It was Washington’s sophomore year in high school in New York in the early 1980s, and for the 71-year-old Syracuse coach it will always seem fresh.
“People were standing there for hours (before the game),” Boeheim said Wednesday, his voice barely audible at times as he contemplated the impactful career of his most important player. “When he came out, the place was electric. Everybody was standing. He hit for 46 (points) — against seniors. He destroyed everybody.
Washington had been coping with medical problems since a brain tumor was first diagnosed in 1995. He had surgery last August to address a cancerous tumor and recently required around-the-clock medical coverage and a wheelchair to move around.
“We’ve all known this was coming,” Boeheim said. “It doesn’t make it any easier.”
Washington was not particularly fast, nor could he jump particularly high. Neither mattered — he simply excited fans with his remarkable ball-handling skills, an uncanny court sense, elusiveness, and the ability to make an amazing play at the most opportune time.
His signature move was the crossover dribble — the “shake-and-bake” — that froze defenders, then a drive to the basket for an easy layup past the big men on defense in the middle. His play for the Orange was instrumental in helping create the aura of greatness the Big East Conference enjoyed during its heyday in the 1980s and 1990s.
“He had an unbelievable effect on our program,” Boeheim said. “He was the guy everybody wanted to see play.”
Current and former players, as well as others associated with the Syracuse program, rallied in support of Washington during his illness.
“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 as a freshman, in a nationally televised game in 1984 against Boston College. In a tie game, 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 shot and remained there for the rest of Washington’s Syracuse career. Later that winter, he set a school record with 18 assists against St. John’s.
A New York City legend who starred at Boys and Girls High School and on playgrounds throughout the city, Washington was the most highly recruited player in the country. He committed to Syracuse in 1983.
“He brought something to people,” Boeheim said. “The Dome was relatively new, but when Pearl came the numbers changed. They wanted to come see Syracuse, but they wanted to see Pearl Washington.”
Washington had some of his best moments in an arena he cherished — Madison Square Garden. As a junior, he had a 35-point game against St. John’s and led the Orange to the Big East finals 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 his layup was blocked by Walter Berry.
“Pearl Washington was one of the fiercest competitors I ever faced and such a wonderful gentleman who will truly be missed,” said St. John’s coach Chris Mullin. “There are so many fond memories that I have of Pearl from our time growing up in Brooklyn and then as Big East rivals, but what stands out most was his genuine and caring nature.”
After Syracuse lost to Navy in the second round of the 1986 NCAA Tournament, Washington chose to forgo his senior year and enter the NBA draft, the first player under Boeheim to leave school early.
Washington left an impressive trail: 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 fourth (637) 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.
“He was exciting,” said Elmer Anderson, Washington’s high school teammate. “It’s easy for me to say because I saw it firsthand. He was just magical. It was almost like he was playing his own music that only he could hear.”