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A real gem: Pearl Washington brought joy to all who saw him play

Legendary Syracuse basketball star Pearl Washington died of a brain tumor this week at 52, but his captivating style of play will always be remembered by those who saw him transform the Big East.

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It was a time when mystery still outran hype, before every legend had a logo. Great young basketball players weren’t identified the moment the maternity nurse took their footprints. Endorsement contracts still were held back until the parties of the first part were able to write their names. Nobody got a shoe deal until they were able to tie them. It was a time of rumors, exaggerated and otherwise. Word of mouth was gospel. However based in truth, the tales got taller in the telling. It was a time, not of innocence, God knows, but certainly of myth before the onslaught of marketing. Great young basketball players built their own folklore, not merely their own brand.

There was an underground history, in which gaily embroidered truth was the coin of the realm. The corruption, if corruption it was, played out among independent actors, not among the suits in advertising departments. There was the talent agent in New York whodid his business out of an Orange Julius stand in Times Square owned by an elderly Chinese gent. Any coach who called had a 50-50 chance of coming away with a talented shooting guard or a tirade in fluent Mandarin. There was the other talent hawk who gladly took a new car from an enterprising assistant coach, drove it three blocks, ran it into a school building, and walked back to where the horrified coach was standing and asked him for another car. The poetry in that tale is, of course, the fact that the scout ran the car into a school. Without a careful eye for details, no epic is worth the telling. The sea is only deep blue, not wine-dark, and that makes all the difference.

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So, in the early 1980’s, when people started talking about this point guard from New York City, a 6’2” barrel of hip-shaking, change-of-pace lightning who could get to the tin against anyone from anywhere, and whose brother was a serious bad-ass in a time of very serious bad-asses who nonetheless had shielded the phenom from the worst of the streets in a very bad time in American cities, everybody who followed college basketball began sharing the saga of Dwayne Washington from Boys High in Brooklyn, whom everybody called Pearl.

I first saw him in an all-star tournament called The Boston Shootout, where teams of high-school stars represented their cities and played for little more than simple pride. There were certain things you could count on. Atlanta always had a huge kid nobody ever had heard of before. D.C. always had shooters, like the great Dell Curry, whose son now is a player of some renown. Philadelphia’s teams were always physically tough, and Chicago’s always seemed the most prideful. And New York was always the most organized, the culture of AAU ball having taken root there before it had done so in many other places. If it wasn’t the lordly Riverside Church club coming to play, it was the Gauchos, a renegade bunch from the Bronx allegedly financed by a shadowy Bolivian tin magnate who, it was rumored, because such things were always rumored, once had gone to Switzerland for the same blood-laundering that Keith Richards had undergone. The story got better with every telling. Pearl came to Boston as a Gaucho.

(Later, the rumors got darker. There were charges of pedophilia lodged against Ernie Lorch, who ran the Riverside program, and the NCAA began to get serious about cracking down on the AAU scene generally, and on the Gauchos in particular. As with so many things, the NCAA was a day late and a couple of million dollars short.)

From the start, he was an odd-looking duck, with an oblong head and shoulders that sloped almost straight down. He played in strong bursts of movement, the dribble low and powerful, the upper body never at rest, bopping to one side or the other, or up and down, while the defender almost unconsciously began to move with him. That was when Pearl had you, as soon as you started to bop along with him. That was when the down-diving shoulders dipped, and the dribble got more piston-like, and he was gone. He didn’t dunk. He didn’t have to. He’d hung you out to dry before he ever got to the rim. The Shootout crowd paid him its ultimate compliment. It laughed uproariously at the sheer joy of it.

Pearl Washington lost his last Big East game, the 1986 final against St. John's, but he always put on a show in his hometown.

Pearl Washington lost his last Big East game, the 1986 final against St. John's, but he always put on a show in his hometown.

Not long after that, and after a recruitment that was so intense he announced his college choice to Al McGuire at halftime of a CBS telecast, Pearl started his career at Syracuse. The Big East Conference was just coming into its own; Patrick Ewing at Georgetown had given the upstart league instant credibility just by agreeing to play there. As it turns out, Pearl Washington was the second stage of the rocket. Playing before 30,000 people a night in the Carrier Dome—Basketball in a football stadium? What a terrible idea.—Pearl owned the whole room. By then, I was covering college basketball for the Boston Herald, and I was there in Syracuse the night that fact finally caught up to the legend.

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It was January 21, 1984, Pearl’s freshman season, and Boston College had played him and the Orangemen to a tie game, 73-73, in the Dome. Right in front of my seat, right there at midcourt, Pearl launched a runner that went through without a whisper of the iron. But the best thing about the shot was that Pearl never stopped running. He let the ball go and then went right up the ramp toward the locker room, as though nothing about the moment had surprised him at all. I ended up under the press table because the crowd had burst its moorings. It was arguably the single most important shot in the history of the Big East. It also gave Ewing and the Hoyas an umatched foil for the next two seasons. Syracuse and Georgetown became the league’s signature rivalry, Duke-North Carolina without the trust funds. Two months later, Pearl went sailing past that moment.

SI VAULT: All Syracuse is his oyster (by Curry Kirkpatrick, Feb. 20, 1984)

The Orangemen played the Hoyas for the league championship in Madison Square Garden. Georgetown was favored and, indeed, would go on to win that year’s national championship. On the other hand, Pearl was playing at home, for high stakes, and everyone in the five boroughs was aware of it. For perhaps the only time in that era, the Hoyas' defense was incapable of stopping a single player. They ran every player they could at him. They ran two or three of them at a time. They tried to bump him off the dribble. They tried to knock him down when he got into the lane. Nothing worked. He scored 27. He hit 11 of 16 shots from the field. After the last few of those, he couldn’t keep from smiling. He knew it. The crowd knew it. The Georgetown players surely knew it. This was all those whispers coming to vivid life in the right place at the right time. He had played up to his legend and beyond it. It was real now, something concrete and empirical.

(The memory also remains clear because the game pretty much went mad in the closing moments. In the waning seconds, Georgetown’s Michael Graham got in a scuffle with Andre Hawkins of Syracuse. Graham unloaded a haymaker from somewhere east of Staten Island. Referee Dick Paparo came sailing in and clearly thumbed Graham out of the game. A conference ensued on the sidelines and, somehow, the officials found a reason to wave off Graham’s ejection. I still don’t know why. After the Hoyas had won the game, Jim Boeheim got up in his press conference and threw a chair across the room.)

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That game has stayed with me through the years, just for the pure live theater of it. You can see Hamlet a hundred times, but Hamlet always dies in the end. Every time Pearl came down the court with the ball that night, you had no idea what was coming next. The following year, Pearl got in a fight with Ewing in which Ewing threw a punch with even more purpose behind it than was behind the one Graham had thrown. The year after that, Syracuse lost the Big East title game when Walter Berry of St. John’s blocked Pearl’s shot at the buzzer.

Dwayne ‘Pearl’ Washington dies of brain cancer

After he left Syracuse in 1986, I watched as Pearl’s career petered out in the pros. He was too easy to defend at that level, and he never developed a consistent outside shot. The last time I saw him play, he was in the CBA, and we were flying in a small plane in Iowa in December while I tried not to think too much about Buddy Holly. Pearl was playing out a shoe contract that originally had belonged to the late Len Bias. His professional career ended shortly after that.

He would drift in and out of the spotlight. For a time, he lived in Cambridge, Mass., not far from where I live. There was some talk, rumors again, but harsher ones this time, that he’d been very sick. But he rallied, and when ESPN put a documentary together about the Big East, Pearl was one of its stars. In interviews, he was cocky and funny and as charismatic as he ever was. There were scenes of him outside the Garden, with Syracuse fans coming up to him and imitating the shot he’d hit to beat Boston College. He had time for all of them.

We’ve come in our time to demystify joy. We parse it, and sell it, and we manufacture it if we can’t find it any other way. It does not rise unbidden, the way it once did. It does not build, slowly and steadily.  It is presented, whole and rounded, for our consumption. But once there was a time when its origins were a mystery, its sources vague and unclear. And, when it arrived, it lingered. I heard about what Pearl Washington could do long before I saw it myself. He had made me happy in the abstract long before I saw him drop the shot against B.C. or put every Georgetown player into the MixMaster as the Garden steamed around him. I did not have to be sold on him. His legend had sold itself. That was the way it was once, when word-of-mouth was gospel. That was the source of the happiness I always will feel that I had the gift of watching the basketball in the hands of Pearl Washington, dead of brain cancer on Wednesday, at the age of 52.