Joe! Joe! Joe! Joe Pace! Joe! Joe! Joe! Joe Pace!" chanted the small crowd of fans who had been waiting for hours outside the courthouse. When the giant, 6-foot-9 basketball player finally appeared -- flanked by uniformed "carabinieri" and his hands manacled by Italy's Borbonic handcuffs and chains -- they pressed forward cheering even louder.

"Free Joe, free Joe!" some of the waiting youngsters yelled as the hero of this basketball-crazed town climbed into an unmarked police van. In fact, although convicted on drug charges, less than an hour later Pace was free and enjoying a heaping plate of spaghetti at a midnight dinner with friends, teammates and his tall, beautiful wife Paulette, at the central "Vecchia Pesaro" restaurant.

Determined to avoid anything that could get him into more trouble, the former Washington Bullet (1976-78) drank mineral water and fruit juice and pushed away the wine and champage offered by the restaurant's owner, Pace's friend Marcello Mori.

"I made a mistake but it was the only time and it's not going to happen again," said Pace, referring to the March 6 overdose of heroin that almost killed him and which led to his arrest two days later on various charges of drug abuse.

Pace's legal Calvary -- 10 days in a pest-infected cell with little sleep and a diet of cold, sauceless rice and tasteless meat -- was clearly the low point of a year studded with a variety of adjustment problems that had led the Scavolini team for which he played here to decide against renewing his contract.

But it was clear as he sat with head bowed in the small provincial courtroom where he was tried on Monday that his sometimes erratic behavior had not cost him the affection of the "Pesaresi." Outside, in fact, the walls of the city were covered with posters shouting in large black letters, "Joe Pace, stay with us!"

While the defense lawyers and the prosecutor, clad in the traditional black robes with their silver tassels, prepared their briefs, scores of anxious fans crowded into the spectators' section. And when -- towering over his guards -- Pace was brought into the courtroom in chains, Scavolini club Manager Vito Amato wept openly.

Even the president of the special three-man tribunal, seated under a crucifix and huge letters reading "the law is equal for everyone," treated Pace with consideration and respect shown to neither of the other two defendants in the case nor to some of the witnesses.

But at the end of the 10-hour trial Pace was convicted of possession and distribution of drugs and sentenced to a 20-month prison term and a fine of 500,000 lire (about $580).

The panel of three judges -- reportedly all rabid sports fans -- suspended the sentence and ordered his immediate release.

For many observers, the sentence was an extremely harsh one in a country where conviction for personal use of small amounts of drugs is now rare. The general feeling in Pesaro this week was that the conviction had been motivated by concern over growing drug use here, and the Scavolini club lawyer, Paolo Pazzi, was planning to appeal.

"The shadow of Steve Mitchell hangs over this trial," Public Prosecutor Paolo Angeli said in his summing up. He was referring to the December 1978 overdose death in Pesaro of another American basketball player under contract to a team in nearby Rimini.

Pace was acquitted on several counts, including one deriving from discovery in his apartment of a bag of suspicious-looking white powder, that turned out to be poster glue. But the court apparently gave credence to the otherwise unsubstantiated testimony of codefendent Leonardo Carnaroli 22, that on an earlier occasion -- preceding the night he and Pace together sniffed 150 milligrams of heroin -- the tall Baltimorean had shared with him and two other people an "indeterminate but moderate" amount of cocaine that, Carnaroli said, Pace reported having purchased in Rimini.

According to Carnaroli, credited with saving Pace's life by calling the fire department when the athlete became unconscious, Pace had also related bringing five grams of heroin into Italy last summer. But as there was no evidence other than his testimony -- and no indication that Pace is or was a habitual drug user -- Pace was acquitted of this charge. Carnaroli received a 19-month suspended sentence for possession and distribution, while a third defendant, 30-year Tiziana Del Monte, was sentenced to three years in jail for having supplied Carnaroli the heroin he took to Pace's apartment.

Despite an explicit request from the public prosecutor, the court did not issue an expulsion order. Nevertheless, on Thursday Joe and Paulette Pace, who married here in February, left for Baltimore to rejoin their children, 1 1/2-year-old Joe Jr. and a girl, 7, from Paulette's first marriage.

But the visit to the States is likely to be brief. The Scavolini team has decided to stand by Pace and, if legal considerations do not interfere, would like him back in April for the May-June summer tournament.

"If things go well in that period, then a new contract could also be possible," says Manager Amato. Implying that Pace's brush with the law -- and death -- may have altered the thinking about him, the team's one demand is that Paulette, a Baltimore nurse, leave her job and accompany her husband.

"He needs an anchor," says building constructor Eligin Palazzetti, the team president and chief financial supporter. "We can find her a job here if work is very important to her."

According to Palazzetti, in fact, Joe's "golden period" in Pesaro came in the two months from Paulette was at his side. Before that, despite the presence of Leon Love, Pace's friend and trainer, there were many, although "tolerable," problems. The brief period that followed Paulette's departure and ended in a hospital bed was, instead, "simply disastrous."

Ever since his arrival in Pesaro, say sports fans here, Pace's behavior was somewhat erratic. There were arguments with Scavolini's original coach, Carlo Rinaldi, that once led to Pace's storming off the court and another time to his refusal to leave it.

He also was reluctant to train as much and as often as Rinaldi and Amato felt he should.

"After all, in America he only played for seven minutes at a time. Here we needed him for the entire game," says Amato, explaining that American basketball is light years ahead of the Italian game and that U.S. players are hired to serve as the team backbone.

This kind of pressure subjects American players here to immense strain and may have contributed -- along with other factors -- to the recent drug deaths of Mitchell and Bob Elmore (brother of former Maryland star Len) and the demise of Fessor Leonard (who died mysteriously shortly after being sold to a Swiss basketball club).

Joe Pace, it was known here, already had a reputation for indiscipline in the United States. But clearly in coming to Italy he was faced with unprecedented problems of adjustment -- cultural, linguistic and, last but not least, technical.

Being a 6-foot-9 black American in a small seaside Italian city surely cannot be easy. Since there are no blacks in Pesaro (and not that many 6-footers either) the problem is not one of racial prejudice. "Rather", says Amato, "black Americans are conditioned to believe they'll find prejudice and because of this -- and the socially stunting language problem -- they tend at first to turn inward and become withdrawn."

Pace, who says he now understands Italian although he is still reluctant to speak it, says he thought adjustment would be easier than it was. Palazzetti says in the first months Joe played too "heroically" and did not mesh well enough with the team. Pace, indicating he now would like to stay in Italy, sees the problem in a different light.

"People are more into basketball here than they are at home," he appraises, making it clear he enjoys the enthusiasm of the Italian fans. "But I had to learn a different way to play."

His frequent fouls, often four or five in the first quarter, came from his failure to understand Italian referees and "from the the refs' failure to understand just where I was coming from."

He has learned to slow down his game and is sure that if he stays on here his playing will surely improve. Another problem -- heavy Italian food he was unused to and too much beer -- has been resolved.

Whatever the reservations about Pace's playing performance, they are not shared by his adoring fans in Pesaro, or by the sports federation which recently voted him this year's No. 2 American player in Italy (there are 54), second only to Emerson-Varese's Bob Morse.

"People here go crazy over Pace," says a Pesaro sportswriter. He explained that in this city of 100,000 what counts is "that 10-minute period in which Pace plays like a god. If his game is uneven or if he was somewhat a bit erratic they really couldn't care less."

Not so the Scavolini management. Although today they partially blame themselves for not better understanding Pace's needs, his sometime unreliability upset them. Things came to a head in the two-week period between Paulette's departure and the final match of the 26-game championship. In this period, Joe kept late hours, refused to train and worst of all missed the bus to Milan for the final championship game whose outcome was crucial to Scavolini's place in Division "A". During his two-year tenure with the Bullets, Pace missed a few buses and several planes.

"Look, I had one really bad game," says Pace. In face, he played miserably and if Scavolini succeeded in maintaining its standing "you can be sure," says Vito Amato, "it was not thanks to Joe Pace."

Amato is a shortish, greasy-haired man with a kindly face whose affection for Joe and Paulette literally can be seen from across a crowded room. He thinks of Pace as a son and was deeply hurt by his behavior at the Milan game. "Just think," he says, "we'd bused 5,000 fans up there."

Amato explains that disappointment over the Milan game -- for which Pace nevertheless collected the $5,000 bonus stipulated in his contract -- led the team's management to announce that he would probably not be asked to come back next year.

"Probably if he'd been given a bottle of wine instead he would simply have gotten stinking drunk," he added.

But after three days in Pesaro it was hard to find anyone who didn't like Joe Pace. Palazzetti, who has known his share of U.S. basketball players, says Pace is "a real gentleman and the most polite American athlete I've ever met."

And most of the spectators at Monday's trial appeared ready to believe Pace's claim that his depression led him to accept something called "brown sugar" from a 22-year-old drug addict that he had mostly seen around town's central piazza.

Pace's lawyers are now busy examining the question of whether -- from the legal point of view -- it is wise for Joe to live in a country where his suspended sentence depends on five years of impeccable behavior.

But this seems to be what Pace would like. Although he objects to some of the stories told about him in the states -- "I only missed two planes and once was when Baltimore was under 45 inches of snow" -- there will be no more hassles, legal or otherwise.

"In the future, I'll meet them, all the way on anything they want," he said Monday night in the lobby of Pesaro's Mamiani Hotel. "After all, they got me out of jail."

As for Paulette, is she willing to pull up her roots to further a promising and profitable basketball career? Relieved by Joe's release from prison, Paulette has no doubts.

"All I can say," she says, "is whereever he is, you'll find me right close by."