Former first-round pick Pearl Washington, who starred at Syracuse, dies at 52

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SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) — Dwayne “Pearl” Washington, who went from New York City playground wonder to Big East star for Jim Boeheim at Syracuse, has died. He was 52.

Washington died Wednesday of cancer, the university said.

Washington 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.

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. His play was instrumental in helping create the aura of greatness the Big East Conference had during its heyday in the 1980s and 1990s.

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 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, (hash)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.

“My heart goes out to the family, friends and many adoring fans of Brooklyn native and Syracuse basketball legend, Pearl Washington,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo tweeted Wednesday morning.

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.

Washington made his mark in a nationally televised game on Jan. 24, 1984, against Boston College.

When Martin Clark missed a free throw for the Eagles in a tie game with only seconds on the clock, Washington took an outlet pass, raced up 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.

The Orange entered the top 20 the week after that memorable shot and remained there for the rest of Washington’s college career. Later that winter, he set a Syracuse record with 18 assists against Connecticut.

A New York City playground legend who starred at Boys and Girls High School and on playgrounds throughout the city, 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 determined to make the Carrier Dome his home, left an indelible mark on Orange basketball, and ranks as one of Boeheim’s most important recruits.

“I can’t underscore how big a moment that was for our program,” Boeheim wrote in his recent book “Color Him Orange: The Jim Boeheim Story.” “I believe at that point we officially went from being an Eastern program to a national program. Everybody knew who the Pearl was.”

As a freshman, Washington led the Orange to the conference tournament finals against nemesis Georgetown, but a controversial call late in the title game allowed the Hoyas to tie the game in regulation and they won in overtime.

Washington had some of his best moments in an arena he cherished – Madison Square Garden. As a junior, he had a pair of 35-point games against St. John’s and again led the Orange to the Big East finals in 1986 after a dramatic 75-73 overtime win over Georgetown in the semifinals. In the championship game against St. John’s, Washington had 20 points and 14 assists but was denied a game-winner when Walter Berry blocked his layup after a court-long dash.

After losing 97-85 to Navy and David Robinson in the second round of the 1986 NCAA Tournament, Washington announced he would forgo his senior year and enter the NBA draft, the first player under Boeheim to leave school early.

Washington left an impressive trail in his wake: Big East rookie of the year, first-team Big East all three years of college, and first team All-American his junior year. He averaged 15.6 points, 6.7 assists and 2.7 rebounds and led the Orange in assists and steals in each of his three years at the school. He finished his college career as the school’s all-time leader in assists and still ranks third despite playing just three years.

Washington was the 13th pick in the first round of the NBA draft and went to the New Jersey Nets. He played two seasons with New Jersey and played his final NBA season with the Miami Heat in 1988-89 after the Heat selected him in the 1988 expansion draft.

Washington’s size and lack of speed were not well-suited to the fast pace of the NBA. He averaged 7.6 points and 4.2 assists for the Heat and finished his brief career with 256 steals and 733 assists in 194 games.

Syracuse retired his No. 31 jersey in 1996 and his high school followed suit earlier this month in a final tribute.

Watch Pacers’ Andrew Nembhard drain game-winning 3 to beat Lakers

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LeBron James and Anthony Davis were on the court together (and combined for 46 points and 20 rebounds). Russell Westbrook continued to thrive as a sixth man with 24 points.

But the biggest shot of the night belonged to Pacers’ rookie Andrew Nembhard — a game-winning 3-pointer as time expired.

It was a well-designed play and when Westbrook chased and doubled Bennedict Mathurin in the corner it left the screen setter, Myles Turner, wide open for a clean look at a 3 — but he hit the front of the rim. The long rebound caromed out, Tyrese Haliburton grabbed it and tried to create, but then he saw Nembhard wide open and kicked him the rock.

Ballgame.

The Pacers split their two games in Los Angeles at the start of a seven-game road trip through the West that will test the surprising Pacers.

For the Lakers… they have some hard decisions to make coming up.

Karl-Anthony Towns helped off court after non-contact calf injury

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Hopefully this is not as bad as it looks.

Timberwolves big man Karl-Anthony was trying to run back upcourt and went to the ground — without contact — grabbing his knee and calf. He had to be helped off the court.

The Timberwolves officially ruled Towns out for the rest of the night with a calf strain.

A right calf strain would be the best possible outcome, but an MRI will provide more details in the next 24 hours. This had the markings of something much worse, but ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reports optimism that Towns avoided something serious.

Towns is averaging 214 points and 8.5 rebounds a game, and while his numbers are off this season — just 32.8% on 3-pointers, down from 39.3% for his career — as he tries to adjust to playing next to Rudy Gobert, he’s still one of the game’s elite big men.

The Wizards went on to beat the Timberwolves 142-127 behind 41 from Kristaps Porzingis.

Suns promote GM James Jones to to President of Basketball Operations

Phoenix Suns Open Practice
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James Jones put together the roster that took the Suns to the Finals two seasons ago and had the best record in the NBA last season (64 wins). At 13-6, the Suns sit atop the Western Conference this season.

The Suns have rewarded Jones, giving him the title of President of Basketball Operations on top of GM.

“In the nearly 15 years I have known James, he has excelled in every role he performed, from player to NBPA Treasurer to his roles in our front office, most recently as general manager,” Suns interim Governor Sam Garvin said. “James has the unique ability to create and lead high-performing teams in basketball operations and his commitment to collaborating with our business side, including at the C-level with partners like PayPal and Verizon, is second to none. We are fortunate for his contributions across the organization and this promotion recognizes his commitment to excellence.”

Jones moved into the Suns’ front office in 2017 at the end of a 14-year playing career, then became GM in 2019. The move gives Jones a little more stability during the sale of the franchise. Not that the new owner would come in and fire a successful GM.

“I am grateful for the privilege to work with and support the players, staff and employees of the Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury,” Jones said in a statement. “The collective efforts of our business and basketball operations have allowed us to provide an amazing atmosphere and best-in-class experience for our fans and community. I remain excited about and dedicated to driving success for our Teams on and off the court.”

Jones has made several moves that set the culture in Phoenix, including hiring Monty Williams as coach then, after an undefeated run in the bubble (that left Phoenix just out of the playoffs), he brought in Chris Paul to take charge at the point.

Report: Leaders in Lakers’ locker room think team ‘only a couple of players away’ from contending

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There’s a sense of optimism around the Lakers: They have won 5-of-6 and are expected to have both Anthony Davis and LeBron James healthy Monday night, plus Russell Westbrook has found a role and comfort level off the bench and other players are settling into roles. They may be 7-11, but it’s early enough there is a sense this could be turned around.

That is echoed by “locker room leaders” who think the team is just a couple of players away from being a contender in the West (where no team has pulled away), reports Dave McMenamin at ESPN.

There is belief shared by leaders in the Lakers’ locker room, sources said, that the team is only a couple of players away from turning this group into a legitimate contender. But acquiring the right players could take multiple trades.

Let’s unpack all of this.

• “Leaders in the Lakers’ locker room” means LeBron and Davis (both repped by Rich Paul). Let’s not pretend it’s anything else.

• If the Lakers don’t make a move to significantly upgrade the roster, how unhappy will those leaders become? How disruptive would that be?

• It is no coincidence that McMenamin’s report comes the day the Lakers face the Pacers, a team they went deep into conversations with this summer on a Myles Turner/Buddy Hield trade, but Los Angeles GM Rob Pelinka ultimately would not put both available Lakers’ first-round picks (2027 and 2029) in the deal and it fell apart. Turner said the Lakers should “take a hard look” at trading for him. The thing is, the Pacers are now 11-8, not tanking for Victor Wembanyama but instead thinking playoffs, so are they going to trade their elite rim protector and sharpshooter away? Not likely. At least not without an overwhelming offer, and the Lakers’ two picks may not get there anymore.

• While Westbrook has found a comfort level coming off the bench (and not sharing the court as much with LeBron), he is still a $47.1 million contract that no team is trading for without sweeteners. To use NBA parlance, he is still a negative value contract, even if it feels less negative than a month ago.

• Are the Lakers really a couple of players away from contending? While they have won 5-of-6, three of those five wins came against the tanking Spurs, the others were against the so-injured-they-might-as-well-be-tanking Pistons, and the Nets before Kyrie Irving returned. The Lakers did what they needed to do and thrived in a soft part of the schedule, but that schedule is about to turn and give the Lakers a reality check on where they really stand. After the Pacers, it’s the Trail Blazers (likely still without Damian Lillard), then an East Coast road trip that includes the Bucks, Cavaliers, Raptors and 76ers. The next couple of weeks will be a better marker for where the Lakers stand, and if they can build off of the past couple of weeks.