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A Fallen Star Begins To Chart His Course

"If I could do it all again with Joe, I would have implemented everything a little slower," Doherty said. "That might have made things easier for Joe, because it was a tough transition for him."

But Forte's outstanding sophomore statistics -- 21 points, 6 rebounds, 3.5 assists -- overshadowed his erratic behavior. If he left school early, experts said, Forte would be a first-round pick, which appealed to him for one simple reason: He would be rewarded with a guaranteed three-year contract that would pay millions. As it turned out, he was picked 21st overall and signed a three-year deal worth $3.2 million.

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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"As a player, there's no question he was ready to leave school," Wootten said. "He could not have had a better season than his sophomore year at North Carolina. The tougher question is: 'As a person, was he mature enough for the NBA?' "

Reality Bites

Forte stared out the window of the Asheville Altitude's bus and pondered that question in mid-December. Suburban Atlanta traffic had swallowed the bus, leaving Forte with little to do but sit and think. With luck, the Altitude would make it to Columbus, Ohio, by 9 p.m., a possibility that excited Forte because, "at that hour, most fast-food restaurants are still going to be open."

To Forte, a week in the NBDL feels a lot like an endless road trip: Long bus rides are interrupted by fast-food stops and nights in economy hotels. "You can spend about 40 hours a week on the bus," Asheville Coach Joey Meyer said. "And then when you finally stop, it's at a Holiday Inn Select." Players, including Forte, make about $15,000 to play a season of 48 sparsely attended games in places such as Roanoke and Fayetteville, Ark.

The lifestyle seems discordant with Forte's basketball pedigree, which is why he avoided this league for more than a year after his October 2003 dismissal from the NBA. Instead, he worked out and relaxed with family in Maryland and New York. For 12 months, he did as he pleased while collecting the $1 million still owed to him for the final year of his contract.

The money allowed Forte to be judicious. If playing basketball meant playing in the NBDL, Forte told friends, then he would rather not play at all.

"It's a little bit embarrassing to be here," Forte said. "I mean, all-Americans aren't supposed to end up in this league.

"I vowed so many times that I wouldn't play here. It's funny, man, because I really promised that to myself. I thought it was under me. But the truth is, this is the only way I can get everything back. I want to redeem myself. I want back in the NBA. This is the place where that all has to start."

None of it will be easy, considering that Forte hasn't played in games regularly since his sophomore year at North Carolina. And even though he has practiced and worked out consistently since then, his endurance has eroded. Early in his first game with the Altitude on Dec. 14, Forte signaled to Meyer that he needed a rest -- after playing for five minutes.

In practice, he shows flashes of talent that leave Meyer breathless -- a streak of 10 made three-pointers, a no-look pass, a smooth dribble-drive. But Forte's production lags far behind his promise. In his first five games with Asheville, he averaged three points.

"He's a long way from being the Joe Forte anyone would recognize," Meyer said. "You see patches of brilliance, but he's not in game shape. His timing is off. His legs are shot. He gets short-winded pretty quick. But all that's to be expected. I have no doubt that he can rebuild his game."

Rebuilding his reputation will be tougher. Even in the NBDL, which Chris Alpert, the league's director of basketball operations, said was built to give talented players a second chance, almost no team dared take a chance on Forte.

When the NBDL signs a player into the league, any team is free to pick up that player. Forte sat in that pool for two weeks before Asheville grabbed him.

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