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Pearl Washington: Syracuse basketball’s “man of miracles”

In honor of the college star who put Orange basketball on the map for good.

NCAA Basketball: USA TODAY Sports-Archive Malcolm Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Many legends come to mind when talking about the Syracuse Orange men’s basketball in the Jim Boeheim era.

From Dave Bing to more current players like Carmelo Anthony or Gerry McNamara, but there’s only one player head coach Jim Boeheim considers the “most exiting player” he’s ever seen.

That nod belonged to Dwyane “Pearl” Washington, the Syracuse star who put the men’s basketball program on the NCAA map in the early 80s.

Coach Boeheim’s comments on Washington came during the Ring of Honor ceremony at halftime during last weekend’s Syracuse-Georgetown game. Boeheim and Pearl joined the Ring of Honor alongside Jim Brown, Ernie Davis, Floyd Little, and Roy Simmons Jr.

Unfortunately, only coach Boeheim could be present at the ceremony. In 2016, Washington died of brain cancer at 52-years-old. But, over five years after his passing, Pearl’s name was finally cemented in Syracuse athletic history. Forever.

In three seasons with the Orange, Washington’s stats were impressive (career: 15.7 PPG, 6.7 APG, 2.3 SPG, and 53% from the field), but they don’t tell the whole story. At face value, numbers usually never do.

So, let’s tell a brief story of who Washington really was.

Back in 1983, Syracuse struck gold with landing Pearl Washington, who got his nickname from another familiar New York basketball legend in Earl “the Pearl” Monroe. By some accounts, he was the most coveted recruit in the country. Legendary Utah Jazz point guard John Stockton, who played at Gonzaga back when Washington was with Syracuse, once called Pearl the toughest player he ever had to guard.

And somehow, he ended up in Syracuse’s hands.

The Big East conference was still relatively young and looking for a spot in the national spotlight. Syracuse had been successful during coach Boeheim’s beginning tenure as head coach.

But, something changed when Washington landed with the Orange.

He wasn’t the most physically athletic guard ever, but Pearl’s go-to move was the “shake and bake.” He was easily a player of finesse and craft who made a name for himself as an all-around guard at the Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn. In his senior year, Pearl averaged 35 points, 10 rebounds, 8 assists, and 4 assists per game.

The talent translated directly to college. Washington improved every season during his time with the Orange, carrying a program that faced several hurdles. For starters, Syracuse wasn’t the name that it was in the 21st century, with recruitment still centered on fixing around the margins and not chasing the big fish.

The real scare was the Big East itself. Georgetown was at its absolute apex in the Patrick Ewing era. St. John’s was led by Golden State Warriors star Chris Mullin. Villanova and Providence secured Final Four spots in 1987. Seton Hall advanced to the championship game in ‘89. Even Boston College still had a pulse. In Washington’s three seasons with Syracuse (1984-1986), the Big East finished second twice and fourth once in most regular season wins by conference.

And yet, amid all the powerhouses, Syracuse rose to the top thanks to Washington’s excellence.

The Orange finished as Big East Tournament runner-ups twice (‘84 and ‘86), with a third appearance in the tournament semifinals. In 1986, Washington led Syracuse to the best record in the conference, falling short 70-69 against St. John’s in the Big East Tournament Championship.

By the time Pearl declared for the NBA Draft, Syracuse men’s basketball took off immediately. Just a year after Washington was gone, Rony Seikaly, Derrick Coleman and Sherman Douglas guided the Orange to the 1987 NCAA Championship versus Indiana. And from there, the rest is history.

If there’s one play that summarizes Washington’s impact on the Orange, nothing compares to his half-court buzzer-beater against Boston College in 1984. From there, Syracuse men’s basketball never looked back. Just ask coach Boeheim.

“I can’t underscore how big a moment that was for our program,” Boeheim said. “I believe at that point we officially went from being an Eastern program to a national program... He was the guy who opened the door for us and enabled us to land recruits not just from the East Coast or the Midwest but from the entire country.”

And from there, the rest was history for Syracuse men’s basketball.

Thank you, Pearl.