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Tuesday, October 2, 2001
Jordan watched Lemieux's comeback very closely

Associated Press

PITTSBURGH -- Michael Jordan surprised millions by his comeback at age 38. He didn't surprise Mario Lemieux.

Not long after Lemieux made his own comeback last season that, to hockey, was just as unexpected and as riveting as Jordan's is to basketball, he and Jordan talked several times at length.

Jordan called not only to congratulate Lemieux, but to ask how much time and preparation Lemieux needed before returning to be nearly the same player he had been before retiring in 1997.

"Seeing me come back and the excitement, and me doing pretty well right off the bat, gave him the confidence to start training and now he's back," Lemieux said Tuesday. "I'm sure he's ready to go and will be one of the best, if not the best again."

Lemieux, the Pittsburgh Penguins' owner-player, has been saying the same thing for months, dropping hints Jordan would return even when many were skeptical about rumors of Jordan's pending comeback.

In March, only days following published reports Jordan might play again, Lemieux said the two had talked and, "When he comes back, he's going to be the best in the game."

About a month later, long before Jordan made his comeback official, Lemieux said, "He's going to give it a shot and he's working very hard. He's taking his time, he's taking a few months to get ready, but I'm sure when he gets back, he'll be the best player again."

Lemieux and Jordan played golf several times this summer, with Jordan appearing in Lemieux's annual charity tournament.

"We don't talk too much about our careers when we get together, we play golf and have a good time, drink some good wine," Lemieux said. "I'm pretty excited to see him back. I left him a message yesterday with him, telling him I'm looking forward to seeing him play live for the first time in my life."

Lemieux doesn't think Jordan's career will be marred if the Washington Wizards don't have a successful season, even though Jordan retired from the Chicago Bulls three years ago after winning three successive NBA titles and six overall.

"No, not at all," Lemieux said. "The reason he's coming back is he loves the game and wants to play and it's not too late for him. With the team he has in Washington, his chances of winning a championship are pretty slim. But he wants to come back and play for a couple of years, and it's his life."

Lemieux, however, doesn't know if he would have returned if the Penguins hadn't been a Stanley Cup contender. The Penguins, who open the new season Wednesday against Colorado, reached the Eastern Conference final last season before losing to New Jersey.

"It would have made it tougher for me," Lemieux said. "But he's got his own reasons for coming back."

Jordan's comeback means Washington has two players often called the best in their sports: Jordan and Jaromir Jagr, who was traded by the Penguins to the Capitals after winning five NHL scoring titles.

Asked who Washington's top athlete is now, Lemieux smiled and, taking the diplomatic approach, said, "I'll stay out of that one."