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He Never Discovered How to Handle Stars

Eddie Johnston, former general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins, has defended Mario Lemieux in his war of words with Gene Ubriaco.

Ubriaco, fired Dec. 5 as coach of the Penguins, told the Harrisburg (Pa.) Patriot-News that trying to coach Lemieux was “like trying to teach a shark table manners” and “in the end, guys like Mario and Paul (Coffey) were awfully greedy.”

Johnston, now general manager of the Hartford Whalers, said: “I don’t like to hear Ubriaco put the blame on Mario. I’ve been with Mario for seven years, and he’s never been a problem. I don’t understand Ubriaco claiming that Mario and Coffey were the ones responsible for getting him out of there.”

Add Penguins: Lemieux on Ubriaco: “He spent 15 years in the minors when he was playing and coaching. That’s where he belongs.”

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Trivia time: On Dec. 20, 1981, who tied an NHL record by scoring a goal after only five seconds of play?

Enough is enough: Rookie cornerback Deion Sanders of the Atlanta Falcons has made more waves than great plays since returning a punt for a touchdown against the Rams in Game 1.

Said his mother, who insists that Sanders was quiet and sensitive as a youngster: “He got into gold jewelry and sunglasses and sweat suits, like drug dealers do. I told him, ‘Deion, I can’t stand all that gold. And you talk too much. All that Prime Time stuff. You can cool it now. You’ve already sold yourself.’ ”

Add egos: Record-setting jockey Kent Desormeaux, 19, on the other hand, has a reputation for being humble. His agent, Gene Short, said: “I’ve drilled it into his head. People like to see humbleness. ‘Don’t compliment yourself,’ I tell him, ‘let somebody else do it. Don’t ring your own bell--the tune’ll be a little flat.’ ”

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Relighting the torch: Jan Volk, general manager of the Boston Celtics, on the return of Larry Bird: “The biggest part of Larry’s leadership role in the past has been to lead by example. And he’s not there, yet. The effort is there and there is a fine line between very good and great. He has to get back over that line.”

Add Celtics: A sign that team’s dynasty might be crumbling came last week when they went head-to-head against the NHL Bruins on Boston television. The Bruins won by 2 1/2 ratings points.

Over a pork barrel: The first Indy-car race to be held in Australia won’t be.

A race scheduled near Brisbane was supposed to open the 1991 CART championship season. The Queensland state government had allocated $16 million to put on the event.

But that government has been voted out of office. Bob Gibbs, new state minister of tourism and sports, said Sunday that the government “was not in the business of wasting $20 million of taxpayers’ money.”

A true wheezer: The heavyweight fight in Atlantic City, N.J., Jan. 15 between Gerry Cooney and George Foreman has become known as “the Geezers at Caesars.”

Trivia answer: Winnipeg’s Doug Smail, as the Jets beat the St. Louis Blues, 5-4.

Quotebook: Houston cornerback Chris Dishman, on the Oilers’ 61-7 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals Sunday: “I don’t know what their message was, but they got it across.”

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