Syracuse to honor the late Pearl Washington on Saturday

AP Photo/Ray Stubblebine, File

SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) Debbie Busacco struggled with her emotions as she thought about what promises to be a difficult moment.

That moment comes Saturday when the Syracuse Orange (6-3) host former Big East rival Georgetown (6-4) and her late fiance, Dwayne “Pearl” Washington , will be celebrated for his contributions.

“He would be smiling,” said Busacco, who will make the trip. “I guess it’s bittersweet. It’ll be overwhelming. He would want us to be there to honor him and keep his spirit alive. He would love that.”

Washington, the man longtime Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim has called his most important player, died of cancer in April at age 52. He left an indelible mark on the Syracuse program and his legacy will continue.

The university is establishing the Pearl Washington Endowed Fund for Continuing Education and has set a $1 million endowment goal. The fund will support student-athletes who leave the university and later return to pursue their degrees. Results of a 31-day fundraising drive will be announced at halftime Saturday during a tribute ceremony for Washington, who wore No. 31.

“Of course, we all wish things like this were done while someone was alive,” said Elmer Anderson, a former high school teammate of Washington. “It’s a culmination of the wonderful things Dwayne did for the university. It was an extension of the university wherever he went.”

Washington left Syracuse after his junior year to play in the NBA. After a brief pro career, he returned to the university to complete his class requirements and received a bachelor’s degree in speech communication. He was working toward a master’s degree in the school of education during the mid-1990s when he was first diagnosed with a brain tumor.

Surgery was performed in August 2015 to treat the recurrence of a brain tumor and Washington had required around-the-clock care and a wheelchair when he died.

There was plenty of support in his final months. (hash)PrayersforPearl became a social media gathering point last season and ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas gave the movement national exposure. In early March, Bilas wore the all-orange “Pearl” warmup shirt that Syracuse players had donned on the bench during games.

Washington’s electrifying play was instrumental in helping create the aura of greatness the Big East Conference enjoyed during its heyday in the 1980s and 1990s. The opponent on Saturday, Georgetown, is fitting. Some of Washington’s most memorable moments came against the Hoyas, who haven’t played in the Carrier Dome since 2013, the year Syracuse bolted for the Atlantic Coast Conference.

“For them to take time out and take so much energy in making this a special moment is certainly a blessing,” Anderson said. “I just want to squeeze the oranges and let the juice drip, instead of tears. It’s a beautiful thing, and for it to be against Georgetown, it’s just great.”

One of Washington’s signature moments against Georgetown came in the semifinals of the 1985 Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden. Towering Georgetown center Patrick Ewing elbowed the 6-foot-2 Washington in the ribs, Pearl retaliated with an elbow to the stomach, and Ewing came back with a punch that missed. Neither was ejected, but Washington endeared himself even more to Orange fans with his display of spunk in a league that was renowned for its physical play.

The next year, Washington scored 24 points in a 1-point victory over Georgetown in February and followed with 21 points and eight assists in a 75-73 overtime win over the Hoyas in the Big East semifinals.

Even though the Orange failed to win the Big East title that year – St. John’s star Walter Berry blocked Washington’s lay-up attempt from behind at the final buzzer of the title game and the Orange lost 70-69 – Pearl was named MVP of the tournament after posting 68 points and 29 assists in three games.

Washington left an impressive trail when he left for the pros: Big East rookie of the year, first-team Big East all three years of college, and first team All-American his junior year. He averaged 15.6 points, 6.7 assists and 2.7 rebounds and led the Orange in assists and steals in each of his three years at the school.

A dinner to celebrate Washington’s legacy was to be held Friday night at the university, and Derrick Coleman, Rafael Addison and Billy Owens were expected to be among several former Orange stars at Saturday’s game.

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