I don’t have any actual memories of Pearl Washington, but somehow he’ll always still be a hero to me. It’s a strange phenomenon, where you begin to idolize individuals you never saw yourself. I never saw Willie Mays play, but I consider him the greatest baseball player to ever live. Like the Say Hey kid, I never saw Pearl (or at least, I don’t remember ever watching him because I was so young), but to me, he’s the epitome of Syracuse basketball.
Yesterday was Pearl Washington Day at Boys & Girls High School, where the legend who wore #31 played his high school ball. That number was retired, and money was raised in an effort to fund his continued care. Life has a twisted sense of humor, unfortunately, and the sad irony was that shortly after the Pearl was honored at his old stomping grounds, word came that he’d taken a turn for the worse.
The news led me to revisit a lot of old articles, oral histories, and videos detailing just how impactful Pearl was not just on Syracuse, but on the Big East, ESPN, and college basketball in general. The man was a legend before ever setting foot on the Carrier Dome court. As Chris Mullin described him in the ESPN 30 for 30 film Requiem for the Big East, “Pearl was a legend by the time he was in eighth grade.”
If there’s a Mount Rushmore for Syracuse basketball, other than Jim Boeheim the very first name that has to be mentioned is Pearl Washington. Yes, Dave Bing is the greatest player in Syracuse history. Yes, Carmelo Anthony delivered the first NCAA championship. Derrick Coleman, Sherman Douglas, Billy Owens, Gerry McNamara, Hakim Warrick…these are all players worthy of a place on the all-time list. But none meant more to making Syracuse a household name than Pearl Washington.
As Boeheim himself said in Requiem for the Big East, he couldn’t even recruit nationally until ESPN started broadcasting Big East games, and the player who elevated Syracuse above programs like Providence and Seton Hall was the Pearl. He was the reason people watched the Orangemen back in the mid-1980s, and he – along with the Carrier Dome and Boeheim himself – are the reasons Syracuse became synonymous with big-time basketball.
The Pearl was a star from day one. He was whispered about, the myths and tall tales building as he came up in Brooklyn, choosing Syracuse over St. John’s and becoming the player who Boeheim calls the most exciting player in the history of the Big East. Go take a look at an article from Slam earlier this year and you’ll note the awe and reverence from former pros and street ball legends alike when speaking about Pearl’s exploits at Soul in the Hole, like the time he showed up on a motorcycle, dropped 55 points, and vanished into the night.
If you’ve got time and Netflix, go ahead and watch Requiem for the Big East. Skip ahead to the 36:40 mark, which is right about the time they start talking about the kind of impact Pearl had on the league. A larger than life character, he transcended the game and left behind a legacy that inspired players Tim Hardaway, who later brought the same flash and style to the court that Pearl showed them could work on the big stage, and not just on the playgrounds.
I swear, this is absolutely true: I was only five years old when Pearl was drafted by the Nets back in 1986. Still, I knew who Pearl Washington was before I ever knew who George Washington was. Maybe that’s why I’ve always felt he deserved such a prominent place on the Syracuse basketball Mount Rusmore.
Keep your thoughts with Pearl today, folks.