Item: As with everyone in Orange Nation, we’ve been putting Pearl Washington (1984-86) in our thoughts over the course of the recently concluded basketball season, as recent updates of his worsening condition from a brain tumor diagnosed last summer filter from New York City. The sad and depressing news is made slightly sweeter by the everlasting memories he created for all of us on and off the court, and special to Orange Watch in particular for having had an up-close look at his Syracuse career, from the opening bell in the fall of 1983 to the headed-to-the-NBA-early press conference at Manley Field House following his junior season in the spring of ’86 that, believe it or not, occurred on a May day (the 2nd) in which it actually snowed (briefly) in Syracuse.
We can still vividly remember the moment when Syracuse basketball officially went from being a rising eight year regional program with a shocking 1975 Final Four appearance under its belt, to the truly nationally recognized college hoops brand it is today under Jim Boeheim. It was built from a 1980s combination spotlighted by the move to the cavernous Dome; along with ESPN telecasts of Big East games featuring 30,000 plus to a wide array (west coast) of audiences, and individually on the court thanks to a Brooklyn playground and scholastic legend from Bedford-Stuyvesant’s Boys and Girls High School named Dwayne “Pearl” Washington.
It was Sunday, Feb. 20, 1983 at halftime of an NBC telecast of a game between St. John’s and DePaul from Madison Square Garden, before the then-independent Blue Demons joined the Big East.
Remember in the winter of 1983 ESPN was still in its infancy; SportsCenter was still practically a novelty to many in the nation who had yet to even be wired for cable. A 1:00 p.m. Sunday afternoon game, especially post-Super Bowl and pre-MLB’s opening day, on one of the broadcast networks and in this case between the No. 6 Redmen and the Blue Demons at the Garden, longtime traditional Catholic programs yet meeting for only the first time since the 1949-50 season, would attract a lot of eyeballs.
After NBC teased the announcement that analyst Al McGuire would be sitting down with Washington at halftime to announce his college choice, something that rarely if ever occurred in 1983, when the big moment arrived Washington was low key, yet confident, as he sat next to McGuire and announced Syracuse as his college choice, and it was no coincidence that when Pearl officially suited up in an Orangemen uniform for the first time nine months later against Colgate, the player’s names in blue lettering were on the backs of the home (and away) jerseys for the first time, because it was now show time with Pearl.
It didn’t take long for No. 31 to dazzle on the original, brutally hard, tartan surface court in the Dome; he cemented his permanent mark in ‘Cuse hoops lore with his game-winning halfcourt heave in only the 15th game of his SU career against Boston College, famously launching the shot, watching it swish through the net, while running non-stop down the Dome tunnel to what only a few minutes later would become the euphoric atmosphere of the locker room.
While “The Shot” against B.C. was the appetizer, that season’s Big East Tournament championship game against eventual national champion Georgetown was the main course; absolute Pearl offensive domination with a co-game high 27 points along with six assists, single-handedly keeping the underdog Orange in the sometimes antagonistic fray made infamous for the ejection that was, then wasn’t, called against the Hoyas Michael Graham for throwing a punch at SU’s Andre Hawkins. The Orangemen fell in overtime, and after his postgame press conference Boeheim threw a chair in disgust.
Syracuse lost to Virginia at the old Omni in Atlanta to end Pearl’s initial season in the second round of the 1984 NCAA Tournament, and the next year was beaten by a good Georgia Tech team playing a couple of miles from its campus in the same NCAA second round on the same Omni court.
Washington finished his second team All American and first team all Big East Orange career in dramatic fashion but with negative outcomes, first having his in-close shot blocked by St. John’s star Walter Berry at the buzzer to deny the winning basket in the ‘86 Big East final at a delirious Garden, then the indelible scene a week later sitting hunched over with a towel wrapped around his head on the SU bench after fouling out scoring 28 points, unable to watch the final minutes of an NCAA second round upset at the hands of David Robinson and Navy at the Dome none-the-less, even after having beaten the same Midshipmen team handily in that season’s Carrier Classic.
Seven weeks after the sad and sudden finish came the Manley press conference and Pearl was off to the NBA, drafted in the first round by the New Jersey Nets, playing two years there, another season with the expansion Miami Heat, then briefly in the CBA, and just like the snap of a finger his playing days were over by the early 90s.
This past season’s surprising sixth Final Four team in Syracuse history paid the 52 year old Washington a great honor by outwardly showing its support in his fight against brain cancer by donning the special orange warm up shirts with “Pearl” emblazoned across the chest in white lettering in the same cursive script font of those original 1983-84 jerseys, even keeping a smaller version of his name in orange lettering on the shoulder of the “Always Reppin’” SU version of the warm-ups that Nike programs wore in the NCAA tournament.
Here’s to Pearl Washington, an all time great basketball player, an even greater person.