A conversation with Joe Pace, former NBA Champion of the 1978 Washington Bullets

With William Pennington


I first met Joe Pace at a bus stop near the Seattle Children's Hospital, where I overheard him talking to another man about his NBA career.  Being an NBA fan myself, I had to listen in.  Their conversation was short as he got off the bus a few stops down.  I tried to look him up, but found no website, no contact email, no anything.  I did a lot of digging, and found out that he was a former NBA Champion, whose last NBA game was here in Seattle, in 1978.  He only played two seasons, deciding to walk away from the game at the age of 25.  I also found some interesting articles about him, how he had battled homelessness, addiction, and depression.

I decided to try and track him down, so I put a piece of paper with his name on it and my email address at the bus stop where I last saw him. That was my desperate attempt to find out more about this man, half forgotten, half legend. Luckily, someone found my note, gave it to him, and he responded, happy to meet.  Joe Pace and I met for coffee, and I came with my list of questions about the NBA.  But the more I read about him online, the more I realized that he doesn’t seem to like the NBA all that much, and that my NBA questions weren’t the questions I should've been asking.  What is his story?  Why did he walk away from the game?  What happened in the years after he quit to the present day? Who was he? 

Below, please find my transcript of our conversation.  Sometimes I ask questions, sometimes we just talk.  With his magnetic personality, and deep booming voice, I found myself just wanting to listen, and it didn't seem to matter what he talked about. 

He is Joe Pace.


Does Bob Dandridge belong in the Hall of Fame? You played with him in '78.

Bob Dandridge?  Hell yeah he was good. But he didn’t have the jumping ability that some of those guys had.  But hell he could shoot...I learned how to play ball watching Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell, cause I would have to play their position, so I always watched them when I was a little kid.

You're 6'10"?  Nowadays you'd be a power forward, more than a center, right?

Yeah, the only thing though was I could rebound and give the guards and forwards the ball, but they forgot about me. Give it back.  

What do you remember your two years in the NBA? 

Well, it's all about politics. A lot of players come from big schools, and they sign a contract saying they gotta play so many minutes to get their bonus, so I wasn't even in there [the game]  If Wes Unseld or Elvin Hayes get hurt, that's the only time I'm getting in there, unless we're beating them by 30, then he'd put you in there, but by then you're cold.  The only thing you can do is, dunk the ball and make it look good.

By not starting you were probably...

Frustrated, right?  Sitting on the bench. I wasn't a bad ball player, but uh...I wanted to play a little bit.  If you played me I'd get better.  The contract was, all these guys had minutes on their contract.  Gotta play 20 minutes, 30 minutes.

I don't watch the NBA that much, cause I get stuck watching the game and I lost two, three hours forgetting what I was supposed to be doing.  So I watch the end of them, because I know they playing hard then.

I had all these basketball questions lined up, but the more I look at your life, the more I feel like basketball is such a small part of your life.

I could make a movie, of my lifestyle.

I think so too. Winning the championship so early on in your career, well, that's just most players pinnacle.

Yeah but the problem was, ok, when we played the Lakers I did ok cause some of our players got hurt. Played Dr J, he taught me how to play.  Then we got to Seattle, the championship, they didn't even put me in the game!  I was so mad that when everyone ran into the locker room, everyone was throwing the champagne all over, on [coach] Dick Matta, I just left.  I went back to the hotel, but I left.  That was a bad move.

You played zero minutes in the Finals?

Yeah.  I just wanted to play. I knew Jack Sikma and Marvin Webster, and I did pretty good against them.  But..they was killing Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld, when I left that game, that was the end of my career.  After that game I had no more get up and go to play for the Bullets, so I went over to Europe and played, over in Rome.  It was beautiful.  It was great playing for that team.  I made more money playing for that team in six months than what I made with the Bullets in two years.  And we only played once a week!  I didn't know what to do with my money, my time, so I went to a cooking class.  I learned how to cook.  Italian.  That was fun.

I didn't want to come back to the NBA, I had lost the energy. Over in Rome, I didn't see homeless.  The people were so great, there weren't no racial thing.  Every country I went to, I didn't see homeless over there.  They take care of their own.

You spent two years playing over there?

Yeah, Rome, then I just started travelling.  I didn't use the bank to put all my money in. I put all my money in one of those suitcases. You know the ones that you can drop from two stories and it don't break?  I didn't need to spend it.

Salaries were a lot smaller back then, I bet.

Oh yeah, you talking about second round, making about 30 thousand.  And the Bullets were the last team you wanted to get drafted by.

Why, cause they weren't any good?

No, because they didn't pay you nothing.  I had to go work at a McDonalds in the summer for them not to take my car.  They don't pay you after six months.  

Is there a player today that reminds you of you?

That's hard to say, they get paid more, they don't sign autographs like we used to.  When I went into the NBA, I was like wow.  What, I was 24, 25, and I wanted the money. But when I got older and left, I kinda came back down.

You thought you'd have that lifestyle forever.

Yeah.  But Europe was a beautiful thing, I go over there, and I came back down to...what you call it?  ...normal! I said give me a million dollars, I can buy anything I want.  But my head was so big, but I did respect people.  My mother put it in my heart to respect people, and that what kept me in a safe zone.  

I don't wanna say nothing bad about other ball players, but you got a lot of NBA ball players who are really struggling.  It's sad you got these millionaire ball players, and they don't help others.  So I don't watch it that much. I might watch the playoffs.  Regular season? I don't watch it.  

Does the NBA have a retirement or pension fund? 

Yeah, I think you gotta play three years.  I only got two.  I quit.

So you had one more year to go.

Yeah, I quit.  I quit the NBA, I'm trying to say it in a nice way.  I wasn't happy.

Did the organization treat you bad?  

I don't wanna say anything bad, but they only drafted me because I was from Baltimore.  They wanted to bring more people to the games, to fill the gym up.

So you felt used

Yeah!  You said it, not me. 

Well, I imagine that's a common feeling.  You're not a product, you're a person.

I felt sad because I felt like I was a pretty good ball player.  The manager said "You'll get your chance, but now we need you as part of the second five"  I didn't like that.  Wes Unseld, wow. One day I hit him. I hit him in the chest.  I hit him with everything I got. He's a big guy, and you don't wanna mess with the beast. We called him Baby Huey, and he could actually wipe you out. You don't wanna mess with him.  He grabbed me and said, "Ok, that's the second time now, don't do it no more, I've warned you. Don't do it no more."  I said ok, thank you. Thank you Wes, for not breaking me.  Then we started practicing again.  I wasn't scared, but everybody said "Oh man, Joe just stepped in the fire!"  But he's a good guy.

Do you still talk to him?

Oh yeah, he's a good guy.  He's got a school in Baltimore.  There's one thing about me, is I don't wanna hurt anybody.  

Every team has these role players, no matter what sport, they are so necessary.

Yeah, the way the games went, when they kept me in, they went up a level.  

Do you remember your best game?

Yeah.  Dick Matta was the coach, right?  Artis Gilmore, got all that money. Wes Unseld got hurt, I was clapping.  Can I go in there now?  It was his [Artis'] birthday when we played them.  Well, I ain't trying to brag, but I dunked on him eight times that game.  And I said "Can I have 20 percent of his contract?" He was talking about how good he was, when Wes got hurt.  The best percentage is when you dunk the ball.  

What kind of players did you enjoy playing against the most?

Ok, when you play against Wes Unseld, that's the best. Everyone is on a lower level.  You gotta get around him.  As for Artis Gilmore, Kareem and all them, it wasn't no problem.

[at this point of the interview, an elderly woman asks Joe if he can take a picture, and he was more than happy to oblige.  Joe's magnetic personality on full display]

Have you ever been to the Jim Marsh Classic?  The 3 on 3 basketball tournament down at Emerald Downs?

I wanna do something.  I'm trying to work on this foundation, and I'm trying to put this thing together, teach kids to be creative. I'm trying to put a camp together.  What's the second language in the United States?  What the youths do. Cursing.  They be cussing you out, and you wanna be working with them, but if they be doing that, I wanna play someone else.  I think cussing is the second language. I'm trying to get them to think for ten seconds before anything comes out their mouth.  A lot of coaches, scouts, camps, and all that is training them, but they forgot certain things.  There's three things: Respect your mothers house, eat healthy, and control your anger.  I'm glad my mother brought me up, respect everybody, control your anger.  A lot of young kids is losing that. 

I know you have a creative mind, I've seen video of your projects

Oh my goodness.  Give me a workshop, with wood, tools. I had that when I was 8, 9 years old. I like building stuff.  

Are you in contact with a foundation already?

Not yet.  I wanna do something that I can get all the kids together, and not about money. Get them the uniforms, treat them right, give them the excitement of their life.  Talk about education, all that stuff.

You still got your championship ring?

Mmmm...I don't wanna go there.  A police lady called me up, in Seattle, said they found the ring in a robbery.  So there must've been a guy that had the ring, and they wanted more.  That's all the information I can give you, cause I don't wanna go deep.

It sounds personal

Yeah.  You know you grow up, they say the older you get, the wiser you get.  Depends on where your heart is at. 

Changing the subject, they changed the name of the Bullets to the Wizards.  Will it ever come back?  Does not having the name Bullets really make America safer?

No, they just wanted to go with something different.  The girl, she put that name, I think she got lifetime tickets.

Oh, the girl who suggested the name Wizards?


Will the Sonics ever come back?

Oh, They ain't gonna bring that back, everybody mad. Yeah that was politics what they did. The mayor wanted to remodel  [Key Arena] or something.

You know what's so great about Seattle? They help the homeless a lot, and the people are more friendly here than the East Coast.  You don't have to pay somebody to give you the right directions.