Dwayne “Pearl” Washington, who went from New York City playground wonder to Big East star for coach Jim Boeheim at Syracuse, has died. He was 52.
Washington died Wednesday of cancer, the university said. He had been coping with medical problems since a brain tumor was first diagnosed in 1995 and recently required around-the-clock medical coverage and a wheelchair to move around.
Washington had surgery last August to address the recurrence of a brain tumor. The first tumor, 21 years ago, was benign.
Current and former players, as well as others associated with the program, rallied in support of Washington during his illness. A GoFundMe page was set up, #PrayersforPearl became the slogan for Syracuse basketball, and ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas gave the movement some national exposure. During a broadcast, Bilas wore the all-orange “Pearl” warm-up shirt that Syracuse players wore on the bench in games starting in late January to pay tribute to Washington.
Dwayne Alonzo Washington was born in Jan. 24, 1964, and grew up in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, acquiring his nickname as an 8-year-old when he was compared to former NBA star Earl “the Pearl” Monroe.
A New York City playground legend who starred at Boys and Girls High School, Washington was the most highly recruited basketball player in the country after averaging 35 points, 10 rebounds, and eight assists as a senior. He committed to Syracuse in 1983, left an indelible mark on Orange basketball, and ranks as one of Boeheim’s most important recruits.
“He’s just an unbelievable guy,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim told the New York Daily News when his team reached the Final Four in early April. “I think our players have honored him. I think it’s something that he appreciates.”
Washington averaged 15.6 points, 6.7 assists and 2.7 rebounds for the Orange and helped create the aura of greatness the Big East Conference had during its heyday in the 1980s and 1990s. He left an impressive trail: Big East rookie of the year, first-team Big East all three years of college, and first team All-American his junior year.
The Pearl was not particularly fast, nor could he jump particularly high. Neither mattered — he simply excited fans with his amazing ball-handling skills, an uncanny court sense, elusiveness and the ability to pull off unbelievable plays at the right time.
Teams could not press Syracuse full court because Pearl could simply dribble through it. Even Georgetown’s vaunted press under John Thompson II posed few problems.
His signature move was the crossover dribble — the “shake-and-bake” — that froze defenders, then a drive to the hoop for an easy layup past the defense’s big men.
Washington made his mark in a nationally televised game on Jan. 24, 1984, against Boston College. The Eagles tied the game with a free throw with only a few seconds left on the clock, but when Martin Clark missed his second free throw, Washington raced down court and swished the winning shot from beyond half court as time expired.
Exhibiting his flair for the dramatic, the 6-foot-2 Washington never stopped running after he took the shot until he made it to the locker room. Later that winter, he set a Syracuse record with 18 assists against Connecticut.
Washington was the 13th pick in the first round of the NBA draft and went to the New Jersey Nets. His style, size, and lack of speed were not well-suited to the NBA’s fast-paced game, and he played only three seasons with the Nets before retiring.