The tall dude with the pronounced paunch and an apparent case of the cocaine sniffles looked vaguely familiar, but it had been several years since I’d seen him dribble under duress, and he looked nothing like the whirling dervish of a point guard who went behind his back and through his legs as routinely as taking a breath. He entered the Big Wheel Bikes store in Georgetown in the summer of 1989 as a customer, not as an icon, and that’s how I figured it.
I’m looking for a bike, he mumbled. I showed him a few options, and then he left.
Two hours later, he came back and said he wanted the black Fuji Royale on the front display hook. He took out his American Express card for payment.
I read the name emblazoned on the front of the card and gulped. “Dwayne Washington,” it read. I looked up at my customer, peered down again at the card, snuck a final stare at Dwayne Washington’s features, and blurted out in astonishment, “Son of a bitch, you’re Pearl Washington.”
That’s right, said Pearl, but it was clear that he didn’t want to have a discussion about basketball.
I told him that I’d never forget his monster performance against Georgetown in the Big East conference tournament final in 1984, and he had trouble recalling the game. Knowing full well that he‘d been cut by Miami just a few weeks earlier, and was obviously out of shape, I gingerly asked him what his plans were. He said that he was in DC for a short stretch to be with his girlfriend, and would be attending the Houston Rockets training camp in the fall.
I had the feeling that my efforts to buddy up to Pearl were not being reciprocated, so I gave up trying. I delivered the bike, and we bid our adieus.
When I heard of Pearl’s death last week of a brain tumor at age 52, I was touched, in part because of our brief encounter, in part for my affection for Syracuse, but principally because Pearl Washington was the most exciting college basketball player I’ve ever seen. With the ball in his hands, he was electrifying.
Pearl failed to hang on at Houston, and his descent continued with short stops with Rapid City and San Jose in the Continental Basketball Association, where spectators wondered aloud what had happened to Pearl Washington in a few short years.
It was posited that his ball-handling talents did not translate to the NBA , where 7-foot Goliaths guarded the lane, and his slowness afoot and lack of leaping ability were fatal drawbacks. And he had a problem controlling his weight. But you’d think that the best penetrating point guard in the history of college basketball could find a niche in the NBA among players he had trounced in college.
Pearl himself provided an insight during an interview in 2003 with the New York Times, “I had a God-given talent, and I was always ahead of everybody else in high school and in college. But when I got to the next level, guys were above me. So you have to decide – either you work hard enough to excel in the NBA, or ‘this ain’t for me anymore.’ I didn’t love it enough to really work hard at it anymore.”
To say Pearl’s NBA career was nondescript is to embellish it. Pearl was drafted with the 13th pick in the first round by New Jersey, a moribund franchise whose star point guard, Michael Ray Richardson, had been suspended by the NBA a few months before for cocaine use. He signed for three years and $900,000. En route to consecutive seasons of 24-58 and 19-63 during 1986-87 and 1987-88, the Nets were the pits of the NBA, drawing flies to their makeshift stadium in Hackensack, NJ, and playing in the perpetual shadow of the Knicks.
Pearl came off the bench, averaging about 20 minutes a game. He put up decent numbers, but Nets officials criticized him for being slow and unwilling to work at his game. And there was a bad environment in the locker room. Three Nets were suspended from the league for drug use between 1986 and 1988. When Pearl was left unprotected by the Nets after the 87-88 season, he was drafted by the expansion Miami Heat, who cut him in the spring of 1989. Three years out of college, he was out of the league.
If a lack of motivation and effort were to blame, can you fault the Pearl for not being inspired to succeed in the NBA? He had already blown away expectations at several levels. When he was an 8-year old in the playgrounds of Brooklyn, older players on the court compared his moves to Earl The Pearl Monroe, then a star with the Knicks who was famous for his herky-jerky spin moves and unorthodox shots. He didn’t just live up to the moniker – he usurped it.
As a high schooler at Boys and Girls High in Brooklyn, he averaged 35 points, 10 rebounds, 8 assists and 4 steals and was the most highly recruited player in the country. He put Syracuse on the map as a college basketball power and was “the most exciting player who ever played in the Big East and the most important player to our program,” said his coach, Jim Boeheim.
Pearl took ball-handling to a new dimension. He dribbled primarily with his left hand, but shot righty. He created the crossover, a side-to-side dribbling maneuver which freezes defenders at their knees, often causing them to fall backwards. “In the open court, or on the break, or steering through the lane, one on one, there’s nobody better,” wrote Curry Kirkpatrick of Sports Illustrated during Pearl’s freshman season at Syracuse.
That’s what we’ll remember about the Pearl – his dashing, headlong, daring, and of course, penetrating, forays to the hoop, the Carrier Dome exploding as his lay-in somehow eludes Patrick Ewing’s fingertips, David slaying Goliath.
Even in repose, he’ll never stop being the Pearl. The NBA?…. that’s just a footnote.