Hoops legend Dwayne “Pearl” Washington played to a different beat, and New York City followed the sound — everywhere. The Brooklyn-born former Syracuse star died last week at the age of 52 after battling a brain tumor, but Ruth Lovelace — now the boys’ hoops coach at Washington’s alma mater Boys & Girls — can still remember from her younger days the harmony he struck, ball-in-hand and boom box blaring on a Crown Heights playground.
“Pearl was dribbling the ball to the beat of the music,” Lovelace said. “It was like, I can’t believe this guy could handle the ball to the beat of the music. Then he just got on the court and threw the ball through somebodies legs, laid it up, spin it. He was amazing.”
That type of showmanship was rare at the time. The game wasn’t played with that level of flare and theater, especially by guards with Washington’s 6-foot-2 stature. It was standing-room-only at Boys & Girls at 8 pm on Friday nights, and back then, you had to get your tickets early.
“You had to get here around 6:30, 7,” Lovelace said. “I’d be on the line with my friends. You had to get your ticket Tuesday or Wednesday. If you waited until Friday to get your ticket, you weren’t getting it.”
If you couldn’t see Washington at “The High,” then you followed him to the playgrounds by word of mouth. If Washington played the question wasn’t whether you were going — it was when you would leave. Because with Washington, both in high school and during his glory days at Syracuse, you didn’t just get a game — you got a show.
“He transcended the game,” Lovelace said. “The things he was allowed to do or he did. It was three dribbles and you better pass it, but Pearl was able to dance. [Orange coach Jim] Boeheim and Boys & Girls let him dance.”
It was the curiosity and admiration he drew out from people that helped Washington be one of the cornerstones of the Big East Conference during its height in the 1980s — along with Patrick Ewing, Chris Mullin, and Ed Pinckney. Syracuse doesn’t become Syracuse without Washington. During a press conference following Pearl’s passing, Boeheim called him the most exciting player he’s ever seen.
“He was a guy everyone wanted to see play,” the coach said. “He’s a unique player. He brought something to people.”
As flamboyant as Washington was on the court, he was as humble and as reserved off it. He coached the Thomas Jefferson girls’ basketball team for the 2008-09 season when stability was needed after a messy coaching change. Washington still returns to Boys & Girls to take in a game, helping players such as senior Gianni Ford find a college.
“If you see Kobe Bryant, he is going to carry himself like Kobe Bryant,” Ford said. “You see [Washington] and he was just like a humble down-to-earth person, easy to get along with it.”
Washington was always the approachable legend who drew so many people toward him.
“We’ve had a lot of great players,” Boeheim said. “But there is only one guy like him.”