Remembering Dwayne “Pearl” Washington

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I still can’t believe Pearl is gone.

Dwayne “Pearl” Washington, the charismatic guard who went from being a playground legend from the Brownsville section of Brooklyn to an electrifying star at Syracuse, has passed away at age 52 from a brain cancer that was diagnosed last summer. He is the first huge star from the original Big East to leave us. His legendary shake and bake crossovers, the spin dribbles, the no look passes and knack for seizing the big moment are now consigned to the pages of history.

The 6-2 Washington was the conference’s first human highlight film. He wasn’t particularly fast and did not play above the rim, but his style, charisma remarkable ball handling skills and court vision inspired an entire generation of New York City point guards.

Pearl led the Orange in assists and steals and was a two-time All American and three-time first team All Big East selection during the three years he spent in college from 1983 through 1986. He led his team in scoring as a junior, averaging 17.3 points before declaring for the NBA draft.

“Everybody says that Patrick (Ewing) and Chris Mullin made the Big East but I think Pearl made the league,” Syracuse Hall of Fame coach Jim Boeheim said. “They were the best players but Pearl was the player that people turned out to see and turned on their TVs to watch.”

Growing up, Washington was a huge fan of Knicks’ Hall of Fame guard Earl “The Pearl” Monroe. He picked up his nickname when he was a precocious eight-year-old talent playing on the outdoor courts at the Howard Housing Project and one of the older players taunted him with the comment, “Who do you think you are, the Pearl?”

The comparison stuck. By the time he was 10, he was already playing against NBA players Lloyd B. Free and Fly Williams in pick up games.

Boeheim knew Pearl was destined for greatness the first time he watched him play as a sophomore at the Boys and Girls High. “People were standing there for hours before the game,” Boeheim recalled. “When he came out, the place was electric. Everybody was standing. He hit for 46– against seniors. He destroyed everybody.

“I thought he was the most exciting player I’d ever seen. I still think that today.”

Washington was the most recruited prospect in the country as a senior in high school when he averaged 35 points, 10 rebounds, 8 assists and 4 steals and was selected MVP of the 1983 McDonald’s All American game.

Pearl was a natural born showman. He grew up playing to sellout crowds in the parks and playgrounds, drawing thousands to the courts at the King Towers high rise apartments in Harlem to watch him play. “It’s phenomenal to see people on project buildings and climbing trees watching down in the hole where we played,” Washington told Mike Waters in the book, “Legends of Syracuse Basketball.” It was amazing. You couldn’t believe how many people were there to watch those games.”

It may be why Pearl chose Syracuse over St. John’s. The Carrier Dome was the largest stage he had ever seen, with a capacity of between 32,000 to 35,000 and Washington wanted to play on the biggest stage.

He was perfect for the Big East, a made-for-TV conference that was fueled by ESPN, a fledgling cable network that made Washington appear bigger than life on Sports Center.

I was privileged to see his coming out party as a freshman at Syracuse.

I was on press row at the Dome, covering the game for the Philadelphia Daily News, when the Pearl stunned nationally ranked Boston College with a half court shot at the buzzer in 1984 in a game witnessed by a massive crowd of 30,292.

The Eagles tied the game at 73-73 and had a free throw to go ahead with four seconds remaining, but Martin Clark missed the shot. Sean Kerins passed the ball to Washington, who took two dribbles and launched a shot from the center jump circle with one second left. Upon the ball’s release, Pearl raised his arms and sprinted in the direction of the team tunnel, never breaking stride as the shot swished through the net to give the Orange a 75-73 victory. Washington never got to see the fans rush the court after what is arguably the greatest single shot in Syracuse basketball history. He was already in the locker room, listening to the roar.

The unranked Orange entered the AP Top 25 the next week and remained there for the rest of Washington’s career.

A year later, as a sophomore in 1985, Pearl created more magic when he made a pull up jumper against Michael Jackson with eight seconds left to beat second-ranked Georgetown, 64-63, during a regular season game at the Dome. “Georgetown. Big Monday. ESPN. Of course, Pearl wins it,” his teammate Rafael Addison said.

Washington loved the spotlight. He was the league’s biggest box office attraction and made the massive Carrier Dome the place to be for Syracuse fans in the winter. He played before crowds that averaged more than 26,000 his sophomore and junior years. Stores on Marshall St. near campus did a land office business selling T-shirts that read, “On the Seventh Day, God created Pearl.”

Whenever Pearl played in his hometown, he would show up at the Garden in a fur coat with gold chains and received rock star treatment, just like Clyde Frazier. His personal battles against Georgetown in the Big East tournament were the stuff of legends. As a freshman, the Orange lost to Georgetown in overtime. As a sophomore, tensions between Washington and Ewing boiled over in a physical semi-final. Ewing came down court with Washington trailing him and threw an elbow that hit him in the ribs. On the next possession, Washington saw Ewing coming off a pick and caught him with an elbow in the gut. Ewing responded by unleashing a round house right that just missed Washington. Amazingly, neither player was ejected. Officials whistled both for technical fouls and Georgetown went on to win, 74-65.

The following year, Washington got his revenge, scoring 28 points against the best defensive team in the country to lead the Orange to a 75-73 overtime victory in the Big East semi-finals. Ironically, Syracuse never won a Big East tournament during Pearl’s career. Washington scored 20 points and had 14 assists against St. John’s in the championship game, but the Orange lost, 70-69, when Walter Berry blocked his game winning layup attempt Even though his team lost, Pearl was still named the tournament’s MVP.

Washington left Syracuse for the NBA after a loss to David Robinson and Navy in the second round of the NCAA tournament that spring. The New Jersey Nets selected him with the 13th pick overall and and he spent three unremarkable years with the Nets and the Miami Heat before being released. He never made it back to the league and drifted into work with the parks and recreation departments in Houston and then Syracuse.

In 1995, doctors discovered a brain tumor, which was removed and Washington recovered. On March 2, 1996, he became only the third person to have his jersey retired by Syracuse, along with Dave Bing and Vic Hanson. Washington later returned to the university to complete his degree work and graduated with a bachelors degree in speech communication. He was working toward a masters in the College of Education when he fell ill again last summer with a second malignant brain tumor the size of a peach. This time, the prognosis was not as kind and Boeheim knew it was just a matter of time after Washington underwent surgery in August in an attempt to address his deteriorating condition.

Washington was a beloved figure at Syracuse and the Orange players wore warm up shirts with “Pearl” emblazoned in script on the front and his old number 31 as a tribute. Pearl lived long enough to watch the “Cuse make an unexpected trip to the Final Four.

He made one final appearance at the Garden last December to watch Syracuse play St. John’s.

After the game, Mullin, who is now the St. John’s coach, recognized Washington in a blue Syracuse hoodie and went into the stands to hug him. It was an act of mutual respect between two shining stars from the Big East’s golden era.