s, where he continued a cycle of drug and alcohol abuse that had marked his entire career. This behavior soon rendered him homeless and distraught about any prospects that didn't involve a basketball in his hand—an emotion that pervades to this day.

"I'm lost out here," he says, his faraway eyes surveying the bustle of First Avenue outside the Virginia Inn. "Basketball was like therapy to me."

Since retiring, Pace has struggled with depression, but refuses to treat it with prescription drugs. Where he once self-medicated with beer and cocaine, Pace, a voracious eater, sometimes consumes two whole rotisserie chickens in one sitting when he gets the blues (which doesn't do much to affect his hummingbird metabolism). Or he pours his energy into crafting his robots and a triple-rimmed pop-a-shot contraption, which he hopes to include in a "basketball boot camp for kids" that he would like to put on at schools, community centers, and playgrounds.

By his own admission, Pace's concept is "too much for a lot of people to follow." But here goes: Imagine a backboard with three rims affixed to it, two alongside each other at the standard 10-foot level, the other centered above at approximately 12 feet, surrounded by several different stations featuring papier-mâché pencils and foam robots with miniature basketballs electronically spinning on their tips and extremities. Each robot's torso is equipped with a speaker, which is attached to a microphone or television set, through which Pace will transmit taped messages about nutrition, safety, education, and other life lessons. At the center of it all is the 7-foot-4-inch Rudy, whom Pace describes as a "security elephant" with camera lenses for eyes.

Pace constructs the entire display with his own two hands, and acquires most of his materials—and all the electronics—from other people's refuse. Every day, once his morning shift as a security guard at the Millionair Club in Belltown ends, Pace returns to the U District by bus and sets to scavenging for discarded elements that might enable him to finish his exhibit.

In this light, his robots seem not crude but ingenious. And while Pace struggled in school and reads at a rudimentary level, his innate mechanical wherewithal is off the charts. A motorized toy in someone's trash bin is apt to be the engine that enables a ball to spin on one of the robots or papier-mâché pencils in Pace's boot camp.

"I'm like Sanford and Son," Pace says. "I recycle."

Stuck behind Hall-of-Famers Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes on the Bullets' frontline depth chart, Pace was traded after the '77–'78 season to the Boston Celtics. Frustrated, Pace abruptly fled to Europe, where he immediately caught on with an Italian team. He spent the next 15 years playing professionally in various countries—including Argentina and Mexico—but would never again suit up in the States. While Pace developed a fondness for several of the nations he lived in, he considers his decision to abandon the NBA to be "the biggest mistake of [his] life."

"A 6-foot-11-inch guy that can block some shots, you would think would be in the league longer than Joe was," says his former Washington teammate, Phil Chenier, now a broadcaster for the Wizards (the nickname Bullets eventually fell out of favor in crime-addled D.C.). "Joe was extremely introverted and didn't say a lot. He didn't get a lot of playing time, but there were times when he really showed a lot of talent. I think that was kind of titillating for the coaches and the team. He was a great shot blocker and rebounded pretty well, but lacking offensively in terms of moves with his back to the basket."

Pace's protracted expatriate stint estranged him from virtually everyone in his past, including his family. (Pace grew up dirt poor in New Jersey, where he dined on "mayonnaise sandwiches" and trapped rabbits, which were in turn skinned by a Native American neighbor for Pace to sell on the streets.) Throughout his career, Pace's only constant companions were drugs and alcohol, which Pace refers to as "my little buddy, the beer."

During his time in D.C., Pace "wasn't a bad person; he was just easily led," says Chenier. And during an era when most NBA postgame parties resembled Fleetwood Mac's dressing room, Pace, like many of his peers, was led to cocaine.

"If you weren't using coke, you were using some kind of speed," says Pace, who notes that such drugs were widely referred to as "vitamins." (Pace was briefly imprisoned in Italy for possessing and ingesting a cocaine-heroin cocktail after his team lost a pivotal game.)

In 1993, after a serious back injury ended his playing days abroad, Pace returned to the States, where his substance abuse reached perilous depths, eventually rendering him penniless. Pace spent the next several years sleeping on park benches in several major American cities, ultimately hopping a bus in Atlanta bound for Seattle, thus returning him to the scene of his fondest memory.

During his two NBA seasons, Pace never earned more than $35,000 per year—a comfortable living at the time, to be sure, but far from the silly money we associate with professional athletes.

"People think we made what people are making today, when it was nowhere close to that," says Chenier. "Part of the pressure that's put on all of us is that, regardless of where we are, people think you should be doing better. Sometimes you can get to the point where you feel like you haven't accomplished anything, and it can be kind of depressing. You're on that high playing ball, and when you come off that plateau, it's very easy to fall into the wrong circles. [Joe] is certainly not by himself."

But Kupchak, who speaks to Pace regularly over the phone and considers him a good friend, says it's not the amount of money that's important. "The more you make, the more you spend," he says. "I've seen guys who made $5 million per year for 10 years end up broke. I'm very aware of players who've endured circumstances you'd be surprised about. It's a challenge for someone who's 19 or 20 to go from no money to a lot of money."

Kupchak, a power forward with a lunch-pail ethic whose career ended at age 32 due to injury, considers himself lucky to have been offered a front-office position as soon as his playing days were over. "A lot of guys I played with would love to be involved in the league, but there just aren't that many positions available," he explains. "I can see it in their eyes that there's a void."

On April 29, 2002, Pace sent an e-mail to KOMO's Sharify from a computer terminal at the Millionair Club. In that communiqué, Pace revealed that he was living on the streets and had a story to tell. Sharify (pronounced sha-REE-fee), who now works for the Hope Heart Institute, dutifully chronicled Pace's plight in a half-hour televised documentary that aired toward the end of that year.

Often, these kinds of sympathetic profiles elicit an outpouring of support from touched viewers—offers of money, jobs. But it didn't work out that way for Pace. Granted, he now has steady, if not lucrative, employment and gets a small monthly disability check from the government that allows him to put a roof over his head. But he still regularly visits a University District food bank to round out his cupboards when his wallet slims down—and is not where he'd hoped to be five years on from the KOMO documentary.

Depending on whom you talk to, Pace's robots are either a welcome distraction from the darker corners of his reality or the key to his future. Count Pace's cousin, Marjorie McCraney, among those in the latter camp. McCraney, who lives in Tacoma, had no idea Pace was in the area until she saw one of Sharify's pre-documentary segments on KOMO. Pace now visits McCraney and her family at least every other weekend and often stays the night—but never any longer.

"He makes the kids so happy," says McCraney, referring to her school-age grandchildren, Dominique and Trenton. "They've learned that it's OK to be different; it's OK to dream. And they've learned the importance of education, because he always talks about that."

McCraney, a skilled tailor, is launching a clothing line called PYMP Style (the acronym's short for People You Must Pray). She is acquainted with popular ex-Sonic Shawn Kemp, who still lives in the Seattle area and makes a handful of public appearances, and is eager to leverage that relationship to provide Pace with a stage for his boot camp exhibit, which she feels has "unlimited possibilities."

But for all the warmth McCraney feels toward her cousin, she often grows frustrated with his lack of perseverance. "He hasn't learned to follow through," she says. "I think the stumbling block is that he gets distracted, either by other people or new ideas. They're brilliant ideas; we've just got to get him to follow through."

Pat Corning is not so sure. Corning first met Pace at a Chamber of Commerce meeting a couple of years ago (Joe attended as the guest of a Millionair Club director). At the time, Corning was working at a child development center in Shoreline, and Pace said he had a surplus of donated teddy bears back at his public housing quarters near Magnuson Park, where he lived for a short while. One day, Corning went to pick up Pace and his bears, and the gentle giant delighted the kids by distributing the stuffed animals as gifts. The bond between Corning and Pace was henceforth cemented.

"Pat and her husband kind of adopted me when I needed someone to be in my corner," says Pace, who has never had the means to go back east and visit either of his birth parents' graves.

Their relationship has evolved to where Corning has assumed the reins of Pace's fledgling Change of Pace Foundation. In this capacity, she sees Pace's robots as ancillary to her goal of getting him out on the public speaking circuit with substantial donor backing. (Corning hopes that Kupchak will agree to keynote a fund-raising breakfast for the foundation in early 2008.)

"My intent is to raise money for the foundation so he can go to the schools," says Corning. She admits she's never actually seen Pace's robots. "I told him I just can't get involved in that. If the robots are really cool, maybe they could be sold to benefit the foundation.

"I'm trying to look at the big picture," she adds. "The robots are kind of small picture."

But to Pace, the robots are about the only things that come into focus as he impatiently awaits his opportunity to bring Rudy and his cohorts into kids' lives, one he thought would come swift on the heels of Sharify's documentary. "I ain't no security guard," he insists. "I want to work with kids."

Proactively, Pace has shopped himself around with limited success, at times being shunned by potential partners who are fearful of his falling off the wagon. "I can understand that [attitude]," remarks Pace, "but you have to give a person a chance."

"I know he's run into some obstacles there," says Sharify. "But I wish that wasn't the case, because I think Joe would be amazing with youth. His story is inspirational, and I've seen him with kids. He's someone who would give his undivided attention.

"You want Joe Pace to succeed, but he's not a young guy anymore," adds Sharify. "He's got to get it together."

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