Once he was an unlikely hero.

Perhaps never in this town has an athlete who played so little been so revered as Joe Pace.

Fans would come early to watch him warm up and stay until the final seconds, no matter what the score, to see Pace slam dunk or spike someone else's shot into the stands. He was their man.

All Pace seemingly had to do to become a star was put on his uniform every day. But it wasn't that simple. His basketball skills said yes; his lack of maturity said no.

"I was mixed up," Pace said. "I just don't know why I did some of the things I did."

Pace, now 28, has taken a circuitous route back to where it all started. He's been given one more chance to make it with the Bullets and he insists that things will be different.

General Manager Bob Ferry was impressed enough to sign him as a free agent three weeks ago, less than a year after telling Pace he wasn't interested in his services.

Pace often has been misunderstood and manipulated by both friend and foe. He has learned about life the hard way.

"I've learned the lessons well, too," he said.

Pace was the Bullets' second-round draft pick in 1976 out of Coppin State in Baltimore. His troubles started almost immediately. Elvin Hayes and some of the other veterans constantly teased Pace, who was an unworldly, slow-talking loner.

Pace usually just smiled and went along with the jokes, but inwardly they hurt. As a result, he never developed close relationships with his teammates and never felt completely accepted.

Pace could dunk and block shots as well as any other center in the league, but his team skills were not good. He needed polishing, but didn't seek help and seemed uninterested when it was offered.

He started missing practices, then flights, then games. His excuses were never acceptable to the Bullets and he was fined several times.

Because he was so talented and so popular with the fans, the Bullets didn't want to give up on him. But all the aspirin in the world couldn't relieve the headache Pace was causing. When his three-year contract ended, the Bullets no longer wanted him. He became a free agent.

The Boston Celtics signed him and virtually assured him of a position as backup center. Pace didn't even make it to the season opener, disappearing during training camp. No English-speaking team wanted anything to do with him after that.

Pace went to Europe and became a minor legend. Trouble followed him. In March 1980, after almost dying of a heroin overdose, he was arrested in Pesaro, Italy, on various drug abuse charges and spent 10 days in jail before being released. He was sentenced to 20 months in jail and fined 500,000 lire (about $580). The sentence was suspended.

Pace's Italian connection was broken. He came home, but there wasn't much waiting for him. No NBA team would give him a tryout.

When Pace approached the Bullets, Ferry turned him down, saying Pace had done nothing to show him or anybody else that he had become more responsible. Pace finally went to London to play. He caused no ripples there off the court and returned to Baltimore last March.

After the NBA season ended, Pace played in the Urban Coalition League and caught Ferry's attention.

"He played very well this summer," Ferry said, "so I asked him if he wanted to work out with our rookies and some of our younger players. He worked out three times a week for a month and was always there on time. That impressed me right there. He came in, practiced hard and proved he could still play."

With the Bullets' three best big men -- Hayes, Wes Unseld and Mitch Kupchak -- no longer with the team, Ferry was interested in anyone 6-foot-10 who knew what a basketball was. He offered Pace a contract and Pace accepted.

"Joe's ability as a player never was in question," Ferry said. "The only problems we ever had with him were for missing practices and games and being late. He never did anything malicious.

"I think his problems are over now, so why not take a chance with him? When he asked last year about coming back, I said no because we didn't have a spot for him and I didn't really want to give him another chance because of what had happened when he was here before. Since then he's showed me he deserves a chance. I think he can help us. He really likes to play and he's in good shape."

Pace's own goals are modest: "All I want to do is play and stay out of trouble."

Rejection, drugs and imprisonment usually harden people. They had the opposite effect on Pace. He's mellowed. He's much more open and friendly -- and dependable. He's married now and lives with his wife Paulette and two children, Missy and JoJo, in West Baltimore.

Pace doesn't like to talk about "what is past because that was a different time and a different me. I just want to play basketball now as a Bullet -- no matter what my role is.