The Legend of Pearl

This past weekend, I learned that Dwayne “Pearl” Washington had a brain tumor relapse. Washington was my favorite guard to watch in the early 1980s when I was a teenager. The news had my mind spinning, and made me reminisce…

March, 1983. Mater Christi High School, Queens. My boy John Merz and I barely found space to cop a squat on the highest bleacher row at the standing-room only crowd for the Wheelchair Classic (NYC’s premier high school all-star game in that era). Billy Donovan (yes, same one that won two consecutive national titles at U of Florida and now coaches the OKC Thunder) crossed a dude up at half court, and the crowd lost their minds. Donovan proceeded to dribble past his defender, then dished to the wing. Was a really simple moment, but a disco handle has always been so appreciated—revered even—in New York, that the crowd gave the authentic “Ooh!” love which is embedded in our culture.

Shortly after, the crowd erupted, and everyone in the stands was on their feet. Wasn’t after a dunk, or having anything to do with the players on the court. John and I tried to see what was happening through the bodies, and when I finally caught view, I too was in awe…

Standing at the doorway wearing a black Gauchos squad jacket (left open to show off his dookey link with his “Pac Man” nickname on it) was the nation’s No. 1 recruit, Dwayne “Pearl” Washington. The MVP of the McDonald’s High School All-American Game had averaged 35 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists per game his senior year at perennial powerhouse Boys & Girls High. I’d never seen him play, had only heard word on the street, as in heavy word. We were all in for a show…

“Pearl showed up to King Towers on a motorcycle with a fly-ass girl on the back,” recalled Arnold “A Train” Bernard, who was inspired as a kid by Washington. “He drove right to half court, parked it, dropped 55 points, then left. That’s some real legend shit. I wanted to be just like him!” [Bernard went on win the ’87 city and state chip and play for the Globetrotters.]

“Pearl played possessed,” shared “The Amazing Gumby,” who announced at King Towers, Harlem’s hottest tournament of the early ‘80s. “He was the most exciting. I’d call him the ‘Quiet Slasher’ cuz he’d drop 20 points—on his off days. He performed.”

Washington’s playground exploits transcended Harlem. The Brooklyn product was one of those rare players that drew a crowd, in every borough. No matter where he played, people followed.

“We were playing against Pearl at Soul In The Hole in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn,” shared former Chicago Bulls guard “Sudden” Sam Worthen. “He shook four guys in the lane, then dunked on our big man. The game was over! Literally. People ran on the court, and then every single person in the crowd left. It was only the third quarter!” The story sounded too incredible to me, especially since the 6-2 guard wasn’t known for having hops, so I asked Sam if he was embellishing. “The rims were low at Soul In The Hole. That meant our big man was taller, too! It happened.”

Washington was raised in Brownsville, Brooklyn, a tough neighborhood that in the ‘70s produced future NBA star World B. Free as well as playground legend James “Fly” Williams, who averaged 28.5 points per game at Austin Peay State. “I remember Pearl as a kid, he’d watch us at ‘The Hole’ [a legendary pick-up court],” Fly shared with me. “Jocko coached him at Seth Low Community Center.” Greg “Jocko” Jackson, a former New York Knick, was the coach of the Brownsville Jets, and Fly credits him for teaching Pearl his handle. “The gym was the size of a closet! Jocko had him doing dribbling drills in there, then Pearl would go out to the park and practice on his own.”

“Fly had the ‘geezer’ [jump shot]; I had the crossover!” shared Pearl in an interview on MSG’s “Summerball” program.

If there’s a family tree of today’s enormous popularity of fancy ball handling in the pros, you could easily trace Steph Curry back to Allen Iverson, Iverson to Tim Hardaway, and Hardaway to Washington. Basically, Washington was the first to expose a style, which became a complete shift in the way basketball is played.

“I saw Pearl Washington one day, and I said ‘Wow, I wanna start practicing that move,” Tim Hardaway once shared in a New York Times interview. Hardaway was referring to watching Washington’s Syracuse days 1983-86, when the Big East was the best conference (national titles in ’84 and ’85), and the Orangemen were finally making the permanent transition to consistent national powerhouse, led by their BK point guard with the whip whop.

“Pearl ushered in the era of making kids fall down,” Pete Nice, former Def Jam recording artist and Empire State Games teammate of Washington’s, recounted to me. “He was so low to the ground, he looked like a penguin! But he was also so quick. He was making guards trying to defend him look absolutely stupid.”

To be fair, Pearl wasn’t the first NY guard with a handle. Pablo Robertson, Frank “Shake and Bake” Streety, “Pee Wee” Kirkland, Arnold Dugger, and Alonzo “Superkid” Jackson all were crowd pleasers out in the hood before him. You can put Nate “Tiny” Archibald in that category as well, as he did it at Rucker and in the NBA. But none of them, not even Tiny, had the stage set the way the Pearl had it. Most people rarely saw Archibald’s Kansas City Kings play live on television. ESPN didn’t exist in the ‘70s. There was no internet, YouTube, and the local news barely showed highlights, and if they did, it certainly wasn’t the type of moves that were celebrated and applauded out in the parks.

Pearl’s timing was impeccable, though. Basketball as a spectator sport was on the rise as a result of Bird and Magic’s entry into the NBA in ’79. College basketball was blowing up in the ‘80s, receiving bigger contracts, more exposure, and the Big East Conference increased their games televised. On top of that, Syracuse had recently moved to the Carrier Dome, with the capacity of a football stadium for some 5-on-5 bball. So all eyes were on Pearl as a freshman in ’83-’84. If he was going to do something special, it wasn’t going to wind up the stuff of urban folklore passed on by storytellers. As Gil Scott-Heron sung, “The Revolution Will Be Televised!”

March 1984. I was home watching the Big East Conference Championship—Syracuse versus Georgetown at the Garden. The Hoyas were led by seven-foot First Team All-American Pat Ewing, and had the No. 1-ranked defense in the country, anchored by guard Gene Smith. Smith was so notorious on D, after graduation he was drafted by the NFL’s Oakland Raiders, even though he didn’t play football. I don’t remember who won. I still don’t care. [The Hoyas won in OT! —Ed.] Pearl went into official Pac Man mode, gobbling up multiple defenders in his path like it was a video arcade game. Like he had done at Seth Low, the Hole, King Towers, Boys High, and the Wheelchair. Except he was doing it on national television, high-rated viewership steez at that. NYC playground freak handle style fully exposed. Finally.

On one particular play, Pearl put the deception mode on ultra, did an in-and-out dribble, another herky jerk, added some paprika, and boom bong. Gene Smith went down. The elation! I had never seen a player drop a defender like that. Poof. Washington ran back down the court smiling. He knew.

If that happened today, the move would appear on @breakinganklesdaily or whatever on Instagram in seconds. Back then, the announcers made no mention of the brilliance. The producer in the truck didn’t run a replay. But everyone in the hood and beyond took notice. The next day, we all rejoiced at the park while waiting for next: “Yo, you see Pearl break Gene Smith? YO!” It was the talk of the town the way you couldn’t escape Dave Chappelle’s Rick James skit once it aired.

Pearl didn’t just take defenders off the dribble and score. He embarrassed them. He did this on the open court as well as in a half court stationary set. Coach Boehiem didn’t hold him back. Isiah Thomas did not have that freedom at Indiana U. Earl Monroe didn’t have the cameras on him when he was with the Baltimore Bullets. So basically, Pearl Washington was exposing playground ball handling style in an unprecedented manner. For that reason and reason alone, he is deserving of the title LEGEND (YES, AND IN ALL CAPS, MAN)!

“Pearl had more shakes than Tom Carvel [a local NYC ice cream shop], and more spin cycles than Maytag,” legendary HS scout Tom Konchalski told me. “He is one of the great high school guards in the history of New York City basketball.”

Unfortunately, Pearl recently had a brain tumor relapse. There is a fundraiser to help with the health care costs. Find out more here, and please spread the word.

Photo courtesy of Pete Nice