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A Fallen Star Begins To Chart His Course

By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 10, 2005; Page D01

Relegated to the National Basketball Developmental League, a wasteland for basketball castaways, Joseph Forte decided last month that he could pick between two outlooks on his life.

"I could curse and feel sorry for myself. I could wonder how I dropped all the way down to this," said Forte, once a basketball prodigy. "But I want to own up to some things, so I decided to approach it more optimistic. I'm going to think, 'You know, with all the mistakes I've made, I'm actually lucky to play at all.' "

Former DeMatha and UNC standout Joe Forte, more than a year removed from a troubled stint in the NBA, is starting over with the NBDL's Asheville Altitutde. (John Coutlakis - Asheville (N.C.) Citizen-Times)

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It marked the first good choice, friends and family said, that Forte had made in a very long time.

A McDonald's All-American at DeMatha and later a first-round pick by the Boston Celtics in the 2001 NBA draft, Forte designed his entire life for NBA success -- then threw away his chance in two tabloid-worthy seasons.

In two seasons in the NBA, Forte showed up late for a half-dozen practices and violated dress code at least three times. After losses, he sometimes angered coaches by singing carelessly in the shower. He antagonized teammates until one attacked him; he frustrated general managers until two discarded him.

"I was a 20-year-old kid with a lot of money and a lot of responsibility," said Forte, now 23. "I mean, I was used to being cared for, and all of a sudden I'm keeping my mom on a budget. It was too much too soon, and I just couldn't handle it."

So, on the verge of his December debut with the NBDL's Asheville Altitude, Forte finally concluded what others had long agreed upon. The marvel is not that Forte -- a 6-foot-4 guard so talented he once inspired favorable comparisons to Michael Jordan -- fell so far as the lowly NBDL.

What's amazing, some said, is that he didn't fall further.

"With his luck, with his behavior, he was headed for something terrible," said Bill Guthridge, who coached Forte as a freshman at the University of North Carolina. "He was on a dangerous path, and he'd lost a lot of supporters."

Strange, considering Forte's story had once commanded such respect, such empathy. Sandbagged by financial struggles and a father who had abandoned him, Forte willed himself to basketball stardom. Forte's mother, Wanda Hightower, sometimes worked two jobs and moved her family from Atlanta to Rockville to support her three sons. And Forte, the oldest, privately promised to repay her with a college basketball scholarship and, later, NBA riches.

He often arrived an hour early for practice at DeMatha, where he honed the smooth jumper and deadly first step that would make him an all-American as a senior. He chose North Carolina from a bevy of college suitors, then had one of the greatest freshman seasons in memory. On a stacked and experienced Tar Heels team, Forte -- not even expected to start -- averaged nearly 17 points. He steadied North Carolina in its surprise run to the Final Four, and teammates, coaches and basketball analysts lauded Forte for his levelheadedness.

"People started saying that he was North Carolina's best freshman ever," said Morgan Wootten, Forte's coach at DeMatha. "What amazed people was his maturity."

Ironic, considering Forte would soon earn a reputation among teammates for childishness. When Guthridge -- whom Forte often referred to as a "father figure" -- retired before Forte's sophomore season, the talented guard rebelled against Guthridge's replacement, Matt Doherty, as if he were an imposing stepfather.

Midway through the 2000-01 season, Doherty told his players they would not scrimmage during the next practice. "I don't care what he says," Forte told teammates. "I'm going to scrimmage." So he skipped the following practice, instead putting on his Carolina shorts and walking to the campus recreation center, where he played in a pickup game with regular students.

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