Dwayne 'Pearl' Washington helped make the Big East the Big East

The line, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim remembered, snaked around the outside of Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn as if folks were waiting to see a show.

And in a way, they were. Dwayne "Pearl" Washington was every inch a showman, a basketball player so skilled he left fans in a constant suspended state, somewhere between awe at what he just did and wonder in what might come next. Boeheim, in town in the early 1980s to recruit Washington, didn't know it at the time, but they always lined up to see the Pearl.

"He was electric, just electric," Boeheim said. "Calvin Murphy maybe was like him. Maybe, but I'm not sure. Pearl was just different.''

Syracuse announced Washington's death Wednesday. Washington, who had been battling a brain tumor, was 52.

We measure success today in statistics and championships and NBA service time. But how to quantify Washington? Three NCAA tournaments, a 71-24 record in his time at Syracuse, a three-year NBA career ... that doesn't really add up to the essence of Washington.

You couldn't look at a box score and understand what made Washington special; you had to see it.

"To me, the most exciting person to see was Pearl," former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese told me two years ago. "He was so charismatic. He did things that got people out of their seats.''

Do we make players like that anymore? Sort of, yes, but mostly no.

Sure, we have athletes who get players out of their seats, but true showmen? Not really.

Our legends, by no fault of their own, too often come packaged. They have been broken down and assessed since elementary school, their games the byproduct of organized leagues, not the creative genius birthed on the playgrounds.

Not Washington. He grew up on and around the playgrounds near his home in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. The old heads there nicknamed him "Pearl" more in mockery than deference, so annoyed and amused by the whippersnapper who left them flat-footed, they asked, "Who do you think you are, The Pearl?" -- as in Earl "The Pearl" Monroe.

But eventually he earned and owned the moniker, his game smooth and pure.

The stories sound like tall tales. There were the playground games in which a pre-teen Washington dribbled around and through NBA stars, and then the high school game when he dropped 82. They were all true, witnessed by New York hoops fans who quickly went from jaded to jaw-dropped.

Yet Washington was a showman without being a showboat. He didn't step on the court to "break some ankles." The term ankle-breaker hadn't even made its way into the everyday lexicon. Nor was the kid who played like a human highlight film hoping to make the evening's highlights. There weren't, after all, banks of cameras to record the highlights, nor much in the way of 24-hour news to show them. He was simply a natural, a 6-foot-2 player who might technically be labeled a point guard but whose game frankly defied position and, on occasion, explanation.

"He had a flair, but it wasn't something he put on," Boeheim said. "That's just the way he played.''

That he timed his poetic game with the rise of the Big East can only be called serendipitous for both. It's hard to say which benefited more -- player from league or league from player.

No doubt Washington isn't Washington without the Broadway theater of the Big East. Then again, the Big East is not the beast without Washington.

He, along with Chris Mullin and Patrick Ewing, essentially shepherded the conference from infancy to an otherworldly stratosphere, their play matched only by the histrionics of their coaches on the sideline.

"Someone asked me who was the most difficult player to guard, and I said Pearl Washington," former Georgetown coach John Thompson Jr. told me three years ago. "We were known for our defense, and if we pressured Pearl, he went by us. If we came to him, he still went by us.''

The funny thing about showmen is most everyone loves to watch them but not everyone necessarily loves them, least of all their opponents.

Washington has never been anything but universally respected and adored. Off the court, he was quiet and unassuming -- unlike his on-court persona. About his half-court, game-winning heave in 1984 that still stings the hearts of Boston College fans, he once shrugged and said simply, "I'm not the only guy to hit a game winner from half court."

That was Washington, the alter ego to the superhero Pearl.

In 1986, Syracuse lost the Big East tournament championship game in heartbreaking fashion, with Walter Berry blocking Washington's last-second jumper to seal the win for St. John's. Despite the loss, Washington was named the tournament's most outstanding player, the first time the award went to a player on a losing team. It was left to Tranghese to bring a devastated Washington back onto the court.

"I said, 'I'm sorry I have to bring you out for this, but we have to do it,'" Trangehese recalled. "When we announced Pearl as the MVP, I remember Walter Berry, Mark Jackson and all of those kids from St. John's, they did not have one iota of envy. They all ran out and embraced Pearl. That was one of the most iconic moments I ever witnessed, but that was Pearl. Everyone loved him."

Ultimately, that's the way it goes when it goes right. People line up for the Pearl Washington Show, but if he lives his life right, they don't remember the showman.

They simply remember the man.