I just learned that my childhood, neighborhood superhero, and Syracuse University basketball legend Dwayne "Pearl" Washington, passed away this morning. He had been battling a malignant brain tumor, and transitioned into the spiritual essence earlier today at the age of 52.
I got choked up, emotional, with tears forming in the corners of my eyes when I heard the news..
It's hard to describe what Pearl meant to me, how he affected me and so many others who were there to witness his scholastic and collegiate brilliance. In addition to his hoops magnificence, he was simply a wonderful, humble human being.
We often talk about the Jordan's, the Kobe's, the Iverson's, the Steph Curry's and the LeBron's of the world, but Pearl Washington was my absolute favorite basketball player ever. He touched my soul with his impeccable floor game, flair and showmanship.
As a kid, I loved Magic, The Iceman, Isiah, Bernard King and Dr. J, but when I was on the playground running with my boys, the player that I most tried to emulate was Pearl Washington.
He was only six years older than me, but that's a huge age difference when you're a kid, especially when you're 12, watching somebody you look up to get busy in The Big East, during its glory days, on national television.
I was fortunate to be able to build a relationship with Pearl later in my adulthood through my work as a basketball writer, and to be able to talk not only about the game and our shared passion for it, but about the things that are truly important in life: relationships, love, family, friendships, personal growth, learning, laughter, etc. Those moments will always be cherished.
He was a quality human being who took his responsibilities as a mentor seriously, and impacted thousands of lives, in New York City, Syracuse and beyond with his charm and sincerity. Through my sadness, I know one thing, heaven just got one helluva dude, and a fantastic point guard.
A few years ago, I interviewed Pearl. I'm re-winding and re-mixing it today, in his honor.
RIP, brother. You made an impact on the game and on so many lives during your brief time here with us.
“I don’t think I created the crossover. It was just something that I did, something that I made up for me in the laboratory of the New York City playground.” – Dwayne “Pearl” Washington
The world was in the midst of three life-altering, generation-defining cultural revolutions in 1984.
The plague of crack-cocaine was beginning its reign as the most sinister, destructive force on the inner city family unit. LL hit the scene with “I Need a Beat,” Whodini was snapping necks with “Five Minutes of Funk,” UTFO killed it with “Roxanne, Roxanne,” and the Fresh Fest Tour—headlined by Run-DMC—clocked millions, signifying that Hip-Hop was not just here to stay, it was here to run things.
The other insurgency, like crack and hip hop, also had its genesis on the New York streets. In fact, the drums, snares and break beats of the b-boy cultural expression provided the soundtrack to this one-man insurrection known as “Pearl.”
By the winter of ’84, the street legend of The Pearl was even embraced by the casual fans. Armed with his playground arsenal, he turned a mediocre Syracuse University program into must-see theater. With undeniable street swagger and a crossover that defied the natural laws of physics, he instantly made the school a national power.
To fully understand the essence of the wizardry and impact of Dwayne Alonzo “Pearl” Washington, you really did have to be there.
You had to be at the playground in the Howard Houses or at the Brownsville Recreation Center, when guys like World B. Free would pick the 12-year-old for runs ahead of college and pro players. You had to see him play every position at Boys and Girls High School, or have been witness to the boogie he put on the cream of the city at Harlem’s King Towers and on the country’s best at the Boston Shootout or Five-Star.
“He was younger than us, but he was always somebody you had to watch at all times because he was so tricky,” said NYC legend Steve “All Day” Burtt. “We never wanted him to get at us because we saw how he used to get at people. Whenever we played against Pearl, we always keyed on him because you knew he was going to get off. We tried to contain him, but boy, he was something to contain. He was something else.”
And if you weren’t fortunate enough to peep the reformation at its grassroots, it was of the utmost importance to have ESPN at its formative stages, when he announced his arrival to the world.
“He was god’s gift to Syracuse,” said college teammate Herman “Tree” Harried. “They didn’t start packing that Carrier Dome with 35,000 people until he got there. And he was the most pleasant, special person — very caring, sharing and giving. He wasn’t the flamboyant type that came in the locker room and said, ‘I’m giving Georgetown 30 today!’ He just went out and did it.”
(Photo Credit: Getty Images)
Against Boston College in January of ‘84, his freshman year, Pearl raced down court in the closing seconds of a tie game and threw up a heave from half court. The ball splashed through the net, detonating a human explosion at the Carrier Dome. In the resulting pandemonium, Pearl was nowhere to be found.
The TV replay showed him racing toward the locker room, never breaking stride, his index finger raised to the sky before the shot ever fell back to earth. You just had to see it. Bottom line!
At a solid 6-foot-2, 200 pounds, Pearl was never the fastest player on the court, nor one with incredible hops. But his aura was undeniable. The nickname was appropriate, for his game — breathtaking in transition with improbable forays to the hoop, an impeccable assist game and the ability to rise above the most daunting challenges — was full of wonder and luster.
Pearl’s asphalt honed shake-n-bake repertoire included the killer crossover that later inspired Tim Hardaway, Allen Iverson and countless others. The massive Carrier Dome was splattered with t-shirts that read “And on the eighth day, God created Pearl” for every home game. College basketball ratings shot through the roof whenever he appeared on national TV.
“To this day, he’s the most talented collegian I’ve ever seen or been around,” said Harried. “Pearl could do it all: handle the ball, get to the basket at will, make shots, beautiful passes, everything. He was extraordinary, a competitor who knew the spotlight was on him at all times. And I loved coming with him to Madison Square Garden because he was going to give it to his people at home. He raised his game to another level because he was The Pearl!”
Pearl sat down with me a few years back to reminisce on the days when the world was his oyster.
Where did you grow up in Brooklyn and when did ball become a part of your life?
I grew up in the Seth Low Houses in Brownsville and my brother Beaver was the one who really got me started with the game. He was about six years older than me and played at the Brownsville Recreation Center (BRC).
He took me down there with him when I was four or five years old. Even back then, I could dribble and he always said, “This is something you can be very successful at.”
Talk about those early days at BRC.
I played for the Brownsville Jets and as I got a little older, I started playing with guys that were much older, so I got a lot better. By the time I was in junior high school, I was playing with college and pro players.
(Photo Credit: performgroup.com)
Was it in junior high school when you realized you had the ill skills?
I never thought that way. I just loved the game. I wanted to get better because one day, I wanted to have the opportunity to play against my idol, Magic Johnson. And eventually, I got that opportunity.
What were those older guys saying to encourage you? Were they telling you how good you could be one day?
It was never that. Everything was pretty self-explanatory. When I showed up, they would put me down to run on their squad and that was it. And it wasn’t like, ‘Yo! I’m playing with World B. Free and them!’
I was just ballin’, learning and loving the game, getting some valuable experience from people that really played ball.
When did people start calling you Pearl?
Since elementary school. People said I reminded them of Earl “The Pearl” Monroe because I was dark-skinned, could handle the ball, I had all the spin moves and could shake anybody.
(Photo Credit: slamonline.com)
When did you start playing with the Gauchos?
At BRC, we played in a lot of community tournaments and traveled to places like Pennsylvania, but we didn’t go nationwide. When I got to high school, I switched to the Gauchos because they were going to places like Vegas, Hawaii and overseas. My first trip with them, I was about fifteen.
We went to the Boston Shootout and Tiny Archibald was my coach. That was phenomenal. It was amazing to play against Patrick Ewing, Len Bias and other All-Americans. That’s when I really started to get my recognition.
What is your favorite or best memory with the Gauchos?
There were so many games, I can’t even remember one specifically. But giving John Salley an opportunity to play with us was probably my favorite memory. I was the one who got John on the team and he went with us to Hawaii.
With John playing with the Gauchos and me working with him, that helped him become a better player. He was already 6’11’’ and all he needed was some work against good comp. You can get that in Brooklyn, but you won’t get it like you can get it going out of town.
What’s your favorite memory of playing out in the park?
I played on a team with Ed Pinckney and Richie Adams. One game we were playing against a team that had Walter Berry, Gary Springer and Steve Burtt. Talk about talent? Those guys were incredible. King Towers, late ‘70s, early ‘80s, those are my favorite memories. I used to go up there and really do my thing.
Can you recall anything specific?
I got to one game late. People started leaving after the first quarter. I rolled into the park on my motorcycle with my girl on the back.
I checked into the game and all of a sudden, everybody started coming back into the park. People were everywhere, hanging from trees, watching from the top of the buildings. It was crazy.
I remember Richie Adams dunking on Walter Berry, and Walter coming back down and dunking on Richie. It was just phenomenal, man. It was fun playing in those tournaments. Those were the best times.
I’d heard that story before about you pulling up late on the motorcycle with a fox on the back and then dropping 55 points. Out of all the incredible talent in the parks, who was that dude that made you say “WOW!”?
Richie Adams! The Animal! He was one of the best. Had he stayed on track, he’d have been very successful in the NBA.
But that shows you how tough it is coming up in the city. You have to be focused and careful who you hang around. I didn’t hang around negative people. Guys want to give you money, drugs, women coming at you, whatever.
That’s a fact. If you’re not strong enough to understand that and you do things, or take things from people who don’t have your best interest at heart, then you get what you get. Unfortunately, that’s the way it works.
What was the best playground team you ever played on?
It was me, Walter Berry, Richie Adams, Steve Burtt, Gary Springer and a few other guys. That was a great team. We played a crew from Mount Vernon: Rodney and Scooter McCray, Ray and Gus Williams and some other talented players. But we were stacked.
(Photo Credit: nypost.com)
What’s your favorite Brooklyn tournament moment?
Soul in the Hole. The best players from Brooklyn — Crown Heights, Bed-Stuy, Brownsville, East New York — all the older guys played there. That was Brooklyn’s finest.
One summer, I got the outlet pass, came down, shook somebody at half-court and then I went down the middle and dunked on somebody. Hard! I couldn’t believe that.
That was the first time you ever dunked on somebody?
Ever! I was never a dunker. I shocked myself for a second. Everybody in the park went crazy because they never saw me dunk on somebody like that. I was always on some smooth, lay-up stuff. But Brooklyn and the playground saw the best of Pearl that day.
NYC is the mecca of point guards. Who were you going against back then?
The point guard comp was incredible. Kenny Smith and Kenny Hutchison were two of the best. I played against them a lot because they played for Riverside Church, the Gauchos’ main rival.
Mark Jackson was doing his thing too. Rod Strickland was a little younger than me, but he was coming up strong. Steve Burtt, All Day, was a little ahead of me and he was phenomenal.
Out of those guys, who gave you the most problems in the park?
None of ‘em. I gave all of them fits.
Why did you choose to play at Syracuse? At the time, they weren’t a top program that the best players wanted to play for.
They didn’t have anybody that I had to worry about at the point guard position; not that that would have made a difference anyway.
I wanted to major in communications and they have an excellent communications department. They were in the Big East, the best conference. I knew I’d be on TV a lot playing against the best.
The Carrier Dome had just been built and no other place had a stage that big. And, I’d be coming home to Madison Square Garden to play St. John’s and in the Big East Tournament.
What happened your freshman year?
I was killin’ ‘em straight out the gate. You have to understand that every game I ever played, going back to elementary school, was important to me because I had a name, a reputation.
I wasn’t going to let anybody come at me and get one up on me. I didn’t care who it was. You were gonna get it. Bottom line!
As a freshman, you tore Georgetown’s press to shreds in the Big East finals and you put Gene Smith, a great defensive guard, on his hind parts. They were considered one of the greatest defensive teams ever. What did that feel like?
Do you realize how exciting that was for me? That was THE BEST!
My best memories from college were playing against Georgetown and St. John’s. I used to kill them, especially in the Garden. I remember being pressed, shaking Gene Smith, getting by Reggie Williams and two other defenders. It was just a one-on-one situation with me and Patrick Ewing. I went straight at him, down the middle, and layed him. He didn’t even jump to try to block my shot and he wasn’t in foul trouble.
I guess he was more amazed at what he’d seen back there, how I boogied through all of his guys. And even if he jumped, I don’t know what I would’ve done but that ball was going in the basket.
How did it feel when you cracked people with the crossover and made them fall to the ground?
It felt good. I just felt like ‘You can’t guard me’ and I would smile. I would be laughing on the inside. People wanted to get up close on me, go for the steal or try to rough me up. So when I made them fall, I was basically telling ‘em, “It ain’t gonna happen!”
Sometimes after I floored them, I’d extend my hand and pick them up while still dribbling the ball. This was on the playground with thousands of people watching. That was embarrassing. Then we’d start it back all over again.
(Photo Credit: mainlineautographs.com)
How many victims were there?
At least a dozen got cracked on the playground and in college. That’s how I made my name, being able to handle the ball. Dudes that were supposedly good defenders, like Gary McClain at Villanova, would crouch down low and slap the floor like they were getting ready to do something.
But after they got shook two or three times, they didn’t want no more.
What was it about St John’s and playing in The Garden? To this day, those are, in my mind, the most incredible collegiate performances I’ve ever seen.
Madison Square Garden was my real home. It was magic. When I played there, oh, it was showtime. I had to make it happen in The Garden.
I remember the back-to-back 35-point games against St. John’s my junior year, but the one that still stands out in my mind is the one-point loss to them in the Big East Finals that year.
(Pearl was named tourney MVP, even though ‘Cuse lost in the championship. He had 20 points and 14 assists in the final.)
I just felt so bad because I knew that was it for me. I knew New Jersey was going to draft me. It was already a done deal.
(Photo Credit: Getty Images)
Syracuse was a Nike school but sometimes, you wore Pro Keds. What was the deal with that?
I wore Pro Keds at Boys and Girls and they were going to give me a contract when I turned pro. That was the deal between me and Pro Keds.
So what did Coach Boeheim say when you told him that you’d be wearing Pro Keds?
He said, “No problem.” But I never wore Pro Keds in the pros. The guy I was dealing with no longer worked there and when I got drafted, things fell through. I got a contract with Avia.
Looking back now, would you have stayed for your senior year instead of coming out early?
Absolutely! I made a mistake. College was so much fun. Pro ball was a job.
When it became a job, it stopped being fun and I lost my love for the game. I should have stayed and given myself to the opportunity to play with Derrick Coleman and I would’ve gone much higher in the draft, maybe top five.
You almost lost your life in ’95 when you had a massive seizure caused by a brain tumor. What happened after you recovered from that?
I went back to Syracuse to finish up my degree. They sent me a seven-foot card with 30,000 signatures that I still have today. To this day, I’m touched thinking about all the people I made smile and had an impact on just by playing my game.
It’s nice to know that the fans appreciate what they got from me. I also worked with kids and did some color commentary for the Syracuse radio and TV broadcasts.
Why did you come back to New York?
I wanted to help kids in Brooklyn, where I’m from. I enjoy making sure these kids get what they need to get out of high school and go to college. I like seeing kids do what they have to do to be successful. That’s what makes me happy.
The crossover got huge with Tim Hardaway, but he said he learned it by watching you at Syracuse. When did you first start shaking cats with the crossover?
That was something that worked for me growing up. I played out in the parks and developed that weapon on the streets to get by people. As a point guard, that’s what you do — find a way to get through and start your offense. Once you get by people, the D has to help so you can either dish off or go to the basket yourself.
I don’t think I created the crossover. It was just something that I did, something that I made up for me in the laboratory of the New York City playground.