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All of us can follow Mario back in time

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By GARY SHELTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 13, 2001


Somewhere, John Elway's trick knee feels wonderful.

The dull ache is gone, even when he climbs stairs. His legs feel springy, fresh, young. Maybe, you imagine him thinking, he should go out and throw a few. Just to see how it feels.

Somewhere, the gray in Wayne Gretzky's hair seems to be fading.

He is looking in the mirror, and darned if he doesn't look like a kid again. The hair is thick and blond, the way it used to look when he would take off his helmet and wave to the crowd. Maybe, you imagine him thinking, he should strap on the skates again, for old times' sake.

Somewhere, the fire in Michael Jordan's belly is hot.

This is the way it used to be, back before he became a suit, back when all that mattered was the feeling in his gut when he competed. You can imagine him smiling at the return of the feeling, enjoying the burn. Maybe, you imagine him thinking, he should go shoot a few, just in case.

They are younger today. All of us are. Mario Lemieux has climbed up the mountain, again, and upon arrival, has turned back the clock. Arnold Schwarzenegger is making hit movies again. Saturday Night Live is still funny. And did you hear the Bob Seger CD? It is 1997 again, and he's gaining on 1992, and darned if I don't feel a little younger myself.

His is the story of the year, and it's because Lemieux, 35, has turned it into a better year. He has removed wrinkles, restored memory and lifted faces, in particular the faces of Penguins fans. He has saved the day, padded the payroll and made hockey worth watching. He has come back to your television and showed you, all over again, that some athletes still merit your applause.

If that were not enough, Lemieux also has managed this. He has measured up to his own shadow. And that may be the most remarkable thing of all.

Go ahead. Admit it. When Lemieux returned from dead this season, you were worried, weren't you? Most of us have seen the return of the legend before, and most of the time, it's a painful sight. Remember Magic Johnson at forward? Mark Spitz in the water? Remember Larry Holmes in the ring? Time is a cruel referee, and usually, it cannot wait to show us what it has taken away.

Oh, there are a lot of retired athletes who could come back and be good for a little while. Eventually, however, their age would catch up to them. The muscles would start to snap. The speed would go. The resiliency would disappear.

What is it that Stephen King wrote in Pet Semetary? That when someone comes back, he is less than he was? That is what the sports world is like. Remember when Jordan first came back from baseball? He looked as much like the old Jordan as Rich Little looked like Richard Nixon. It was only with time, and only because Jordan was Jordan, that his comeback eventually was complete.

Then you look at Lemieux, and it is as if he never left. He still swoops down the ice, and he still seems to see things others do not, to reach things they cannot, to do things they can only imagine. You can argue he is as good as ever. You can argue that he is better.

He played in 43 games this year, a half a season, and he had 35 goals and 41 assists. No, he won't win the MVP trophy but, yes, he should. This is bigger than numbers. Oh, teammate Jaromir Jagr led the league in scoring, but compare the two of them. Jagr is moody, and his head and his heart are not always in the same building. Lemieux is his team's leader.

This is bonus time. Keep repeating that to yourself. We were not scheduled to see this. Lemieux had gone away, tired of the grabbing and clutching and wrestling, and we were supposed to watch others try to match his memory. We weren't supposed to think of the 500 or so unscored goals he had in him as he left at 31. And now, like found money, he is back. And it is delicious.

What has this comeback meant? Well, it's meant success. The Penguins were headed toward a financial disaster. Now they're so rich they could be declared an OPEC nation. They were heading toward mediocrity. Now they're talking about the Stanley Cup. There is no way the Pens get past the Sabres without Lemieux.

Most of all, it's meant fun. Who can't enjoy Lazarus on power play? Who doesn't appreciate heroes who have come back to the battle? This is sports at its best. How can you not watch?

Take the series against Buffalo, when Lemieux seemed human again. He went 17 periods without a goal. But in Game 6, when the Pens were 93 seconds from elimination, there he was again, sweeping down, flipping the puck past Dominik Hasek, tying the score at 2.

The legends work this way. They wait until the most important moment in the plot, and they solve the mystery. They find new ways to thrill us, to dazzle us, to inspire us.

A lot of athletes can do the first two. Only Mario has inspired the rest of us, though. Put it this way: Do you think, for a minute, that when Michael Jordan talks to Charles Barkley about this fantasy of coming back next year, that Mario's name doesn't come up. Ha.

So pull for you who wish for in the NHL's Final Four. Colorado looks like a lot of fun. St Louis is playing well. New Jersey belongs.

I'm pulling for Mario, the guy who made us young again.

Just as soon as I finish my homework.

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