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Original Issue

1964--2016 Pearl Washington

The Syracuse star was a rare talent. Rarer still was the chance to watch the growth of an organic legend

IT WAS a time when mystery still outran hype, before every legend had a logo. Great young basketball players weren't identified the moment the maternity nurse took their footprints. Endorsement contracts still were held back until the parties of the first part were able to write their names. Nobody got a shoe deal until he was able to tie the laces. It was a time of rumors, exaggerated and otherwise. Word of mouth was gospel. However based in truth, tales got taller in the telling. It was a time not of innocence, God knows, but certainly of myth before the onslaught of marketing. Great young basketball players built their own folklore, not merely their own brands.

There was an underground history, in which gaily embroidered truth was the coin of the realm. So in the early 1980s, when people started talking about this point guard from New York City, a 6' 2" barrel of hip-shaking change-of-pace lightning who could get to the tin against anyone from anywhere, everybody who followed college basketball began sharing the saga of Dwayne Washington from Boys and Girls High in Brooklyn, who was called Pearl.

I first saw him in 1982 at an all-star tournament called The Boston Shootout, at which teams of high school stars represented their cities and played for little more than pride. He was an odd-looking duck, with an oblong head and shoulders that sloped almost straight down. He played in strong bursts of movement, the dribble low and powerful, the upper body never at rest, bopping to one side or the other, or up and down, while the defender almost unconsciously began to move with him. That was when Pearl had you, as soon as you started to bop along with him. That was when the shoulders dipped and the dribble got more pistonlike, and he was gone. He didn't dunk. He didn't have to. He'd hung you out to dry before he got to the rim.

Pearl ended up at Syracuse in 1983, as the Big East Conference was just coming into its own. Patrick Ewing had given the upstart league instant credibility two years earlier just by agreeing to play at Georgetown. Pearl was the second stage of the rocket. Playing before 25,000 people a night in the Carrier Dome, he owned the whole room. By then I was covering college basketball for the Boston Herald, and I was in Syracuse the night that fact finally caught up to legend.

It was Jan. 21, 1984, Pearl's freshman season, and Boston College had played him and Syracuse to a tie, 73--73, in the Dome. Right in front of my seat, at midcourt, Pearl launched a running one-hander that went through without a whisper off the iron. But the best thing about the shot was that Pearl never stopped running. He let the ball go and then went right up the ramp toward the dressing room, as though nothing about the moment had surprised him. I ended up under the press table because the crowd burst its moorings. It was arguably the single most important shot in the history of the Big East. It also gave Georgetown and Ewing an unmatched foil for the next two seasons.

Two months later Pearl went sailing past that moment. Syracuse and Georgetown were playing for the league championship in Madison Square Garden. The Hoyas were favored and, indeed, would go on to win that year's national championship. On the other hand, Pearl was playing at home, for high stakes. For perhaps the only time in that era, Georgetown's defense was incapable of stopping a player. The Hoyas ran everything they could at Pearl. Nothing worked. He scored 27. He hit 11 of 16 shots from the field. After the last few shots went in, he couldn't keep from smiling. He had played up to his legend and beyond it. It was real now, something concrete and empirical.

That game has stayed with me through the years—the pure live theater of it. You can see Hamlet a hundred times, but Hamlet always dies in the end. Every time Pearl came down the court with the ball that night, you had no idea what was coming next. Over the years I watched as his career petered out in the pros. He was too easy to defend at that level, and he never developed a consistent outside shot. The last time I saw him play, he was in the CBA. We were flying in a small plane in Iowa in December while I tried not to think too much about Buddy Holly. Pearl was playing out a shoe contract that originally had belonged to the late Len Bias. His professional career ended shortly after that.

He would drift in and out of the spotlight. For a time he lived in Cambridge, Mass., not far from where I live. There was some talk, rumors again, but harsher ones this time, that he'd been very sick. But he rallied, and when ESPN put a documentary together about the Big East, Pearl was one of its stars. In interviews he was cocky and funny and as charismatic as he had ever been. There were scenes of him outside the Garden, with Syracuse fans coming up to him and imitating the shot he'd hit to beat Boston College. He had time for all of them.

We've come in our time to demystify joy. We parse it and sell it, and we manufacture it if we can't find it any other way. It does not rise unbidden, the way it once did. It does not build slowly and steadily. It is presented, whole and rounded, for our consumption. But once there was a time when its origins were a mystery, its sources vague and unclear. And when it arrived, it lingered. I heard about what Pearl Washington could do long before I saw it myself. I did not have to be sold on him. His legend had sold itself. That was the way it was once, when word of mouth was gospel. That was the source of the happiness I always will feel, the happiness that I had the gift of watching the basketball in the hands of Pearl Washington, dead of brain cancer on April 20, at the age of 52.


Photograph by Jerry Wachter

HOYA ANNOYA Washington's dazzling offensive skills made him nearly unstoppable against the vaunted Georgetown D, as well as the rest of the Big East.