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.' "
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.
"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.
"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?' "
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.
"When I picked Joe up, I laid it all on the line with him," Meyer said. "I said, 'Listen, you've got a horrible reputation, and here's what people are saying about you: You're lazy. You've got a big head. You're high-maintenance. This is going to be your only second chance, because nobody else is going to want you.' "
Disaster in Seattle
It's easy to pinpoint when Forte's fall began, some said, because he punctuated the occasion with so many angry outbursts. It was just a few months after the Boston Celtics made Forte the 21st pick of the 2001 NBA draft and offered him a guaranteed contract.
Stuck behind players and between positions, Forte had an erratic preseason. The Celtics wanted Forte, a shooting guard in college, to play point guard, but he struggled with ballhandling. He quickly plunged down the depth chart, and the Celtics put him on the injured list to start the regular season.
"That's when all the mistakes started," said Guthridge, Forte's coach at Carolina. "Joe Forte was an all-American in high school and college, and suddenly he was a nobody in the NBA. He couldn't handle not playing."
Said Forte, "Instead of controlling my emotions about sitting on the bench, it controlled me."
Forte played in eight games during the 2001-02 season for a total of 39 minutes, and he let out his frustration in tantrums. He showed up late for three consecutive practices; he watched games on the locker room television instead of from the bench; he wore a Magic Johnson jersey, that of the Los Angeles Lakers, the Celtics' biggest rival, to a pregame meeting.
Five weeks into the season, he fired his agent, Jeff Austin, for failing to convince the Celtics to give Forte playing time. "He blamed a lot of people for why he wasn't playing," Austin said. "But he was the only person who could have done more to get himself on the floor."
No wonder, then, that before his second season the Celtics eagerly traded Forte to the Seattle SuperSonics, another team that would soon become anxious to be rid of him. With no hope of playing in Seattle -- Forte was stuck behind all-star caliber point guards Kenny Anderson and Gary Payton -- Forte quickly distanced himself from teammates.
"I never talked to anybody and just stayed by myself," Forte said. "I definitely have to say that Seattle was the lowest point of my life. Before that, I'd been in tough situations, but I'd always had hope. In Seattle, I didn't have any reason to hope -- I didn't see a light -- so I didn't care what people thought about me. That's a dangerous thing."
Before a game against the Michael Jordan-led Washington Wizards on March 26, 2003, Forte walked into Seattle's locker room wearing a Jordan jersey. When a teammate asked him why he was wearing an opponent's jersey, Forte responded, "Man, I love the Wizards."
An entire locker room glared.
Forte did not play and the Sonics lost the game, 80-74. Afterward, in a shower filled with downtrodden teammates, Forte sang gleefully until 7-foot-1 center Jerome James attacked him. Teammates broke up the fight.
A day later, in a move that revealed much about the Sonics' feelings for Forte, Seattle handed down the consequences: Forte was suspended for a game and fined $11,000; James wasn't punished.
After the season, Forte's problems continued to mount. Less than a week after he left Seattle to spend time at home in Washington, Forte was arrested. On his way back from a trip to New York, during which he met his idol, rapper Jay-Z, and thought, just maybe, he could finally see a light, he was pulled over for going 90 in a 65-mph zone. Police found marijuana and a .22 caliber pistol in the car.
"When that happened, I wasn't even mad," Forte said. "I knew something like that would happen. I mean, I'm not the kind of person that usually carries a gun, but I felt like the world was against me. I knew I would have to hit rock-bottom."
But his rapid spiral to that low point confounded those who knew Forte best. Wootten remembered Forte as "a people-pleaser, a guy with a good head on his shoulders." Guthridge remembered him as "very coachable so long as you kept him on the right path." After Forte's arrest, both men called their former player and asked a pressing question: What happened?
"My whole life, I had people looking out for me," Forte said. "At DeMatha I had Coach Wootten, and at North Carolina I had Coach Guthridge. Those guys took me under their watch, man. They made sure I did everything right.
"Then in the NBA, I didn't have anybody watching me. I had to make my own decisions, and I guess I wasn't totally ready for that."
At the beginning of training camp, the Sonics released Forte, deciding that it was better to pay him not to be on the team.
"His talent was never a problem," Seattle General Manager Rick Sund said. "There are a lot of guys with the talent to play in this league, and Joe was right there. He just never got his act together."
And now, even if he does, it might not matter. The league puts a premium on first impressions, one general manager said, and teams will hesitate to pick up Forte given his disastrous first stint in the NBA.
It's a reality Forte is well aware of. A week after his arrival in Asheville, he confided in Meyer, his head coach, and asked out loud a question that sometimes privately plagued him: What if he collected himself in the NBDL, matured and still never got another shot at the NBA?
Meyer thought for a second and then looked back at Forte, a player who might have forever lost his reputation in the gap between potential and production.
"I think if you come here and turn everything around, it doesn't matter what everyone else thinks," Meyer said. "Whether you get back to the NBA or not, you're going to feel better if you take back your reputation."