Syracuse basketball legend Dwayne “Pearl” Washington finally succumbed in his battle with a brain tumor after fighting for almost a year. It was an eventuality that was expected but that doesn’t make it any less sad.
The face of the Syracuse Orange basketball program from 1983 to 1986, Washington’s actual stats don’t grace the upper echelons on the school record books. His 1,490 career points is 25th all-time and he’s fourth overall in career assists with 631. Nothing to sneeze at but future generations could look at the numbers on the stat sheet and think to themselves, “Well, he was good.” But Washington was more than good. He was important. And, according to one guy who should know, he might have been the most important player to ever put on a Syracuse uniform.
“There was no better guy and there’s nobody who has meant more to our basketball program than Dwayne Washington,” said Jim Boeheim earlier this year when asked about Washington’s declining health. When Syracuse players took to the floor for warmups wearing orange shirts emblazoned with the world “Pearl” across the chest, it wasn’t a marketing gimmick. It was genuine appreciation for the legend that paved the road they now walk.
Washington’s exploits at Syracuse are numerous. His buzzer-beater against Boston College in 1984 is the one that stands out the most, but there were so many more moments and qualities that defined his play. His crossover was killer, never more so than when he sent Georgetown’s George Smith tumbling and then drilled a jumper over the rest of the team. He even got into it with Patrick Ewing in one of the classic Syracuse – Georgetown confrontations.
Pearl’s impact was ultimately bigger than any shot, any move, or any on-court tussle. According to Jim Boeheim, Washington’s arrival and success at Syracuse was directly responsible for everything that came after.
“I’m not sure any player ever was more important to our program than Pearl,” Boeheim said in “Color Him Orange: The Jim Boeheim Story.” “I believe at that point we officially went from being an Eastern program to a national program. Everybody knew who the Pearl was. I’d get off of a plane in L.A. and somebody would say, ‘There’s Pearl’s coach.'” 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.”
This is a guy who recruited Roosevelt Bouie, Louis Orr, Derrick Coleman and Carmelo Anthony and above all of them he says it was Pearl who took a good Syracuse program and made it great. He did so without winning a title, because he was just that electric and just that big of a personality. Plus, Pearl’s era begat the team that went to the 1987 National Title game, which begat the Billy Owens and Lawrence Moten era, which begat Carmelo Anthony and the 2003 National Title. And so on right up until SU’s most recent Final Four run.
Boeheim also said Pearl “might have been the first true manifestation of Dave Gavitt’s Big East vision.” Of course that era is long gone but Washington’s exploits against Georgetown’s Ewing and St. John’s’ Chris Mullins gave the conference the reputation it still enjoys to this day.
Washington’s No. 31 jersey was retired by Syracuse in 1996 but given the kind of support he received all season long, it’s clear that his legend will loom large over the program for many years to come.
He was that important.