He was a talented basketball player known as the master of the “shake and bake,” a crossover technique in which he would leave his defensive opposition frozen while he drove by them for a layup. In 1983, he was rated as the number-1 overall high school player in the United States. He was a star point guard that breathed new life into a once-flailing basketball team at Syracuse University– so much so, the sports auditorium had his number “31” engraved into the floor. And he was drafted as a first-round pick by the New Jersey Nets in 1986.
His name is Dwayne Alonzo “Pearl” Washington (he acquired his nickname at eight years old, in a playful comparison to Earl “the Pearl” Monroe), and he was a veritable legend in Brownsville, Brooklyn, where he grew up in the 70s.
On April 20, 2016, Washington died at the age of 52 from a malignant brain tumor.
Now, his sister, Janie Washington-Bennett, is pounding the pavements of Brownsville and East New York, collecting as many signatures as possible and meeting with local elected officials to build groundswell support for two initiatives she hopes will gild the legacy of her baby brother: a fundraising campaign for the P.E.A.RL. 31 Inc. Foundation and a street co-naming.
“He started his foundation a few years before he passed away, but it wasn’t as successful as he wanted it to be. And then he got sick,” said Janie. “So I’m retired now, and I thought it was time for me to pick up the mantel and make it come to fruition.”
Janie says there’s very little money in the foundation currently, and so covering expenses has meant coming out of her own pocket. Luckily, so far, expenses have been low. But if she’s able to turn the foundation into what her brother had intended for it originally– which is to serve as a sports, mentoring and tutoring center for underserved youth of Brownsville– then she will need far more than a retiree’s budget. She will need public support.
“We are starting with Brownsville, because we are from Brownsville,” said Janie. “But really, he wanted to provide all inner-city youth a pathway to entrepreneurship. He wanted to use sports to engage young people… help them to become business people.”
P.E.A.R.L. 31 Inc. Foundation currently has 501(c)3 sponsorship through the Central Brooklyn Economic Development Corporation (CBEDC), located at 444 Thomas Boyland St. The foundation’s first event will be a “game day” on April 1, where they invite the community out to watch the Final Four tournament together on a big screen with food and refreshments. There, Janie’s hoping to get parents to sign up their little ones to what will be P.E.A.R.L Inc.’s first big initiative– a summer basketball and tutoring camp.
“Right now, we need dedicated board members that are going to come out, be supportive; we need basketball coaches; we need financial donations for t-shirts, food, drinks… those are the things we need,” Janie said.
Almost one year to the date from her younger brother’s death, Janie also is pushing to get Belmont Avenue, from Junius St. to Rockaway Ave., near Seth Low Houses (where Washington grew up) co-named “Dwayne Pearl Washington Way.” She started the campaign on March 2. Every week since, she and a team of volunteers– primarily from CBEDC– have been walking door-to-door through Seth Low Houses and into local storefronts collecting signatures from as many supporters as possible.
“My brother was known all over the neighborhood, because he was approachable, he was humble, and he always had a smile,” said Janie. “Even as he got sick, he was always available to come to Seth Low and the Brownsville Recreational Center.”
Janie said, equal to keeping the memory of her brother’s talent and contributions alive, she wants to make sure that his sincere desire to provide more opportunities for the youth of his community lives on.
“He was special to me, because he was my little brother,” said Janie. “But most people remember him, because whatever he had in his pocket, he gave. He tried his best to be a role model of what an athlete should be. He was just that kind of guy.”
If you would like to volunteer or contribute to P.E.A.R.L Inc. 31 Foundation, you can email Janie Washington-Bennett at [email protected]. Also, you can find her at the next Community Board 16 meeting, which meets the fourth Tuesday of every month at 444 Thomas Boyland St., Room 103.