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Pearl Washington’s shot changed my life, and I have no idea why

Today would have been the start of the magical two-day extravaganza of the first round of NCAA Tournament, the greatest sports event in our country.

I love, love, love the tournament. Always have. But we won’t get to see it this year because the coronavirus has forced a nationwide shutdown of sports.

So, I’m taking this opportunity to write about college basketball in any way possible, and will do so by kicking off the Mirror’s new series for sports fans called “Picking favorites.” I hope you enjoy it and also take part by sharing your stories.

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We like what we like. Sometimes it’s hard to explain why we like something, or the explanation even can be kind of silly.

Why do you like a certain song, or kind of music? What makes your favorite TV show or movie appeal to you? Or your favorite food?

Then there’s this fun question, which often can elicit some interesting stories: How did you become a fan of your favorite sports team?

One type of answer is simple. You root for your local teams. Those are the teams you’re most familiar with and so many others around you root for, so it’s just an easy, natural fit.

Then there are fans like me, who at some point — usually as a kid — you latched onto a team outside your home region because of some weird or unusual happenstance in life.

Maybe you got a baseball card of a certain player when you were a kid, and that made you a fan of the team (true story for a friend). Maybe you got a Washington Redskins football out of a claw machine at Pizza Hut and started following that team (true story). Maybe you liked a player in a video game and it made you a fan of his team (true story).

Everyone has a story.

Here’s mine.

I was 10 years old, living in central Arkansas. It was Jan. 21, 1984. I saw a 5-second highlight on the new cable channel we had called ESPN. It was of a guy named Pearl Washington hitting a half-court shot to give Syracuse a win over Boston College.

I had never heard of Syracuse, which was 1,200 miles from my hometown.

I had never heard of Pearl Washington.

But somehow, for some reason, the words Pearl and Syracuse stuck in my 10-year-old brain. I cannot explain why, except for to say that kids often gravitate toward things for strange reasons.

A few days later, I noticed Syracuse was playing another game on ESPN. I remembered hearing about the team and Pearl Washington and decided to watch.

That’s it. That’s how I got hooked.

Pearl was awesome, a college superstar who helped put Syracuse on the national map. He is, without question, the most important athlete of my life because he’s the reason I picked my favorite team.

Syracuse not only played a fun style of run-and-gun basketball — have I ever told you I love offense! — and it also was on national TV all the time. Even in Arkansas, I could watch the Orangemen (as they were called then) 20 times a year, and that made all the difference.

Now, 36 years later, I am still a diehard Syracuse basketball fan. It’s the only team I have rooted for passionately throughout my entire life. It has always been my favorite team, and Carmelo Anthony leading the Orange to the 2003 national championship is by far my favorite memory as a sports fan.

Everyone who knew me growing up knew I was a Syracuse fan. It was a big part of my identity, all because of Pearl’s shot.

Sadly, Dwayne “Pearl” Washington died of a brain tumor in 2016 at age 52. I never got to meet him, something that makes me sad and that I will always regret.

When I mentioned my Syracuse story and this “Picking favorites” series for sports fan on Facebook the other day, a childhood friend posted this: “So that’s why we had to hear about Syracuse all the time growing up? I wish he had missed that shot. LOL.”

Hahahaha!

I actually had never thought about that. I’ve told the story so many times over the years about how I started following Syracuse, but if Pearl had missed that shot, I can pretty much guarantee nothing would have clicked in my 10-year-old brain, and I would not have become such a big fan.

For this sports fan, it was just meant to be.

Cory Giger can reached at cgiger@altoonamirror.com.

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