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Pearl Washington dead; former Syracuse star was 52

Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, right, and Syracuse

Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, right, and Syracuse player Dwayne Washington (31) watch as Georgetown University took control in overtime of the Big East Conference championship basketball game at Madison Square Garden on March 10, 1984. Credit: AP / Ray Stubblebine

Former Syracuse star Dwayne “Pearl” Washington, who sparkled as an unstoppable point guard playing on the New York City high school and national stages for much of the 1980s, has died, Syracuse University Athletics announced Wednesday on its website. He was 52.

According to Syracuse University Athletics, Washington was diagnosed with a brain tumor last summer and had surgery in the fall. It also said he had a brain tumor removed in 1996.

“There was no better guy and there’s nobody who has meant more to our basketball program than Dwayne Washington,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim wrote on his verified Twitter account. “You will forever be in our hearts. We love you.”

Syracuse’s men’s basketball team wore warmup shirts with “Pearl” and “31” this past season.

Washington was the country’s top recruit coming out of Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn in 1983 and excelled for three seasons at Syracuse, helping to build the Big East Conference into one of the nation’s best.

“Pearl was one of the most exciting guards ever to play college basketball,” Boeheim told Newsday in 1998. “Not the best, but the most exciting. One of a kind.”

Washington averaged 15.6 points and 6.7 assists per game in three seasons for the Orange, when they had a 71-24 record. He was a first-team All-Big East selection three times, a first-team All-American as a junior and a first-round draft choice (13th overall) by the New Jersey Nets in 1986. He had a brief, modest NBA career, averaging only 8.6 points in three seasons for the Nets and Miami Heat.

At Syracuse, Washington had a flair for the dramatic. As a freshman, on Jan. 21, 1984, he hit a halfcourt shot at the buzzer to beat Boston College, 75-72, before a crowd of 30,293 at the Carrier Dome.

Long-range shooting, however, was not his forte. He was a shake-and-bake point guard who, at 6-2 and 190 pounds, was exceptionally strong going to the basket. Like the player for whom he was jokingly nicknamed as an 8-year-old on the playgrounds in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, Washington was a man of many flashy moves.

He was a crowd pleaser with his slick, no-look passes and loved playing before packed houses, especially at Madison Square Garden, where Pearl had many electric moments. “It’s always good to be at the Garden. It’s home,” Washington told Newsday in 1999 when he returned there for the Big East Tournament as part of the 20th anniversary celebration. “It’s your fans. To me, it’s like Showtime.”

At Syracuse, where he helped draw record-breaking crowds to the Carrier Dome, fans often wore T-shirts that read “ . . . and on the eighth day, God created Pearl.”

Dwayne Alonzo Washington was born Jan. 6, 1964, in Brooklyn, where he became a playground hoops legend. When he signed with Syracuse in 1983, it gave the Big East the nation’s No. 1 recruit for the second time in three years. Patrick Ewing selected Georgetown in 1981.

Washington, along with Ewing, Chris Mullin (St. John’s), Derrick Coleman (Syracuse) and Ray Allen (Connecticut) was named to the Big East 25th anniversary first team in 2004, and to Syracuse’s All-Century team in 2000. The Orange retired his uniform number 31. In 2005, Washington was inducted in the New York City Basketball Hall of Fame.

“Pearl Washington was one of the fiercest competitors I ever faced and such a wonderful gentleman who will truly be missed,” Mullin said in a statement. “He will always be remembered as one of the all-time great players in New York City basketball history. There are so many fond memories that I have of Pearl from our time growing up in Brooklyn and then as Big East rivals, but what stands out most was his genuine and caring nature. Our thoughts and prayers are with Pearl’s family and friends.”

After his NBA career ended, Washington bounced around in the CBA for two years, playing for teams in Rapid City, South Dakota, and San Jose, California, before becoming involved with youth basketball in Houston, Boston, Brooklyn and Syracuse. He also did color commentary for Syracuse men’s and women’s basketball telecasts and briefly coached girls varsity basketball in New York City.

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