Monday, January 26, 2004 Updated: January 27, 12:37 PM ET
Catching up with Silver stars
By Mark Simon Special to ESPN.com
Before there was such a thing as "Big Monday," Pearl Washington and Wayman Tisdale were creating lasting memories in the Big East and Big Eight. Their collegiate careers -- while not as well-documented on SportsCenter as those of today's players -- certainly merited selections to ESPN's Silver Anniversary Teams.
It's the same for several players selected as the best of their respective conferences. And, while some might think it would be difficult for a player from the early days of the network's history to get such recognition, legacies that span three decades are impossible to forget. Ralph Sampson, Patrick Ewing, Clyde Drexler, Kevin McHale ... you know the Silver Team lists by now. It's also a good bet you have a favorite memory or two of each player.
In Washington's case, everyone remembers his wizardry with the basketball.
"What I brought to the game was something exciting," Washington said last week upon hearing he was named to the Big East Silver Anniversary Team. "I think the people there recognized that."
Washington, a little less recognized these days, remains his old self when reflecting on his playing days in the mid-80s. A highly-touted playground legend out of Boys & Girls High in Brooklyn, Washington lived up to his billing and helped sell out the Carrier Dome on a regular basis. He averaged 15.6 ppg and 6.7 assists, and was twice a second-team All-American during three seasons at Syracuse (1983-86).
Choosing a single moment that defined The Pearl's career is impossible. Like so many on these lists, there were too many memorable games, too many highlights, one exciting moment after another. But, if Washington was defined by anything, it was his ability to make any type of pass and hit any kind of shot.
On Jan. 21. 1984, during his freshman season, Washington hit a game-winning, buzzer-beating halfcourt shot to beat Boston College, then sprinted off the court and down the tunnel into the locker room with his arms raised. And, over the next two months and two seasons, he always seemed to come up with his best performances on the big stage.
That same freshmen season he scored 27 points and had six assists in an overtime loss to Georgetown in the Big East tournament title game. In 1986, he carried Syracuse into the championship game again, scoring 21 points and dishing out eight assists in a semifinal win over the Hoyas. He then scored 20 points and handed out 14 assists in a championship game loss to St. John's. Washington's potential game-winning shot was blocked by Walter Berry in the loss, but he was still recognized as the Big East Tournament MVP. After the game, head coach Jim Boeheim referred to him as "The best player in America."
"All those games at Madison Square Garden were good games," Washington said. "It's the mecca of basketball. The team that was the toughest for us was Georgetown. I loved playing Georgetown, especially when they had Gene Smith, because he was touted as the best defensive player."
He won a gold medal in '84 and put OU hoops on the map, but these days Wayman Tisdale plays a different tune off the court.
Now 40 years old, Washington wouldn't share his favorite Syracuse memory, saying the background that comes with the tale would only be worth telling in a book or movie.
"Tell the people that Pearl has something great, and that in time, he will tell his story," Washington said with a laugh.
What Washington would say, however, is he loved every minute of his collegiate career. The feeling was mutual, as he left quite an impression on anyone who came into the Carrier Dome. His number hangs from the arena rafters as a reminder.
"What do I miss most?" Washington asked. "The excitement, knowing that I have 30,000 people watching me. That I'm going to try to win and try to make it exciting for them.
"College was the best time of my life, athletically and socially. Syracuse gave me all that I got and all that I desired."
Washington's NBA career lasted just 194 games and never lived up to the expectations that came with being the New Jersey Nets' first-round pick in 1986. With his playing days over, Washington eventually returned to Syracuse as a student, earning a degree in communications in 1999. He remains in the area and lives near the place where he thrilled so many fans.
Today, Washington works at the Ida Benderson Center, a senior citizens home. He also volunteers for the Big Brother/Big Sister program, taking kids to Syracuse games and serving as a father figure to those in need.
"The most important thing for me is giving back to the community,'' Washington said. "You can't save all the kids, but if I can save just one, then I did my job."
Tisdale could have played basketball anywhere in the country, but he too decided to stay close to home for a reason.
"My dad (Rev. Louis Tisdale) told me that I could be a pioneer and that I could be remembered forever for putting Oklahoma on the map," Tisdale said.
Tisdale did exactly what his father said he could as a Sooner.
Tisdale remains Oklahoma's all-time leading scorer with 2,661 points (25.6 ppg), even though his career lasted only three seasons (1982-85). Tisdale was a three-time first-team All-American and Big Eight player of the year, and ranks as the second-leading scorer in conference history. Oklahoma, which had recently ended its 32-year drought without an NCAA appearance, made it in each of his three seasons as a Sooner -- faring best in 1985 when it lost in overtime to Memphis State in the Midwest Regional Final. He helped turn the school into a basketball power, which it remains under Kelvin Sampson.
One of Tisdale's favorite collegiate memories has a direct connection to ESPN's most popular announcer.
"I remember Dick Vitale ticked everyone in Oklahoma off," Tisdale said. "My freshman year, I had a 50-something point game (of which Tisdale had three in his career, including a 61-point effort against Texas-San Antonio). We were going to compete in a tournament in Hawaii. Dick went on ESPN and said 'Wayman, you're going to face some real competition in Hawaii. You're not going to get your 50.' He was right. I only got 44 in the championship game."
Tisdale liked proving his competition wrong. Prior to a game against Georgia Tech, he got into some trash talking during warmups with John Salley. "You're not going to get any alley-oops against our three 7-footers," Tisdale remembers Salley saying. Tisdale ended up with half a dozen.
On Christmas Day of his junior year, Tisdale went up against Billy Thompson and Louisville. When both were incoming freshmen, half the preview magazines touted Tisdale as the nation's top recruit, while the others tabbed Thompson. Oklahoma won the game 90-72 behind 28 points from Tisdale, who just for good measure, caught a pass and dunked backwards over Thompson to punctuate the triumph.
"That showed who was No. 1," said Tisdale, who turns 40 this June.
Tisdale was the overall No. 2 pick by Indiana behind Ewing in the 1985 NBA draft. He spent 12 seasons in the NBA, where he averaged 15.3 points and grabbed over 5,000 rebounds. Today, Tisdale is a man of the arts, with a successful second career as a jazz musician while living in Tulsa with his wife Regina and their four children -- Danielle, Tiffany, Wayman Jr., and Gabrielle.
Tisdale, who won a gold medal for Team USA in the 1984 Olympics, now seeks more gold in the form of a Grammy. He can be heard playing the bass guitar and singing on each of his six albums, the last of which reached the top of Billboard's Contemporary Jazz charts.
Now when people say, he can really play, they're not just talking about basketball. In fact, some listeners don't even know of his past.
"I've had people come up to me and say I should have played basketball,'' said Tisdale with a laugh.
The new vocation not only keeps him in the public eye, but it provides a great deal of enjoyment.
"I love writing music more than anything," Tisdale said. "I like playing because it's personally gratifying. It's beautiful to me to see people enjoying it. It's nice to know I can speak to people, whether it's through basketball or music. I've played on the stage with great people and great musicians. I want to be on top. It's starting to happen very quickly."
Mark Simon is a researcher on ESPN's college basketball telecasts. He can be contacted at Mark.A.Simon@espn.com.