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Pearl Washington: The Jewel That Defined Syracuse Basketball

May he rest in peace... then take God to the hoop with a sick crossover dribble.

David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Today marks an incredibly sad day for the Syracuse community with the news of Dwayne "Pearl" Washington's passing. I, like many of you who knew Dwayne as a fan or a friend, understand the mark that he left on our school, community and program. And as one of TNIAAM's writers who had the pleasure of seeing him play in the 1980s, I wanted to simply offer a few words to share with the community, and perhaps give some of our younger friends on the site some comments on what he meant to Syracuse. There are many, many more words to accurately describe his incredible strength and beauty as a person, but out of respect as an "outsider" to his life, I will simply say that I greatly admired him on and off the court and wish his family and friends my sincere condolences.


Syracuse and New York State are places synonymous with grit, pressure and a unique tenderness of character that is obscured by a hard outer shell. It is perhaps fitting that a town and state with these defining characteristics should produce as one of its greatest athletes a jewel of a man with the name "Pearl."

Our town has never been known as a particularly progressive or trendy place, yet in the past 30 years there has been little doubt that Syracuse University has been at the leading edge of college basketball -- winning with a consistency and attractive style of play that has earned them admiration and respect among the country's fans. Syracuse had consistent success prior to the mid-80s as well, but the seminal moment in SU basketball's modern day history started with the arrival of a 6-foot-2 guard from Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn.

In 1983, Pearl Washington came to Syracuse with the basketball program on solid footing, and the Big East Conference emerging with a national following through the efforts of Dave Gavitt and the fledgling cable network ESPN. Pearl also arrived on a campus anchored by a (then) shiny-new Carrier Dome, which was quickly revered as a modern-day wonder of the basketball world. What Syracuse and the Big East needed at that moment was someone with a game and a personality big enough to fill the cavernous Dome and draw in national viewers to Gavitt's conference.

The Pearl was that someone... and then some. One could argue that the mighty Georgetown Hoyas or the talented and gritty St. John's Redmen were the marquee draws of the time. But in fact, it was the Pearl that was the brightest light in the league and all of college hoops from the moment he arrived until the moment he declared for the NBA Draft and was selected as the no. 13 pick by New Jersey in 1986. Georgetown was there to intimidate you and beat you down. St. John's was there put on their hard hats and go to work. Syracuse, with Pearl pulling the strings, was there to entertain you. And man, did he ever entertain you.

His presence in the Dome and Madison Square Garden was must-see viewing, and while his buzzer-beating half-court shot to defeat Boston College in 1984 was perhaps his defining shot, Pearl delighted, entertained and amazed on a nightly basis... giving his greatest performances when he lights were brightest. He figuratively broke the ankles of the league's most talented defenders as if they were rec league scrubs (just ask Georgetown's Gene Smith, Horace Broadnax or Michael the other one, fool!) with a sick left-handed crossover move that he did incredibly without switching hands.  His pear-shaped body sliced through defenders and scored in the paint at will by using his hips to shield himself in a manner I still haven't seen since. And he played with a body language that was always leaning forward... suggesting that he was always moving in one direction. To. The. Hoop.

His arrival at Syracuse also did much to usher in the arrival of the athletes that started Syracuse basketball's first true Golden Age.  Seikaly, Coleman, Douglas, Thompson, Owens. Players who came to join in the fun and make their runs at earning Syracuse their first ever National Championship. Without question, Jim Boeheim was the man who built and maintained the standard of our proud program, and in the past 30 years we've delighted in seeing many legends pass through the Dome. Yet it was The Pearl who took Boeheim's foundation and launched Syracuse into the national spotlight -- which we still remain in today.


Pearl, your time with us has come to an end. Yet the ashes you leave behind will not be scattered into the wind. They will not be let go. Rather, they will be held tight with a great fondness by myself and tens of thousands of others who were touched by your skill, your joy, and your love for our school, city, and state. Held tight among the grit and pressure of a community determined to carry your memory with the unique tenderness of character that defines us.

You remain rare, beautiful, and forever cherished. You are -- and will always be -- our Pearl.