A tribute to New York City, Syracuse star Pearl Washington


NEW YORK (AP) — There wasn’t much space left to stand in the park when we got there. We were lucky to be standing behind a group of kids we had by five, six inches each. Everyone was there for the same reason: to see Pearl. No last name needed. Pearl was coming to play in a summer league game, and that meant a big crowd and few seats – only hot cement.

Dwayne “Pearl” Washington was the latest one-name neophyte in New York’s basketball circles. He was waiting to start his sophomore year at Boys & Girls High School in Brooklyn. You knew which one he was as soon as the layup lines started.

That was Pearl.

He passed away Wednesday at 52 after fighting cancer.

“The first year I coached we had a scrimmage against Boys and Pearl and it was ridiculous,” said Ron Naclerio, the coach at Cardozo High School who has amassed a city-public school record 748 victories. “The next year we thought we could hang with them. Pearl was one of the guys who kids were mesmerized to be with him on the court. There were other great guards in New York his senior year like Mark Jackson, Kenny Smith and Kenny Hutchinson. They didn’t have the fanfare and the following.”

Pearl became a high school legend in New York City. He starred in the PSAL and packed crowds were at most Kangaroos games.

“He had a fabled high school career and his nickname made him even bigger,”‘ said longtime New York high school basketball talent evaluator Tom Konchalski. “If I had to have a Mount Rushmore for Boys High School it would be Sihugo Green, Lenny Wilkens, Connie Hawkins and Pearl. There is no accomplishment that big. He was a mesmerizing, galvanizing presence on the court and he was better than those other bigtime guards because he was a national name.”

“He was ahead of his time. He was a legend by the time he was 14,” said St. John’s coach Chris Mullin, a Brooklyn contemporary of Pearl’s who had some great games against him in the Big East. “Even though he didn’t have a good shot in college you couldn’t stop him from scoring. He was electrifying and an even better guy. I got to know him and I saw him this year when we played them so we got to talk about old times. He was one of the best.”

Pearl ended a national recruiting war when he selected Syracuse. He wasn’t totaling leaving New York City. He would be back each year for the Big East Tournament and what became epic battles against Patrick Ewing and Georgetown and Mullin and St. John’s.

“That was the time of the one names,” longtime college basketball analyst Bill Raftery said. “There was Chris and Patrick and Pearl. He was so embraced by the university and the community. … With his personality he captured the country. Like Stephen Curry does today, he embraced basketball and he embraced life.”

“In my opinion it was those three – Patrick, Chris and Pearl – who made the Big East what it became,” former Big East Commissioner Mike Tranghese said. “Pearl brought more excitement to the Big East and Madison Square Garden than any other single player.”

“I tell people all the time the most difficult player for us to defend was him and we were known for our defense,” former Georgetown coach John Thompson Jr said. “We would pack it in and he would come to the back line and still get to the basket.

“There are players who entertain and play at the same time and there are a lot of players who think they entertain and play at the same time. He entertained and played at the same time. People came just to see him play. He was a special, special player. He was really one of the cornerstones of the Big East.”

In the 1986 Big East championship game between St. John’s and Syracuse, the Redmen went ahead in the final seconds on a side jumper by Ron Rowan. The Orange gave the ball to Pearl.

“He wanted that last shot. The great ones always do,” former St. John’s coach Lou Carnesecca said. “He wanted it. That was the big thing. He made sure the ball was in his hands.”

Pearl drove the length of the court and his shot was blocked by Walter Berry and St. John’s had the title. Syracuse fans had another Pearl memory, even if it was in a losing cause.

Pearl introduced himself to the Big East by hitting a half-court shot at the buzzer against Boston College for a win. He kept running after he made the shot and went directly to the locker room, leaving the fans delirious at what the freshman from Brooklyn had done. The rest of the conference knew it was time for worry and concern.

“He was a unique person. We’ve never had anyone quite like him. As exciting as he was he was just as humble,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “He was huge. He could do so much. Tim Hardaway once told me he watched Pearl on the TV to see him do the crossover. That was who they watched, Pearl.

“There may have been better players but there was never one more exciting.”

Pearl was selected 13th overall in the NBA draft by the New Jersey Nets. He played two seasons with the Nets and another with the Miami Heat. What made him a star in high school and college didn’t translate to the NBA.

“I was really surprised that he didn’t make it in the NBA,” Thompson said. “The way he was able to penetrate should have made him a star.”

The Carrier Dome was a big reason Pearl decided to go to Syracuse. There were often crowds above 30,000 for his home games and there were rarely less than 25,000.

“When he took the court it was like a rock concert in there,” longtime TV analyst Dick Vitale said. “Pearl and The Cuse. Oh man he had it rocking in there. There haven’t been many with that kind of charisma.”

That was Pearl.