Super Mario is greatest thing in sports too bad his league isn't


The calendar is barely wrinkled, but already we know the identity of the athlete of the year for 1993.

And of the MVP, too.

And of the comeback player of the year as well.

They are all he. Or him. Or, rather -- he is all of them.

His name is Mario Lemieux, and he labors in a chronically underexposed cult sport whose nightly television highlights consist of swirling bodies, hysterically rising voices and goals that, no matter how hard you squint, you never really can see, even in slow-motion replay.

It may be that before this year is out, Darren Daulton will swat 62 home runs and be, without argument, athlete of the year.

And it may be that Michael Jordan soon will cajole, tug, prod, goad and finally pick up and carry the Chicago Bulls to a third straight NBA title. So much for MVP.

And it may be that Bo Jackson, with his artificial body parts, will play with such limping majesty that the title of comeback player of the year can go to no other.

In which case a special category will have to be created for Mario Lemieux.

If only he were performing in the NBA, that relentless marketing machine that can sell Air Jordan low-cuts to centipedes, rather than being stuck in the NHL, well. . . .

As it happens, the National Hockey League is now overseen by Gary Bettman, who is fresh from the NBA and has visions of Super Mario videos on MTV. It is his plan to attempt to transplant some of the NBA's pizazz into hockey.

Mario Lemieux is a natural focal point. He could be the Man Who Made a Sport.

Of course, Wayne Gretzky couldn't do it, although it certainly was not for lack of performing genius on his part.

The NHL playoffs will begin this weekend and will get another try on network television. ABC has been seduced.

In the 1970s, hockey bombed on all three major networks. But it did not have a player as wondrous as Mario Lemieux or a team as mesmerizing as the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The Penguins and Lemieux should serve as examples to emulate for the Philadelphia Flyers and Eric Lindros. The Pens were a disheveled franchise in a town that doted on its football team. And then they brought in, at considerable cost, a touted prodigy and waited, with growing impatience, for days of glory.

Those days finally have arrived. And while he is but 27, Mario Lemieux has a certain tiredness in his eyes. All that has happened has come at terrible cost. Still, his team is going for a third straight Stanley Cup and is steaming along with 17 consecutive victories -- a streak unmatched in NHL history.

It seems a shameful waste of brilliance that an athlete as special as Wayne Gretzky will conclude his career having been missed by so many because his sport is buried in obscurity.

You worry that the same fate will befall Mario Lemieux and that he, too, will leave the stage never having been fully appreciated. Having the two of them playing at the same time is comparable to having Wilt Chamberlain playing at the same time as Michael Jordan.

In a 17-game rampage that finally was arrested on Saturday night, Mario Lemieux scored 28 goals, some of them more ballet than blades, and created 25 assists with passes of elegance and anticipation that suggest extrasensory perception.

Kevin Stevens, who flies on Lemeiux's left wing, has a wonderfully picturesque description of his center's play: "You know how the game looks when you sit high above and watch it? Mario seems like he is watching the game above everyone else."

And so he does.

His game is one of guile and speed, strength and deception, hammer and smoke.

On Friday night, he scored five goals against the New York Rangers, who looked as helpless as turtles flipped on their backs. He might have scored two or three more, but he didn't take his last few shifts.

As it is, he is going to wind up leading the league in scoring again, despite missing 23 games because of cancer. He submitted himself to bombardments of radiation and then returned as if he had been through nothing more than a bout with the flu.

He has a back so bad and so apt to go out that someone else must lace him into his skates. In last spring's playoffs, his thumb was shattered by a slash from a stick. He was back for the next series.

And now he has taken on cancer and not broken stride.

To think, there once was a time when Mario Lemieux was regarded as "soft."

It is those critics who have turned out to be soft. In the head.

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