A Pearl on the Rebound
In a different life, Pearl Washington was a basketball deity, adored and idolized for his flashy, circus-style game and captivating manner.
As Syracuse’s star guard in the mid-1980s, he helped transform the Orangemen program into a popular powerhouse and drew millions of television fans to the fledgling Big East Conference.
A busted professional career and a life-threatening brain tumor have reduced the 33-year-old Washington to mortal status now.
His new challenge is ordinary by human standards: Finish his degree while working a full-time job. Then pursue a career as a college basketball coach.
“God has given me another chance. I’m excited about it. I’m taking full advantage of everything. Life is not promised to you every day,” said a chastened Washington, as he took a break from work at the McChesney Community Center. Washington coaches youth basketball teams at the center as part of his job with the City of Syracuse Parks and Recreation Department.
“It’s going to be hard. I have a lot of other things going on in my life now,” said Washington, a finger-long scar on his shaved head the only perceptible sign of his brush with death in 1995.
Washington is taking 12 hours of classes at Syracuse, scheduling them in the morning so he can continue to work full time with the parks department in the afternoon.
That leaves evenings and weekends for coaching, studying and mixing in radio and television appearances as a color commentator for Orange men’s and women’s basketball, and helping tutor current Syracuse point guard Jason Hart.
“Sometimes I worry about him pushing himself too hard,” Jamie Washington said about her son, who she has always called “Wayne,” even though his given name is Dwayne. “I don’t try to stop him. I just tell him to take care of himself.”
A New York City high school legend, Pearl left Syracuse in 1986 after his junior year, 39 credits short of his communications degree but a consensus All-America guard famous for his scoring and passing.
“He gave an explosiveness to the league, and an excitement to the league, that no one else has ever brought,” said Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, who has sent two dozen players on to NBA careers during his 21-year tenure.
“If there was one guy who made the Big East -- even more than (Patrick) Ewing and (Chris) Mullin -- no doubt, it was Pearl. At a time when we had the TV spotlight, he electrified everybody,” Boeheim said.
The New Jersey Nets made him the No. 13 draft pick, which proved unlucky for Washington. He lasted just two years with the Nets and one more with the first-year Miami Heat.
New Jersey officials criticized Washington for being slow and unwilling to work at his game. Washington takes some blame, but says the Nets were unreasonable in their expectations.
“I was put in a situation where I was somewhat like a franchise player and they wanted me to save the team,” said Washington.
After his original three-year contract expired, Washington tried to find a spot on another NBA team. A sprained ankle led to the discovery of bone chips and then surgery.
Washington’s superhuman game was gone forever.
“I definitely wish I had stayed in school,” said Washington. “I wouldn’t be in this situation here. Things would have probably worked out a lot better. Who knows?”
He played two seasons for San Jose in the Continental Basketball Association, the last in 1991-1992.
“After that ...” Pearl said, trailing off.
Washington went to work for AT&T; as a salesman. Over the next four years, he moved from Houston to New York to Boston, a forgotten basketball legend.
It got worse.
Washington was watching football one Sunday in November 1995 at the home he shared with his girlfriend and their family in Cambridge, Mass., when he began shaking violently and coughing blood.
Rushed to the hospital, doctors removed a benign tumor from Washington’s brain during a six-hour operation. He was unconscious for a week. Afterward came a year of chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
“All that stuff makes you up and down. One day you feel good. One day you feel bad and you’re throwing up ... It’s been a rough year,” he said.
The Pearl Washington that awoke in that hospital bed was a changed man, said his mother.
“He has come to see more about life. He sees things differently now, “ she said. “Things change,” Washington said. “When I was young, the game was something I always wanted to do. And I accomplished that, and a lot of other things that most people haven’t done. So in that respect, I don’t have anything to be down about at all.”
While it is Allen Iverson and Stephon Marbury who are most mimicked on playgrounds and in gyms today, in Syracuse, Washington remains revered.
Last year, the university made his No. 31 just the third jersey to be retired -- an honor given only to NBA Hall-of-Famer Dave Bing and Vic Hanson. Last month, the city announced establishment of a basketball tournament named after Washington.
“That’s a big man,” said former Syracuse teammate Rafael Addison, now with the Charlotte Hornets. “He took everything with grace. You can’t help but be impressed by him. He’s not only a role model for kids. He’s a role model for most of us players, too.”