This week Dwayne Alonzo “Pearl” Washington, a sensational guard at Syracuse and an 8.6 ppg three-year NBA pro died at the age of 52, of brain cancer. He was not even the most famous Pearl in NBA history, having inherited his smooth nickname by emulating his boyhood hero, Earl “The Pearl” Monroe. (Come to think of it, nor was he the most notable NBA Dwayne/Dwyane, Alonzo, or Washington.) But he did have a move, the crossover dribble, that helped make him the most sought-after high schooler in country in 1982-83, and which helped etch artistic ground-bound basketball into the sport forever. He was a patron saint of guys who looked like they shouldn’t be on the court, even as he became a template for guys who dang sure do.
Charles Pierce, now writing for Sports Illustrated, because sometimes life actually makes goddamn sense, got to watch Pearl play, so I’ll point you to the obit he wrote and a passage that makes me wish cameraphones had been at high school hoops tourneys in the early ’80s:
From the start, he was an odd-looking duck, with an oblong head and shoulders that sloped almost straight down. He played in strong bursts of movement, the dribble low and powerful, the upper body never at rest, bopping to one side or the other, or up and down, while the defender almost unconsciously began to move with him. That was when Pearl had you, as soon as you started to bop along with him. That was when the down-diving shoulders dipped, and the dribble got more piston-like, and he was gone. He didn’t dunk. He didn’t have to. He’d hung you out to dry before he ever got to the rim.
This looks like what the tape of his NBA career shows, so it’s not a terrible shock that Pearl didn’t hang long in the pros. The league is rough on anyone 6-foot-2, no matter how shifty he is, and certainly on those who jumpshots are merely adequate, and those who in the highlights I’ve been watching isn’t a certainty to be able touch the backboard. Pearl’s last stop in the NBA was the Miami Heat’s inaugural year. Freed from the Nets in the expansion draft, he started eight games for the 15-67 Heat and was cut the next summer. During his three years in the NBA he hit 16 three-pointers, on 87 attempts (.184).
As the Pierce piece underlines, Pearl great a reputation playing Brooklyn prep ball before heading to Syracuse and the Carrier Dome, the biggest home floor this side of the Flavian dynasty. The half-court shot he hit to beat Boston College as a freshman turned the playground legend into a sensation; Jim Boeheim later called Pearl’s decision to go to Syracuse a moment that turned the Orange into a truly national program. In those days he jousted with Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing, two of the stars of the young Big East conference. But you can see why Pearl would have the more lasting influence on the game at large, even as Ewing went on to become one of the most recognizable athletes of the late 20th century. Only so many human beings can truly emulate a broad-shouldered 7-footer, and only a smattering of schoolboys, for sure.
Watch this highlight spool of Pearl at Syracuse and look the respect he commands as a ball-handler, as a passer, and as a threat to drive. (Dig, too, the Big Daddy Kane it’s set to.) Dude’s drawing double-teams at halfcourt, slicing by them, and picking out the open man with ease. If he pulls up for a jump shot, it’s one he staked out by finding a peculiar seam in the defense. It’s a gift, to be covered so relentlessly and to look all the while as if no one’s actually on you.
The key to Pearl’s crossover dribble that infatuated the likes of 6-foot-nada Tim Hardaway was getting low, to take advantage of the seeming size disadvantage that relegates most guys his size to play trombone instead of point guard. “I saw Pearl Washington one day, and I was like, ‘Wow, I want to do that move,’” Hardaway explains in this (rather rad) oral history of the crossover dribble.
History may have caught Pearl at the wrong time. He was a small-ball miracle-worker who slipped between the cracks in the shooting revolution. The NCAA didn’t fully adopt the three-point line until 1987, the year after Pearl made his NBA debut. Or maybe the long-range game was never going to be his jam, anyhow. You can hear, just after Hardaway’s testimony, Pearl himself tell of his pride watching that move handed down to Hardaway. “People see that move, and they use it in their arsenal in their game,” he says. “Allen Iverson was great at it. Hardaway was great at it, too.”
When he talks about Dwyane Wade, you hear him take the full scope into account. Wade has the handles to cross a defender over, and he can hit an outside jumper. And whereas Pearl earned the nickname “Fat Butt” in college for his ground-bound game, Wade, a couple of inches taller than Pearl, is a human/trampoline hybrid who even in his senescence remains a threat to cross over a point guard, outrace a small forward, and commit felony premeditated dunking over your center. “I mean, that’s just unbelievable,” Pearl says of Wade, and you wonder whether he imagined what he could’ve accomplished in that kind of physique, with that sort of athleticism. Then again, the joy of a player like Pearl, who didn’t have those same physical gifts, is that he had to improvise, to innovate. I would’ve loved to see Pearl play in his day. But I did get to see Hardaway, then Iverson, then Wade — none of whom shot even 36 percent on career threes, by the way — and I feel I’ve witnessed the rest of the evolution, the promised culmination, of Fat Butt hooping.