Three Athletes Return Like Comets

A trio of dramatic comebacks within a matter of months brings to mind other successful - even heroic - new beginnings

WITH the Jan. 30 return to pro basketball of Magic Johnson, fans are witnessing three of the most dramatic comebacks in sports history: Magic, Michael, and Mario.

The first two are household names in more households than Spam is, while the third is a household name in virtually every household where Spam would freeze if left outside.

The common thread running through the successful comebacks of Johnson, basketball's Michael Jordan, and Pittsburgh Penguin hockey player Mario Lemieux is that they're among the handful of the best players to ever play their games.

But there are dramatic comebacks, and there are what might be called heroic comebacks. Fireball pitcher Bob Feller and epic hitter Ted Williams took off for four years during World War II. Feller won 26 games and Williams hit .342 in their first full seasons back after wartime duty.

Likewise, quarterback Roger Staubach honored his four-year commitment to the United States Navy after winning the Heisman Trophy at the Naval Academy in 1963. He returned to football and led the Dallas Cowboys to two Super Bowl championships.

Johnson's situation is much more complex. He was diagnosed as having HIV, the virus associated with AIDS, in 1991. He announced his retirement just months after he had led the Los Angeles Lakers in the National Basketball Association Finals against Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls, in which Jordan led his team to the first of three consecutive championships.

While Johnson's admitted prediagnosis promiscuity was certainly not positive, his candor and altruistic efforts to educate others, especially youths, have been as positive as his basketball style - joyous, unselfish, intelligent, and effective.

And while Magic is now 27 pounds heavier and a step or two slower than when he retired in 1991, Magic's new coach, Del Harris, could barely contain his enthusiasm for Magic's play during this week's stop in Denver, where L.A. beat the Nuggets, 99-78.

''Earvin [Magic] does so many things for us: The things that he says, the leadership, the experience, the maturity, the confidence. The guy does everything. He rebounds, he passes, he scores. He does it all,'' Harris says. Against Denver, Johnson had 16 points, nine rebounds, and 12 assists.

When asked to compare Magic's comeback to Jordan's, Harris says, ''Considering that he [Magic] was off longer and is older, he's probably had more early success than Michael did. Michael struggled more for a guy who's four years younger and who'd [been out 18 months]. On the other hand, Magic didn't play any baseball. But you're talking about two great players who have done marvelously well.''

Magic's former and current teammate, center Vlade Divac, was more succinct when asked to compare Magic's comeback to Jordan's. ''Magic is a team player,'' Divac said. ''That's why he is, for me, a better player.''

Magic himself won't be drawn into comparisons, but simply says, ''I'm just lucky that God has blessed me to still be playing and to still be out here.''

Jordan's comeback, which began last March 19, has been awe-inspiring at times. But many, including friend and fellow all-star Charles Barkley of the Phoenix Suns, say Jordan's inconsistency now, compared with his pre-retirement career, means he isn't quite as great as he was.

Still, Jordan's greatness was so overwhelming that an argument can still be made for his being the greatest player in the game today. Others say the mantle has been passed to Houston's Hakeem Olajuwon or Jordan teammate Scottie Pippen.

Jordan left basketball in 1993 under a small cloud. Surely the media and fan scrutiny and adoration were at a level no one in sports had ever experienced before, in part because the mass media becomes more massive every day.

But Greg Maddux, the greatest pitcher in baseball (four consecutive Cy Young awards), chooses quiet and relative anonymity. Jordan chose to be history's most effective pitchman.

Jordan worked well with the media when his aura of infallibility was undiminished. But when word got out that he could be overbearing with teammates and was a high-stakes gambler, the wave Jordan was riding crashed down.

When a few sports columnists irresponsibly linked his father's murder to Jordan's association with gamblers (there has never been any evidence to support such conjecture), the accusation seemed to weigh on Jordan. Not long after, he announced his retirement to a stunned public.

People give many reasons for their retirements, and Jordan gave perhaps the most common one: He wanted to spend more time with his wife and children. But within weeks he announced he would play minor-league baseball - hardly a job that leaves one much time to spend with one's family.

Basketball's greatest player might have been AA baseball's least polished.

WITHIN a year of his return, Jordan is playing basketball at a level few have ever attained. His team, the Chicago Bulls, is 42-5, and many say they could finish the season with the best record in NBA regular-season history. When asked why the team is doing so well, Pippen answers with two words: ''Michael Jordan.''

But there seems to be a slight edge to Pippen's voice. Everyone knows that Jordan, Pippen, and Dennis Rodman form a triumvirate of other-worldly athletes who rebound (especially Rodman) and play defense with more quickness, energy, and intelligence than anyone in their height range. (Jordan is 6 ft., 6 in.; Pippen 6 ft., 7 in.; and Rodman 6 ft., 8 in.)

To satisfactorily complete their comebacks, Jordan and Johnson may have to lead their teams back to championships the way quarterback Joe Montana did. Montana guided the San Francisco 49ers to more Super Bowl glory after having to sit out nearly a year with a physical problem so serious that some doctors recommended that he retire.

Mario Lemieux also has had to surmount major physical hurdles and has missed 38 or more games in three National Hockey League seasons. Last season, the thought of Lemieux's playing was so distant that his comeback this season is astonishing to most.

Mark Crawford, coach of the Colorado Avalanche, says Lemieux's comeback is ''far and away the most dramatic story in hockey. Lemieux is definitely the best guy on the ice this year.''

Today, it's almost as if Johnson, Jordan, and Lemieux had never left.

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