Success, fame and legend usually come to the celebrated in that rigorous order. Unfortunately, it has been Pearl (Dwayne) Washington's peculiar burden to meet up with that trinity backward. In the fall of 1983, Washington took his legendary Brooklyn schoolyard and schoolboy reputations to Syracuse. Soon he became famous for conjuring up a game-winning half-court heave, and for playing a splendid Big East tournament in New York's Madison Square Garden. His freshman feats hardly lent themselves to encore, yet word of them spread.
Word, as teammate Rony Seikaly says, of how "it's like the ball's glued to him, or he has a magnet attached."
Word, as Pearl's coach, Jim Boeheim, says, of how "we're willing to suffer the extra turnovers to get the great plays."
And word—this from running mate Rafael Addison—of how "if Pearl was in a police lineup and you had to pick out the basketball player, no one in the country would choose him."
February 10, 1986
So when he was merely successful during his sophomore season, the maledictions began to fly. The Pearl was flat-footed. Overweight. Distracted. Encouraged by the cablecast scoldings of Dick Vitale, many wondered whether Washington ever was quite what he had been cracked up to be.
Well, the Pearl, a junior now, is back, and let it be said that 17-2, ninth-ranked Syracuse is doing fine. To be sure, praise for this edition of the Orangemen comes with the usual strings attached: They stumble on the road (their losses came back-to-back, at Georgetown and Louisville), and their coach is not sufficiently glib, or accommodating, or ready with a smile. But with victories last week over Boston College and St. John's, the Orange stood alone atop the Big East, and there's no glaring reason why Syracuse couldn't be atop everything else when all is said and done.
So let us introduce the Oyster. With a little help from the Pearl, Syracuse shaded the Redmen 68-64 on Saturday in that Big East rarity, a 15-rounder in which not a punch was thrown. And with a lot of help from the Pearl, Syracuse outran the Eagles 80-55 earlier last week.
There's Seikaly, Seik to his mates, Psych, no doubt, to the many rivals, like St. John's Walter (The Truth) Berry, who have become victims of his emergence as a shot-blocker and intimidator. The 6'10" sophomore helped pressure Berry into 5-for-17 shooting Saturday.
There's junior Howard Triche, who spent last season picking splinters out of his uniform trunks while wags tossed off lines like, "Real men don't play Triche." He mulled a transfer to George Washington, but excelled during the team's summer tour of West Germany and Greece. Triche finally displaced sophomore forward Michael Brown, who himself chose last month to leave, for Clemson.
There's forward Wendell Alexis, who has a bulkier build and a more savage temperament than last season. "I'm laying myself out on the court, every game," the 6'9" senior says. "This is my last year. It's not a matter of 'What's behind Door No. 3?' anymore."
There's junior Greg (Money) Monroe, the steady third guard. Of the six shots he took in Saturday's first half, only one missed. And that one—from the far side of midcourt with :01 left—hit the rim.
And there's Addison, whose jumper and offensive rebounding and knack for sticking to his man like Spackle earned him, not the Pearl, the coaches' preseason vote as the Big East's Player of the Year.
As for the Pearl, his turnovers are down, his assists up. The erstwhile Fat Butt/Olive Head/Body Shot busied himself over the summer, discarding 10 pounds of lard and giving his hocus-pocus some focus. And he tended to his 2-year-old, Dwayne Alonzo Washington Jr. The initials D.A. raise all sorts of intriguing possibilities.
As if to acknowledge that his game is more gray flannel than bold orange, Washington practices in slate sweats. "This team needs more of a leader," he says. "Someone in control, who can get the ball to the right people at the right time. It's something I've worked on."
He's still capable of dazzling; his seven assists, five steals and 16 points at BC last week constituted, Boeheim says, "the first perfect game since he's been here." In that game he spin-dribbled out of a double team. If you think that's easy, set up a couple of garbage cans in your driveway and try it sometime.
The only ominous thing about Syracuse's romp past BC was Boeheim's compulsion to reinsert Alexis and Washington when the Eagles edged to within 23 points with 5:25 left. The move suggested a team not entirely at ease away from home. The Orange have long been notorious for being lemons on the road, largely because they rarely leave the Carrier Dome. "I won't apologize," says Boeheim, who argues that he would be a fool to play fewer games in the Dome, where Syracuse draws roughly 25,000 a game at $9 a head. "I don't believe you have to play at Louisville in December to be a good team. If you're going to be good, 16 games in the Big East, plus the conference tournament, will get you there."
Twenty-win seasons year after year and record-setting attendance figures have earned Boeheim sparse appreciation. Someone always seems ready to point out that, since he took over in 1976, the Orange have never won more than one game in any NCAA tournament. "I've learned to live with [the criticism], but I don't like it and I don't think it's fair," Boeheim says. "Look at all the good coaches who've never made the Final Four. Tom Davis. Pete Carril. Jack Hartman. Was John Wooden a bad coach for the first 15 years of his career?"
"Just because he doesn't go around like P.T. Barnum and tell jokes doesn't mean he's not a good coach," says Providence coach Rick Pitino, who spent two seasons in the late '70s as an assistant to Boeheim. "The cold air has got to get to people there. They should slap it on their faces and wake up. The guy has a brilliant mind for the game."
Saturday's was a pretty fair game for the mind. With Chris Mullin gone to the NBA and that charmed sweater attracting moths in coach Lou Carnesecca's cellar, St. John's was the surprising Big East co-leader midway through the season. Meanwhile, the Syracuse players repeated the standard pregame rap about not wanting to be too concerned with the Truth, inasmuch as the other Johnnies would end up inflicting the consequences from the outside. Of course, the Orangemen proceeded to spend the afternoon in a collapsing zone, giving each other perpetual help, which also happens to be the name of the grade school where Carnesecca matriculated. "As the game went on, I noticed Walter making more eye contact with his teammates, as if to say, 'Get me the ball,' " Alexis said.
Though Seikaly fouled out as a result of his defensive efforts on Saturday, he showed why he has become a fine center in only four years of playing the game. Born in Lebanon and schooled in Greece, he's an American citizen. He's a splendid athlete, a sort of Levantine Chip Hilton, who has played soccer, tennis, volleyball and ice hockey, run track, windsurfed, snow-and waterskied—"did every sport under the sun, except golf," he says—before finally settling on hoops. Seikaly sank five of six free throws in the final six minutes, something he would never have done last season.
He still has a tendency to get in foul trouble. "We played against Akeem Olajuwon when Akeem was a sophomore, and he had four fouls in 13 minutes," Boeheim says. "Rony's at the same stage. He has to learn how to play position defense in foul trouble."
With Triche proving he can hold down the small-forward position at 6'5", Addison has been able to take his 6'7" to the backcourt, which is where NBA scouts envision him. His size and his shot force defenses to extend themselves; when they do, he'll zip the ball inside, where his passes have led to an average of 6.75 assists in the last four games. "Play a zone, and you have to mess with Raf," says Seikaly. "Play a man, and you have to mess with Pearl."
On Saturday, with the shot clock at :05 and barely a minute left, Addison threw in a 25-footer that gave Syracuse a five-point lead. St. John's had a chance to tie after the Pearl missed the back end of a one-and-one with :15 left. But the Red-men's Willie Glass sent an awkward three-footer skidding off his surname, and Addison came sailing in to cradle the clinching rebound.
And so it was that Syracuse moved into first place in the Big East on the strength of its guards—Monroe (12 points) in the first half; Addison (15) in the second. Other than nine fairly ho-hum assists, the Pearl—or was that Dwayne?—stood in the background.
"He's Pearl when he gets us the ball," says Seikaly. "He's Dwayne when he doesn't."
That sums up Syracuse. In an oyster shell.