Mario Lemieux is wearing a hard hat. It’s a late autumn morning, and outside the enormous glass window overlooking Pittsburgh’s East End, the sun is wading lazily in a rolling ocean of red-orange foliage. Lemieux doesn’t give the dramatic scene a second look. Inside, he’s surrounded by possibility — his own curious sandbox. The new Mario Lemieux Center for Blood Cancers at UPMC’s Hillman Cancer Center is still a construction zone. Exposed I-beams hang above Lemieux’s head, electrical wires cover the floor like spilled spaghetti, and the fellow manning a circular saw in the corner of the room is conducting an impromptu fireworks show with sparks and sawdust.
In its own Pittsburgh way, it’s a more beautiful scene than the postcard outside the window. In order to understand why Lemieux is here, at 47, standing in sawdust instead of on a private beach in Tahiti, you need to understand the man in his true element: the golf course. A few years back, he had sunk a hole-in-one on the eighth green at Secession Golf Club in South Carolina. After the revelry died down and the group teed off at the next hole, Lemieux’s close friend Tom Grealish asked where he’d put the ball. Lemieux shrugged and pointed to the fairway. “I just hit it,” he said.
“Anyone else would have run off the eighth green and had the ball framed,” Grealish says. “Mario hit it off the No. 9 tee.”