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Mamba Out?

You'd think after the career Kobe has had, he'd just ride off into the sunset. But really, he's just getting started. Black Mamba may be out of the NBA, but not the spotlight.

By Ramona Shelburne

This story was originally published on April 19, 2016.

Editor's note: This story contains explicit language.

Kobe Bryant wants to talk about what comes after death. It's been 16 hours since he scored 60 points in his final NBA game. His back hurts and his shoulder is sore from 20 years in the league and 50 god damn shots! And he's laughing at me, at anyone, who thought he'd be at peace going out any other way.

"What you saw there was the opening scene of the basketball version of the blood-spattered bride," Bryant says. "The opening scene of 'Kill Bill.'"

He'd been so patient and statesmanlike on his farewell tour all season -- laughing self-deprecatingly at how completely his body had broken at the end -- then repeating it in Spanish or Italian so even more people could try to understand what it felt like to be finished.

But come on, did you really think la Mamba Negra, the Black freaking Mamba was going to fade away?

He's been planning his basketball death for years now. Scripting it down to his final words.

Mamba Out.

Of course T-shirts with that phrase were available to buy on his website within minutes of his final speech to the crowd at Staples Center. He saw all of this coming.

Kobe Bryant has been living as a legend for 20 years now. He sure as hell was going to die as one.

Not that he isn't deep into what comes next. For the past few years, he's been saying he wanted to be a storyteller after he finished with basketball but keeping the details sparse and cryptic. He'd allude to conversations he was having with creative types such as J.K. Rowling or J.J. Abrams but never say how deep they went.

"There's an entire mythological universe I've created," he finally reveals. "There are certain rules that make up this world. Within this world, I've built in a lot of room for really talented writers to come in.

"The bulk of it's coming from me. But the writers being phenomenal at what they do are able to really bring my imagination to life."

There's the obvious swipe at the narcissism that's made him at least as famous as his scoring. Of course Kobe has moved into a world of his own making. The only surprise is that he'd pass the vision to a group of writers and trust that they'd execute it better than he could.

"I think Walt did this with animation, as well," he says. Yes, he's referring to Walt Disney. "He quickly realized that, although he could draw pretty well, there are other animators out there that are just much, much better. He went and found those animators and gave them the vision and allowed them to do what they do best. If you collaborate with great people and each one is enhancing the other, that's when we create things that are timeless."

It's disorienting to hear him talk about other worlds so soon after that game. For months he had everyone convinced that he was OK limping out of the limelight. At peace with his ending. Turns out he was living in his own universe the whole time.

The Black Mamba got us, man.

Farewell Tour

IT IS NEARLY 3 a.m. Kobe is feeling restless. Or relentless. Thoughts of a future after basketball compete with the urge to sleep. There are just over six weeks left in the farewell tour -- Kobe is headed to Memphis for his last game against the Grizzlies. Each last game is basically the same. The Lakers get their ass kicked, then Kobe smiles and waves to the adoring crowd as he leaves the court for the final time. That's what the people paid to see. The pope, not a basketball game. Three straight seasons ended by major injuries -- a ruptured Achilles (April 2013), a broken kneecap (December 2013) and a torn rotator cuff (January 2015) -- seemed to have turned him into a wax statue of Kobe that tourists visit and take selfies with, not the Black Mamba.

One summer about six or seven years ago, former teammate and assistant coach Brian Shaw invited Kobe to go fishing in Santa Barbara. Kobe didn't show up, so Shaw later texted him a picture of the sting ray and leopard sharks he'd caught. Kobe asked whether he had killed them. Shaw said it was catch and release but asked why.

Kobe wrote, "Because they got caught."

That Kobe, the asshole who thought those fish who got caught deserved to die solely because they got caught would've needed a morphine drip and a social media gag order to get through a 17-win season. That guy never wanted a farewell tour.

He traded everything -- his friends, his family, his identity, his body, ultimately his humanity -- in pursuit of basketball immortality. His entire career was built upon accepting nothing. After he ruptured his Achilles, he looked Lakers trainer Gary Vitti in the eye and asked whether he could still play. When he tore his right rotator cuff, he just started shooting left-handed. Vitti and Lakers coach Byron Scott had to yank him out of the game. When questioned why he'd do such a thing, he defiantly responded, "Why? God gave us two hands."

Three seasons ago, that Kobe played much of the fourth quarter of a game in Memphis with what turned out to be a broken kneecap. He was just six games back from the ruptured Achilles tendon. Had just started finding his game again, his timing, his Kobe face. You know the one -- bottom teeth bared, nostrils flaring, eyes piercing through you, looking for signs of weakness to attack. Kobe was backing down Grizzlies guard Tony Allen in the post and spun around and his knee buckled. He got up and played the rest of the game, even hit a late 3-pointer to hold off Memphis for the win.

As the Lakers' plane flies toward Memphis for his last game in town, I send a note asking how long ago that game seems.

The reply comes swiftly.

"It feels like a yesterday from another life."

Consecutive seasons ended by major injuries -- a ruptured Achilles (2012-13), a broken kneecap (2013-14) and a torn rotator cuff (2014-15) -- turned him into the wax statue of Kobe that tourists visit and take selfies with, not the Black Mamba. Joe Murphy/Getty Images

The Silent Theater

THE NEXT AFTERNOON, Kobe walks into the restaurant with tired eyes. It's been raining for about an hour. Just a light shower, not the downpour they were expecting. His dark gray tracksuit is enough. He doesn't bother with an umbrella.

Two bodyguards flank him as he enters the front door of the Majestic Grille, a classic spot in downtown Memphis inside an old theater that still shows silent films. The restaurant is empty this time of day, so he shoos his security guards away, directing them to sit out of earshot.

The production crew that has been documenting his final season is back at the hotel. This is the third consecutive year he's had this crew filming his every move. At first, it was around to film the documentary he produced for Showtime, "Kobe Bryant's Muse," which aired in February 2015. This year, Kobe is paying the crew out of his own pocket to document the final throes of his career.

The Lakers and the NBA have given Kobe's crew unprecedented access. Anywhere Kobe is, his crew can go -- the training room, team charters, the crew members could probably follow him into the showers like Ron Artest did after the Lakers lost the 2008 NBA Finals to the Boston Celtics. They film rivals talking at midcourt before games, reporters talking in the hallways afterward. Nothing is sacred. Their boom microphones are omnipresent.

There's an easy joke to be made here. Who else but Kobe would make a sequel to their own documentary?

But he is insistent this is not about narcissism. "I enjoy passing things on. ... If we're not helping the world move forward, what are we doing?"

It's a familiar refrain among dying men. All men, not just the ones who lead extraordinary lives, want to leave a greater mark than a headstone. Ambrose Bierce, that hardest of literary cynics, described this kind of immortality as a "toy that people cry for, and on their knees apply for."

Kobe has been giving advice to everyone during his farewell tour. He'll write messages on shoes to any player with the balls to ask him. After games, he'll invite players to the training room and dole out advice while he's soaking his feet in a bucket of ice water. It took over an hour for him to meet everyone after the Lakers' final game in Phoenix last month. A bunch of baseball players in town for spring training came to see him. Players from the Arizona Cardinals showed up. Then some of the Suns made their way over. In all, Kobe did about 80 meet-and-greets. Guys like Mike Trout and Larry Fitzgerald all waited their turn like little kids in line at the mall to meet Santa Claus.

They want to know how he became the Black Mamba, what sacrifices he made and the toll those take on a man. He writes things like "Be Legendary" on the shoes he passes out and tells young players like Kyrie Irving to create conflict on their team so nobody ever gets comfortable.

"Some people want to take it to the grave with them," Kobe says. "Like Lord of the Rings. The world is filled with a lot of Smeagols [who] can't let go of the damn ring."

I ask whether the attention this year has been validating.

"What is validation, really?" he says. "What does it do for you?"

I say everyone needs validation. It's not weakness, it's human. If I do something I'm proud of and the praise doesn't come, I'm pissed.

"There's a difference between liking it and needing it," he says. "The question is, do you need it?"

"I enjoy passing things on. ... If we're not helping the world move forward, what are we doing?" Kobe says. Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

All of his living mentors --Michael Jordan, Jerry West, Bill Russell, Phil Jackson -- have paid homage to him this year. So I change tacks and ask whether it feels good to know they are proud.

He doesn't budge.

"When I get a phone call from Bill Russell and I talk to Jerry West and we're just kind of shooting the shit, that's awesome because that means that these guys, who were my muses growing up, respect the way that I've carried on their legacy," he says.

"But as a person, I do not need that. That does not complete me as a man or make me feel fulfilled, because I have their approval for what I do."

He used to be close to Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss. They'd meet for lunches at California Pizza Kitchen or this Italian restaurant in Marina Del Rey. Before Buss passed away in 2013, he told Kobe he hoped he'd be a Laker for life.

I ask what it meant to him that Buss chose him over Shaquille O'Neal in 2004.

"Shaq demanded the trade first," he says.

"Right, but he actually traded him. He wouldn't trade you."

"I look at it from a business perspective," he says. "I would have made the same call. If you're going to bet, you got to bet on the horse that you know is obsessive about what they do, day in and day out, and is going to be hell bent on trying to win a championship. If you're going to bet on a horse, you always bet on the one that eats, sleeps and breathes the craft."

Just a few weeks earlier, Kobe and O'Neal were hugging each other at the All-Star Game in Toronto. They've become friendlier in recent years, but Kobe doesn't shy away from stinging him again.

"Of course he chose me," he adds. "That's the right decision to make."

So why are we here now, without cameras or boom microphones or security guards, reliving his story?

Is he here to explain himself?

"I always thought people were too stupid to really understand," he says.

Is he looking for acceptance into the group of luminary athletes such as Michael Jordan and Derek Jeter who have preceded him in retirement?

"I don't do groups," he writes.

Does he want to be understood?

"I don't do things for people to understand me," he says. "I say things to help them understand themselves."

"There's a difference between liking it and needing it," Kobe says when asked about validation. "The question is do you need it?" Stacy Revere/Getty Images

The Same Language

IT'S A STORY that's been told and retold a thousand times: Kobe was the black kid who grew up in Italy and then the Italian kid who moved to Wynnewood -- an affluent suburb of Philly. He was a loner who struggled to belong to any community or to have friends. He didn't know how to be black or white.

It's a clean storyline. Way too clean.

"I had all this anger inside of me that I hadn't really let out," he says about it in Muse. "I'm just going to delay the eruption, and then use it to my benefit and do what I loved to do, which is play the game. Once I discovered that, everything about the game changed. No matter what, I understood that I could lose myself in the game."

Kobe has friends. He just always chooses basketball over them.

In January, Kobe Inc. trademarked the phrase "Friends Hang Sometimes, Banners Hang Forever."

He worked on that phrase for a long time. It's his life, his legend, shouldn't he be the one profiting off of it?

"If somebody's not obsessed with what they do," he says. "We don't speak the same language."

His friends are more like kindred spirits, hence the #differentanimalsamebeast he tweets to people he thinks share his ruthless dedication to greatness. Last fall when I was covering Ronda Rousey in Australia, he asked me to get a note of encouragement to her after she lost. They've met once or twice but don't know each other well. His message?

"Get your ass up. Her getting her ass knocked down is going to do more for the culture, more for the human spirit, than her going her entire career undefeated. People need to see how she handles that, how she deals with that."

It's not easy to get past his slogans. "I've studied advertising for years," he says. If he'd gone to college, that's what he would have majored in. Instead, he says, "I wrote 90 percent of my own commercials."

When real life doesn't fit into pithy tag lines or 90-second commercials, Kobe shuts it out. He doesn't believe in cognitive dissonance. It's not productive.

For instance, Kobe hasn't spoken to his parents in nearly three years. Not since 2013, when they tried to auction off his high school memorabilia without his consent.

"Our relationship is shit," he says. "I say [to them], 'I'm going to buy you a very nice home, and the response is 'That's not good enough'?" he says. "Then you're selling my shit?"

His parents issued a statement after lawyers worked out a settlement allowing them to auction six items of memorabilia totaling $500,000, "We regret our actions and statements related to the Kobe Bryant auction memorabilia," the statement from Joe and Pamela Bryant read. "We apologize for any misunderstanding and unintended pain we may have caused our son and appreciate the financial support that he has provided to us over the years."

Kobe says his sisters, Sharia and Shaya, have learned to accept that Kobe has removed money from his relationships with them. "They're very smart, college-educated [women]," Kobe says. "I'm really proud of them. They were able to get their own jobs, get their own lives, take care of themselves. Now they have a better sense of self, of who they are as people, instead of being resentful because they were relying on me.

"It was tough for me to do," he says. There's pain in his voice, not anger. "But it's something you have to do, something you have to be very strong about."

Growing up, Kobe followed his father, Joe "Jellybean" Bryant, everywhere. He'd sleep with his basketball clothes on so Joe couldn't say no when he'd ask to go to practice with him. But as Kobe grew older, and learned of the disappointments of his father's NBA career, it was harder to relate. Joe was a 6-foot-9 forward with the skill set of a guard. That would be en vogue in today's NBA, but in the Eastern Conference of the late 1970s, he was miscast as a defensive specialist. According to Joe, his whole career would've been different if he'd been in a different system and able to play on the perimeter like Magic Johnson.

"When I hear those things," Kobe says. "I don't really understand them."

Why should the whims of fate -- which system he played in -- determine the success of a man's career? How could his father accept that? There is always a way to bend things the way you want them.

For the first few years of his NBA career, Kobe empowered his parents to make decisions and guide his career. Joe wanted his son to play in Los Angeles because of all the marketing opportunities. Then they moved out to L.A. to live with him. Byron Scott remembers Pam picking Kobe up at the airport after road trips.

In hindsight, the breakup seems inevitable. In Kobe's mind, he would never accept disappointment on the court like his father did. He couldn't. Not if he wanted to be a legend.

Remember those four air balls Kobe shot in a playoff game against the Utah Jazz at the end of his rookie season in 1997?

As soon as the Lakers' plane landed back in Los Angeles, Kobe went to the gym at a high school near his house in Pacific Palisades and shot jump shots through the night and into the next day. He wasn't beating himself up for missing those shots. He was working on getting stronger. He'd missed those shots because his legs were too scrawny, not because he lacked nerve. "I was like, 'Who do you think you're talking about here?'" said Del Harris, who coached the Lakers that season. "Confidence was never a problem for him."

That summer, director Spike Lee offered Kobe the role of Jesus Shuttlesworth in the movie "He Got Game." The role was perfect -- top high school basketball player must choose between getting his estranged father's prison sentence reduced by playing college ball at the governor's alma mater or going to the school of his choice. Just like Shuttlesworth, Kobe made his own decision. He passed on the role so he could spend his summer in the gym. Lee cast Ray Allen instead.

"We were kids," said his high school friend, Kevin Sanchez. "We still listened to our parents back then."

In 2000, Kobe released a corny rap song -- "K.O.B.E.," featuring Tyra Banks -- that absolutely bombed. He was dropped from his record label soon after. Only embarrassing YouTube videos of Kobe performing at All-Star Weekend in a leopard print hat and leather suit remain of his rap career. Kobe rarely speaks of this time in his life anymore. In Muse, he laughed about the awful song. The only reason it was included in the film is because he met his future wife, then 17-year-old Vanessa Laine, on the set of a neighboring music video shoot.

"There's an entire mythological universe I've created." Kobe Bryant

"I was like super shocked when he came out with that K.O.B.E song," Sanchez said. "That really wasn't him."

Sanchez was one of the best rappers in Philadelphia back in the 1990s. He'd hang with Kobe at lunch, after school, working with him on his rhymes. They'd find battles on South Street, in the Gallery (an underground mall), at Temple University or in this barbershop on N. 54th and Wynnefield Avenue. Kobe's rap name was "The Eighth Man."

"I was a battle MC. I hunted every top MC in the city and battled them," Sanchez said. "He'd come with me and watch me just destroy everyone."

After high school, they started a rap group called Cheizaw, signed a record deal with Sony and spoke on the phone almost every day. "We'd freestyle for hours. He could beatbox," Sanchez said. "I remember when he blocked [Michael] Jordan's shot. He was going crazy. He called up and was like, 'I need to be charged up. I need to freestyle for like 45 minutes."

Sanchez never made it to Los Angeles with the rest of Cheizaw, though. He was arrested and convicted of armed robbery. The conviction was later overturned, but then that decision was reversed by a higher court. Sanchez served five years.

Sanchez said he's thankful Kobe supported him by paying for his lawyer and paying for another friend to travel to Philadelphia to testify in court as a character witness. And that he doesn't hold it against him, that Kobe did not testify on Sanchez's behalf.

One, the people managing his career didn't want him besmirching his appeal. This was 1998. Back when athletes didn't make political statements or say anything that might offend the silent majority. They didn't talk about things like race or class or violence or crime. If you wanted to be a crossover star, you needed to leave Philly behind.

And two, the NBA and its corporate sponsors were growing increasingly uncomfortable with anything resembling the inner city, including players. They cringed at Allen Iverson's cornrows and rap sheet. By 2005, the league would enact a dress code that banned clothes associated with hip-hop culture.

So no, it was not a good look for the league's youngest superstar, the heir apparent to Michael Jordan as a player and as a corporate shill, to be showing up in a Philadelphia courthouse to vouch for his high school rapper friend who'd been accused of armed robbery.

A few years ago, Sanchez saw Kobe when Lower Merion renamed its high school gym after him. Sanchez didn't have tickets, so he waited outside. When Kobe walked out of the gym, he caught Sanchez's eye and called out to him, "Hey, Sand."

"I talked to him for a brief second," Sanchez said. "He had his security guard there. Then a bunch of fans came over. ...I didn't get mad. I know how busy he is. Another one of our friends saw him for like 20 minutes at 4 in the morning. That's the only opening he had."

"I think basketball just took over him," Sanchez said. "I don't even think he can be close with people when he's so into basketball."

The more attachments Kobe shed, the more powerful he became. The Lakers won three straight titles from 2000 to 2002. Kobe became their closer -- O'Neal never could shoot free throws -- and together they became one of the greatest one-two punches in the history of the NBA. The championships ahead of them seemed endless -- if they stayed together.

"'You may lose your family, your freedom, but I'll be damned if I lose basketball,'" Kobe says he told himself. "'Because this shit I can control.'" Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

The Bottom of the Ocean


The case was so atomic that most people who know anything about Kobe Bryant instantly recognize the reference to the 2003 sexual assault allegation made against him by a woman who worked at a hotel in Edwards, Colorado. Bryant was arrested. The case never went to trial as the woman declined to testify, and the charges were later dropped. For many people, Colorado remains a troubling section of his life story that never digests.

Kobe settled a civil suit for an undisclosed sum in which he apologized but did not admit guilt. Neither party may discuss details of the case.

The world shunned him. All but one of Kobe's sponsors dropped him. He'd alienated his teammates when it was revealed that he had told police details of O'Neal's extramarital affairs.

He kept playing basketball, though. The Lakers helped pay for planes for him to fly back and forth from Los Angeles to Colorado for legal proceedings. He'd spend a day in court, fly back to L.A., ride in a van with a recumbent bike in the back of it so he could warm up on the drive to the game, then average 24 points a night on a team that was favored to win another NBA title.

The waitress at the Majestic Grille asks whether he would like more coffee. It's an opening for him to change the subject or get up from the table. Kobe takes the coffee. And begins to talk about Vanessa.

Kobe had already apologized. He cried and begged her to stay with him a thousand times over. But no amount of money, tears or words is enough to erase the pain of publicly humiliating your wife and the mother of your 6-month old child.

He had hurt her, badly, and she was angry. One day before a game against the Orlando Magic in March, they got into another huge fight.

"She'd taken all my clothes and thrown them into the street," Kobe says. He only had a motorcycle at the time, so he just had to leave his stuff in the street.

"I show up to the arena, and I don't really feel like playing," he says. "I'm just fucking out of it."

The Magic were awful that year, but Tracy McGrady was on that team, and every time he and Kobe played, people liked to debate who was better. In another life, that would've got Kobe going. He'd be raging over the chance to assert his superiority. But his marriage was in shambles. And in the first half, he played like it.

Kobe scores one point in the first half. McGrady has 21. The Magic are beating the Lakers. He's finally at the bottom of the ocean.

"I remember sitting in the locker room at halftime and saying to myself, 'You know what, you may lose everything in life because of the situation that you put yourself in,'" Kobe recalls.

"'You may lose your family, your freedom, but I'll be damned if I lose basketball. Because this shit I can control.'

"Sitting in that locker room, that's where I made the decision, fuck it. I can't control any of that other stuff. But I'm going to take these motherfuckers out."

He scored 24 points in the fourth quarter and locked down McGrady, and the Lakers won in overtime.

"After the game, I go back to the house and pick all my shit up," he says. "I take my motorcycle and go to a motel."

He says he was different after that night. In Muse, he describes the transformation as his personality splitting in two: Kobe -- a flawed human with problems who still had to deal with them. And the Black Mamba -- a serpent, conjured at the bottom of the ocean, who channeled his fear and anger into destruction on the basketball court.

Besides basketball, Vanessa and his daughter [he had only one at the time] were all he had left to hold on to. "Life was no different than basketball," he says. "Once I made that connection, I'll fight for my family all the way to the end."

In his book "The Last Season," Phil Jackson wrote of that game against Orlando, "The first game home after a road trip is always an adjustment, with players torn between their personal and professional responsibilities. They must meet the needs of a wife or a child, who have been waiting anxiously for their return."

Read that again.

Now think of what Kobe's family was doing. His wife wasn't waiting anxiously for his return. She was kicking him out and throwing his stuff in the street.

McGrady had been close to Kobe since they first came into the league. He'd even lived with Kobe and his parents for a week before his rookie season.

Did he notice anything different about Kobe that night?

"He wasn't as aggressive in the first half," McGrady says. "That I remember."

I tell him the story of what really happened before the game. McGrady is stunned.

"It was that game?" McGrady says. "Oh, man.

"Listen, I knew this cat was insane. He fucking went through that trial and was coming back and forth and was still fucking going nuts. That right there, I knew he was obsessed with basketball, like this was his fucking life."

The Joker is Laughing

AFTER THE SEASON ENDED, Jackson wrote that Kobe was "un-coachable" and revealed that he'd urged Lakers management to trade him.

But not only did Jackson coach Kobe again but they won two more championships together.

I ask how he got over being called "un-coachable."

"I didn't," Kobe says.

"Wait, you didn't get over it, or you never had a conversation?"

"Why should I have dealt with him?" he says, as if he can't believe I still don't get it.

"I think that's the part that really drove him crazy. I just said, 'Phil, listen. You don't have to play that shit with me. I understand what you're doing. But I don't need that,'" Kobe says.

"He kept pushing buttons. He kept getting frustrated. More and more frustrated."

There's no smirk as he says this. "Do you think he was trying to control you?"

"Yeah," Kobe says. "Because that's his job as a coach. To try and manage a team."

He's left an opening. "So what you're saying is that nobody can control you."

"Well, no," he says. "Thinking about it now. Yes, I am un-coachable, because you don't have to manage me."

He says he has a "beautiful" relationship with Jackson now. He has learned from the Zen Master's emphasis on staying in the moment. This year, he says, he took Jackson's advice in how to approach his farewell tour. Break it up into sections, Jackson told him. Appreciate each emotion for what it is, without making it bigger than the current moment.

He still doesn't think Jackson ever needed to push his buttons like he did, though.

"I don't play for the fame," Kobe says. "I don't play for the approvals. There is nothing you need to say to me. Just tell me what you need me to do. My love is already here for the game."

He searches for a metaphor to explain it further. There's a scene in "The Dark Knight" when Batman is threatening the Joker, he says. This is the role that Heath Ledger posthumously won an Academy Award for but that many point to as the beginning of his personal descent. A documentary later revealed that the troubled actor spent a month in a hotel room preparing for the role of the madman by staring at the walls and laughing. Ledger was so Method, he created a diary filled with stills from "A Clockwork Orange" and photos of cackling hyenas. He wrote "CHAOS" in capital letters and highlighted in green. Anytime he needed to get into character, he'd flip through the diary.

"The Joker is laughing," Kobe says, "because there's nothing you can threaten him with."

Rick Fox tried to reach Kobe once. It was 2004 still. Once again, Kobe was wantonly playing outside the team's triangle offense and it was affecting the rest of the team.

"I was like, 'How about we just try it a different way? Just try.'" Fox said. Kobe looked at him and asked why he should do anything differently when his way had gotten him to where he was.

"Then I started running his résumé through my head," Fox said. "This was after we'd won a few championships and he'd elevated himself to the top player in the league. And I'm like, 'Who am I to say your way isn't the better way?'

"At a certain point, we just needed to get out of the way."

Fox eventually did. After O'Neal was traded to Miami and Jackson's contract wasn't extended, Fox wasn't sure he could deal with the Black Mamba unchained. He already had a bad foot injury and a neck problem. So he told the Lakers he was going to retire with one year left on his contract. The team tried to change his mind. He wouldn't, and so they traded him to Boston. He never played another game.

"I knew [he] was going to be hard-core all the time," Fox said. "I thought I would reinjure myself and be walking with a cane the rest of my life. ... I just couldn't do it."

The Moonlight Sonata

AT 2:58 A.M. on Jan. 22, 2013, Kobe Bryant tweeted a photo of himself playing piano at the Lakers' team hotel in Chicago. He wore a scarf, a hat and a thick winter coat. The caption reads "Beethovens Moonlight Sonata calms me down when I reach my breaking point #relaxandfocus

The Lakers had just lost to the Bulls and fallen to 17-24 in a season when they'd expected to contend for a championship after trades for Dwight Howard and Steve Nash.

At 5:27 a.m., he tweeted a photo of himself in a weight room with the caption, "see me in a fight with a bear. Pray for the bear" from The piano to the weight room #determined #psycho

It was a very conscious choice. Someone else had to take those photos of him. Then he had to post them. Then he checked his mentions and responded to them.

And when did he learn to play the piano?

"I wanted to play something nice for Vanessa," he says. They'd been fighting again. Vanessa filed divorce papers in 2011. Kobe was desperate to hold on to her. He wanted a grand gesture.

"Sitting down and taking lessons would be too easy," he says. "So I taught myself by ear."

It was harder than he thought. His fingers have been broken and jammed so many times over the years that they don't really bend anymore.

"If somebody's not obsessed with what they do, we don't speak the same language." Kobe Bryant

But he had to show her. He had to hold on to her. They had a family together, and he would fight for it as hard as he did the last time.

Taking lessons wasn't enough. Anybody can do that. Kobe had to be exceptional. So he'd put headphones on, listen to "Moonlight Sonata" on loop, and try to figure out the music on the keyboard in front of him.

"If you just sit down and say, 'I'm going to learn this thing until I do,'" he says, "there's not really much out there that you can't figure out eventually."

Stories about Kobe's supernatural work ethic and pain tolerance are told like legends. Clippers forward Blake Griffin heard Kobe went on a 40-mile bike ride through the desert on the night before Team USA camp began in 2012. About a year later, Griffin asked if I could find out whether it was true.

Kobe wrote back plainly, "Yea." I ask where they went and he says mysteriously, "the canyons." Why such a long bike ride? Why at night? The story gets better the less he says. "That's why I can run all day."

Griffin eats the story up. He wants to go with him next time. He loves the process, the passion, the mystery.

There are hundreds of these stories, and they are better than any tweet.

Lakers president and co-owner Jeanie Buss tells people how she would show up for work at 8 a.m. and see one car in the parking lot. "It's like, 'Who is here? Oh. I know who is here," she said. Shaw would show up at Staples Center around 3 p.m. on a game day and find Bryant on the court, already in full lather practicing the impossible shots he'd later be hailed for making or criticized for forcing up. He didn't just close his eyes and count on the fates to make him a hero. He practiced exceptional feats. "People don't realize," Shaw said. "He actually practiced those crazy shots."

Taking lessons would be easier, yes. They'd also be a way of learning to read sheet music so he could play other songs besides "Moonlight Sonata." But Kobe had to teach himself how to play to prove his love to Vanessa and reinforce his own sense of exceptionalism.

"That's the song I wanted to learn," he says. "There's so much beauty and agony. If you watch Muse, we use the chords from 'Moonlight Sonata.'"

After about a year's separation, Vanessa took him back again.

"Same chords."

"I do think about how we could have won more championships together -- all the time," Shaquille O'Neal says of Kobe Bryant. "I think about that one we lost to Detroit [in 2004]. That would have been awesome." Paul Morse/Los Angeles Times

The New Team

IT'S 2013, about three months after he'd ruptured his Achilles. The healing process had been going well. If he'd waited even a day to process the devastation, inflammation would've set in, his recovery would've been nine months instead of seven. Instead, he told the surgeons to cut into him while the tendon was still dangling and raw.

But deep inside he knew this was the injury that signaled the end of his basketball career.

"I'm laying in bed, with my cast on," he says. "And I'm like, 'OK, you got to figure out what you're going to do next because I'll be damned if I retire without a purpose. That's not going to happen to me.'"

For all his unyielding belief in his own exceptionalism, Kobe looked at his broken-down body as if it was time to harvest the organs.

The summer before, he had reached out to a filmmaker named Gotham Chopra and asked whether he'd be interested in working with him on a documentary for Showtime.

"His assistant calls and invites me to breakfast down in Newport Beach on Aug. 22," Chopra said. "And I'm like, 'Shit, that's my wife's birthday. I can't.' She's like, 'No problem. He can meet you tomorrow night for dinner if you're free. And, by the way, it's his birthday.'"

It wasn't ideal for a first meeting to take place at a birthday party. But you don't turn down an opportunity like this. So Chopra shows up to the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood early, hoping to get more than a few minutes with Kobe before the party gets going. But when he gets to the hotel restaurant, there's no party. There's just a small table in the back for the two of them.

"It's just like me and him having dinner on his birthday," Chopra said. "I'm like, 'We didn't have to do this on your birthday.'" Kobe shrugged and said he's just not that into celebrating it.

They ended up talking for hours. First about Michael Jackson, one of Kobe's closest mentors, whom Chopra's father, Deepak, had been a spiritual adviser to. Then about Chopra's love for the Boston Celtics. The connection was instant.

Chopra and his crew set up an office closer to Kobe's house in Newport Beach, California. Kobe invited them to film everything. Family time, doctors' appointments, hours and hours of mind-numbing rehabilitation sessions.

If the cameras weren't following him, he would have been alone as he stared into the abyss of his basketball mortality. Instead, as he says in the trailer for Muse, "it became therapy on film."

He'd show up at the office as early as he used to show up at the gym to get shots up before practice. They'd talk craft well into the night.

"Like someone would say we should do the beginning like the beginning of 'Black Swan,'" Chopra said. "And the next morning, not only would he have watched 'Black Swan' but, like, every Darren Aronofsky movie. He'd be quoting from his student films."

Kobe would get off on beating Chopra to the office in the mornings. He was touched when one of the young editors on the crew volunteered to work through Thanksgiving rather than go home to see his family. Kobe admired the commitment and saluted it with a plate of food from his own table.

"It's hard to even describe what it was like," Chopra said. "He just has this relentlessness that is both exhilarating and exhausting at the same time. But now I look back and ... I miss that to some extent."

It's not hard to see what was happening. The crew became his new team. The movie became his new life. If he couldn't live like a legend anymore, if his body wouldn't allow it, at least he could start memorializing the life he led.

He became obsessed with the legend of Achilles, the warrior from Greek mythology who chose a short life that would be remembered for eternity over a long life of little consequence.

Chopra said he noticed a real change after Kobe's shoulder injury in 2015. It was his third straight season-ending injury.

"We were sitting in that exam room, and I think Kobe probably still thought he could will himself through anything," Chopra said. "But the doctor was like, 'This is about picking up your children and grandchildren for the rest of your life.' I don't know if he'd ever thought in those terms.

"He'd never thought beyond the next game or that the playoffs were coming."

Vanessa and his daughters were too important to him. If basketball was over for him, he had to think of them now.

He takes them to school every morning. Natalia, 13, loves going to movies and reading. Gianna, 9, is more of an athlete. She wants to run with him and shoot hoops in the yard. And Vanessa, well, "We grew up together. ... And we won each other back."

There's talk of a third child.

"Maybe," he says with a smile. "You know, practice makes permanent."

There was a sadness for a while after that doctor's visit. Kobe would go to the basketball court and shoot baskets with the torn rotator cuff. It was as if he just needed to go through the ritual act of shooting baskets through the night to absolve the final failure of his flesh. He knew season-ending surgery was the only option.

Eventually he let basketball go.

The First Funeral

ANDREW BERNSTEIN HAS BEEN photographing Kobe Bryant's career for the NBA since he was a rookie. The first time they met, Kobe told Bernstein he had all his posters growing up.

"What 17-year-old kid looks at the photo credit on his Magic Johnson poster?" Bernstein said. "Kobe totally had an awareness of what my role was, which was to document his career."

This season, Bernstein's assignment was to document Kobe's basketball death. The last visits through each city, the final words to his former rivals. Bernstein saw everything, and sometimes he really wasn't sure what he was looking at.

For two decades, Kobe Bryant had burned angrily in the night sky. He pissed people off and pushed them towards uncomfortable places. He was uncompromising in his demand for excellence and passion.

At All-Star Games, Kobe would get mad at players who didn't go hard. Remember in 2012 when Dwyane Wade broke Kobe's nose at the All Star Game? That's when they became good friends.

This year was different, though. By the time Kobe got to the All-Star Game in Toronto, when the NBA showed not one but two tribute videos to him before the game, he seemed numb to all the adornment.

"I think I told him at one point, 'It seems like you're just floating above all this whole weekend,'" Bernstein said. "He was like in a meditative state. He was just so different from the guy who wanted to win every freaking All-Star Game.

On the Saturday of All-Star Weekend, Clippers guard Chris Paul, New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony and Heat guard Wade organized a private dinner for Kobe that didn't begin until 2 in the morning.

First came the joke gifts. A cane, compression socks, a subscription to Netflix. Then each man told Kobe how he would remember him.

"I can't remember word for word," Bernstein said. "But the theme of each of their speeches was how, when they first came in the league, their No. 1 goal was to earn his respect."

Video of the dinner and speeches was released to various entertainment websites a few days later, presumably by publicists for the restaurant or the men. It felt cheap and staged, even though the actual motives for the dinner were sincere and friends say Kobe seemed genuinely appreciative of the night.

A few weeks later, I ask Kobe what he remembers about that dinner. There are a bunch of details from that night on the internet. It was called the Gentleman's Supper Club. Carmelo got him a magnum of 1996 Gaja Barbaresco.

Did he allow himself to feel any of the reverence that came at him that night? Was he touched?

The Black Mamba nodded his head before answering the question.

"Best Caesar salad I ever ate."

"Some people want to take it to the grave with them," Kobe says. "Like Lord of the Rings. The world is filled with a lot of Smeagols [who] can't let go of the damn ring." Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

The Last Game

ON THE MORNING AFTER Kobe Bryant died one of the most audacious basketball deaths of all time, he woke up around 7, drank a cup of coffee and went to church.

"It was me, alone," he says. "After 20 years, I think it's important to give thanks."

He had scripted how this morning would go a long time ago. There was no way he was going into whatever comes next without a plan or a purpose.

Church. Workout. Office. Disneyland. In that order. That's what he was going to do.

His wife and two daughters stayed up with him as long as they could, eating pizza and trying to unwind from an epic final night nobody was entirely sure yet was real.

After 20 seasons, he was entitled to sleep in. Instead he set his alarm clock, determined to follow the script he had written.

"I'm kind of still in shock," Kobe says from his living room in Newport Beach.

Sixty points?! On 50 shots?!

"It was like I was forced to," Kobe says. "By the crowd and mostly by teammates."

What was more ridiculous? That his 60 points was twice as many as any Hall of Famer has scored in his last regular-season game. That, at age 37, he was five years older than anyone else who has scored 60 points? That no one has taken 50 shots in an NBA game in 49 years?

Or that his teammates didn't want him to pass?

"I challenged him to score 50 points and that motherfucker got 60," O'Neal said as he stood on the court long after Kobe had left it, trying to process his final brazen act.

"It would have taken me four months to get 50 shots on any of the teams I played for," Horace Grant said. "And that motherfucker took 50 in one night."

Kobe had hugged all of them before he walked off the court. All these men he'd won championships with, pissed off, challenged, alienated and dominated in his 20-year NBA career. They all showed up to bear witness to his final game, hoping he'd somehow find a way to die on the court as defiantly as he had lived.

He said he felt emotional as he put his jersey on for the last time. He looked unbalanced by it as he missed his first five shots. He is human, of course. He just doesn't accept it.

All week I'd been asking him whether he was getting nostalgic for his final game. He wouldn't crack.

Before the game, a friend told him he should at least pretend to cry.

But Lamar Odom expected nothing less.

"That motherfucker is cold-blooded."


Illustration by David Despau

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Tom Brady’s Not Done Yet

The Patriots quarterback would like to find a way to keep his privileged kids grounded. Another championship wouldn't hurt, either.

By Seth Wickersham

This story was originally published on April 15, 2013.

A note from the writer: On the surface, everything has changed since this story. At the time, Brady hadn't won a Super Bowl in eight years, and he was trying to reignite the magic of his youth. He had lived in the public eye without any accusations against his integrity. But in the four years since this piece was published, it's amazing to consider how little of Brady's essence has changed -- and how it helps you reconcile all that has happened since. The line that holds up now and will forever is this: "Brady's genius lies in his striving." It explains how a sixth rounder won three Super Bowls at the time of that story, and it explains how he's won two since. And it explains why he's not done.

Tom Brady doesn't have a Tom Brady Room in his Back Bay apartment. It's more of a Tom Brady Passage, wider than a hallway but thinner than a room, an "awkward space," he says as he enters it on a March morning. The shelves are packed with photos and trophies, mementos and tokens, all surrounding a flat-screen TV, and when you first walk in, you think, That's it? Brady could easily fill a room many times this size.

But there's a purpose in here, as subtle as its modesty, and to understand it, you have to understand this about Brady: When he wants something to be a reflection of himself, he labors over it. For instance, in high school, college and even in the NFL, Brady always washed his own car. Nobody could do it better. Nobody sweated every detail the way he did. And now, because he no longer washes his car -- "My wife would kill me for wasting water," he says -- spaces like this represent a part of him. In fact, Brady seems to have designed this passage for those who spend the most time in it, hoping they'll someday understand and appreciate everything that occurred in between the Michigan helmet on one side and the Patriots helmet on the other.

"The kids," he says.

BRADY HAS had a throwing coach since he was 15. For most of his life, that coach was Tom Martinez, whose picture hangs in the passage in Brady's apartment, a sketched portrait of a smiling older man with heavy eyebrows, dark eyes and a weathered face. Martinez was the coach at the College of San Mateo in California, and Brady first attended Martinez's football camp the summer before his freshman year of high school at local Serra High. Brady's father, Tom Sr., often tells a story about how Martinez coached Brady by empowering him. Brady was so anxious the night before his first start as a sophomore that he told his dad, "I forgot how to throw." They visited Martinez, who walked Brady to the field and said, "Just throw." And that's what Brady did, for three straight minutes. No magic, no whispering, just throwing until doubt seeped away. "A couple moments of reassurance," Tom Sr. says.

Two decades later, of course, Brady is a future Hall of Famer and entering the final act of his career. He says that his "first 13 years prepared me mentally and physically for my last seven." He has won and lost Super Bowls. He has been loved and reviled; he has won MVP awards and has watched -- after his knee injury in 2008 -- football move on without him. Most of all, he has kept it together. He has never self-destructed or posed for a mug shot or twisted himself in lies. Brady is a study in discipline and consistency -- he plays and wins -- in the face of the most extreme professional and personal life expansion of any athlete of his era. If the first stage of his career was defined by miracles and the second stage was somewhat diminished by them, in the third stage he's trying to summon magic again.

And so in February, Brady stood in the gym in his house in the Los Angeles hills with his new throwing coach, Tom House, the former major league pitcher whom Brady hired last year after Martinez died of a heart attack. Weeks after losing to the Ravens in the AFC championship game, Brady wanted to try something new. Maybe it would help, maybe it wouldn't. The point was to try. House prepared to put him through a beginner's version of the slice of torture he had designed for pitchers called the Fogel Drill: stepping and shuffling as fast as possible while making simulated throws for 30 seconds. Pitchers who've trained with House do four sets; House wanted Brady to try one. House set his timer, and Brady was off, shuffling and stepping, throwing right and left, and after 30 seconds, the color had drained from his face and he felt as if he might pass ?out. Hunched over, Brady looked at House and said, "How long will it take before I can do what the pitchers do?"

OF COURSE, Brady's kids don't care about helmets. They care only that this space gets as dark as a tunnel -- all the better for movies. But whenever Brady enters, he gravitates toward the pictures. Here he is in Africa, with the ONE campaign. Here he is with the Entourage cast, from his cameo years ago. Here is one with Joe Montana, his football idol, and as he points to it, he casually nods, still in awe, still in disbelief, still impressed, even though he'll be 36 when the season starts and has eclipsed his hero in almost every measure except championships. "Pretty cool," Brady says.

His voice is scratchy. His nose is stuffed. He has one of those parental colds that has lingered for weeks. Brady is a young father -- to sons Jack and Benjamin, ages 5 and 3, and 5-month-old daughter Vivian -- and an aging quarterback. But he says, "I feel like I'm 25," and he looks it too. Few wrinkles or grays. Slimmer, more sculpted than he was a decade ago. But the years show in subtle ways. Brady needs sleep more than he used to. His diet is stricter. He rarely drinks. He used to love to hit the bars after wins. Now he says he wants to go home, see his kids and crash. "You couldn't pay me to go out after a game."

That's right: Brady, once the vessel of quarterback glamour not seen since Joe Namath, is now a homebody. Brady, the consummate teammate, now considers himself "more coach than player." He advises the younger Patriots not to party too hard, and they earnestly nod as they quietly disregard him, the way he once disregarded those who offered him similar advice. At the same time, Brady tries to relate to them. Brady asked the teenage son of a buddy what music he likes so he'd know what the rookies would be listening to. "Gucci Mane? ASAP Rocky -- something like that?" Brady says. "I gotta download some music."

He's not much hipper at home. "You've Got a Friend in Me" from Toy Story is constantly stuck in his head. If he happens to zone out while thinking about football or pecking on his BlackBerry, his wife snaps him back to reality: "Is this a Tommy day or a family day?" He can't get a kiss from his kids unless he asks. When they say no, Brady replies, "No kisses for Daddy." Voilą -- he'll get a kiss. "Reverse psychology," he likes to say.

But if he's late returning calls because he's playing with his kids, he doesn't care. If he misses a night out with the guys to watch Toy Story -- again -- that's okay. Two challenges constantly circle in his head, both beyond his control: how to win another Super Bowl and how to raise balanced kids in an unbalanced celebrity world. When Brady remembers playing with other neighborhood kids in the street, he considers that his children will be raised in a gated house in the Los Angeles hills. Brady grew up overlooked; his kids are photographed even when Brady's parents take them to the playground. Brady grew up roaming the Candlestick Park bleachers; his kids sit in a luxury suite. Brady is neither whining nor seeking pity when he says, "How do you get your kids to understand that this is not the way the rest of the world is?"

When the Patriots drafted Brady in 2000, they envisioned a useful backup with upside. They got the upside, all right. Jessica Rinaldi/REUTERS

THE TOM BRADY Passage, really, is a shrine to toppling things he can't control. And what Brady doesn't point out is as revealing as what he does. For instance, he breezes right by two mirrored and angular items: his Super Bowl MVP trophies. He easily could have won a third, maybe even a fourth or fifth, if the ball had bounced differently. "Could we win the Super Bowl every year?" Brady asks. "Of course -- and that's the goal. But the reality is based on injuries and different margins for error. In certain games, you have to be perfect, and if you're less than perfect, you're gonna get beat."

Brady has always amassed responsibility not only as a means of control but as a path to perfection. He wields as much power at the line of scrimmage as any quarterback ever. He often blames himself for dropped passes -- for throwing the ball to an unreliable target. He has restructured his contract when asked. He has been one of the most leaned-upon athletes of his generation, and the results have been brilliant -- 11 division titles, seven AFC championship games, three Super Bowl wins, two Super Bowl MVPs, two winning streaks of at least 18 games and numerous records. Yet his increased mastery of his craft has not yielded the same results as his early years did. In fact, it has yielded moments -- the slight misfire to Wes Welker that likely would have iced the Super Bowl two seasons ago or the costly botched clock management against the Ravens -- from which "I've learned that it's hard to close it out," he says. "In 2001 it was miraculous for us to win. In 2007 it was miraculous for the Giants to win. But no one remembers that. They remember who got the trophy."

What was hard then is harder now. It's strange to see Brady -- a fierce bottom-liner -- say that it's "nice to always be in the hunt," that "if you keep knocking on the door, you're going to win it." Painful losses have hardened a cocky guy who once privately predicted midway through the 2003 season that the Patriots wouldn't lose again. It's a game of odds, luck plays a role and he wasn't always perfect during the Patriots' championship run. He can control only his own play, yet as a quarterback: "You're the one out there. What happens reflects on you."

Once, receiver Donte' Stallworth didn't run hard on a route and Brady's pass was intercepted. On the sideline, Stallworth told Brady, "My bad." Brady didn't reply. He just looked Stallworth in the eye. And stared. And stared. And stared, until Stallworth felt worse than if Brady had yelled at him. Then Brady turned to look at the ground. "He's not an a -- hole," Stallworth says now. "But he's a perfectionist."

THE TOM BRADY Passage has a Tom Brady Book. It's large and silver, with the Michigan logo and Brady's name inscribed on the cover. One of Brady's mentors, Brad Canale, made it for him, a scrapbook of his college years, a narrative of slights and growth that Brady thinks about now as a parent rather than as a quarterback. That he made the leap from an "immature" kid, as he says, to a "mature" man is not only at the heart of why he worries about overprotecting his kids but also at the heart of the biggest sports mystery of the past 15 years: How did every scout, coach and GM manage to miss him? Even Brady's parents, when asked over dinner in San Mateo for a moment that, looking back, served as a predictor of his football immortality, draw blanks. "I think he would have been a great baseball player," says his mom, Galynn. "He was a catcher with a wonderful swing."

"I'm not convinced," Tom Sr. says. "He's elusive behind center, but in baseball, he could leg a triple into a single better than anybody."

"He's faster than you think," Galynn says, flashing a mother's defensive glare.

Whatever special sense Brady has used to channel nerves into a Hall of Fame career "didn't come from his mother," Tom Sr. says, "and it didn't come from me." But his dad ?drove him to football camps for colleges that didn't recruit him and prodded his son to go big -- Brady's penchant for going big is as pronounced as his work ethic -- and mail a highlight tape to Michigan. And it was his dad who, when Brady was buried on the Wolverines' depth chart, secretly hoped that his son would transfer to Cal. Brady could start sooner, and father and son could rekindle their Sunday ritual: golf, often at the old par-3 Bay Meadows Racetrack, a course in San Mateo.

But Tom Sr. knew his son would be a better man if he made his own decision. And he realizes now that if Brady had transferred to Cal -- if he'd taken the easy way -- he wouldn't be in the NFL. The father didn't give any advice. What followed, of course, is lore only in retrospect: Brady walked into the office of Greg Harden, the director of athletic counseling at Michigan, and said, "I need help." Brady spent Friday nights before games in Harden's office, learning to control the anger he felt about being a backup, then about splitting time with Drew Henson. He graduated with an unbreakable self-belief. And one day this winter, during a round of golf, Brady told his dad, "I couldn't be where I am now without experiencing those things."

Brady's intensity hasn't ebbed as his personal responsibilities have broadened. Matt Stone/Boston Herald/AP Images

THE PERFECTIONIST remembers the throw when he no longer had to be perfect. Season opener 2007, against the Jets at the Meadowlands. First game with Randy Moss, first pass to Moss. Brady was hit as he released, and he figured he had missed, high and wide. Buried on the ground, Brady listened for the crowd's response. He heard a massive groan. Moss had caught it, by god; he had jumped and snared it, and Brady thought, Holy s -- , that was nice!

So it went in 2007, "a magical season," Brady says, "until the last drive of the Super Bowl." And it was a transformational year. It was the first year that Brady erupted statistically. The year that his pristine reputation was briefly tainted, first by a public breakup, then by Spygate. The year that he began dating Gisele Bundchen and his personal life became a global obsession. The year he became a father. And the year that he nearly pulled off a perfect season. How Brady held it together has always been a mystery -- how the son who loved his dad so much that he invited him to his 21st birthday party dealt with not being around his firstborn; how a grinder felt about being labeled the chief benefactor of cheating; how in the crucible of unrelenting scrutiny he not only withstood every team's best shot each week but threw 50 touchdown passes and only eight interceptions.

"I wasn't thinking about it," Brady says now.

Instead, he simply used the things that had carried him throughout his life. Though former Patriots center Dan Koppen says that "we just wanted to say f -- you to everyone" about Spygate, Brady just smiled through news conferences, then threw himself into his work. When he wasn't at work, he threw himself into parenthood. Jack had been born in August and was being raised in Los Angeles by his mother, Bridget Moynahan, Brady's former girlfriend. Brady had learned shortly after they broke up that she was pregnant. "I didn't envision myself as a parent who wouldn't be with this son all the time," he says. He often asked coach Bill Belichick for permission to fly to LA after games and return to Massachusetts just in time for their weekly Tuesday meeting.

As Brady's life became more complicated, football became easier. On Friday afternoons, Belichick allowed the first-team offense to face off against the first-team defense. The defenders, recognizing the plays, would usually stop the offense. One Friday, after the defense had won again, Belichick pulled the starters. Brady begged for another chance. Belichick relented. In the huddle, Brady said to Moss, "Go to the end zone. Let's get this s -- t."

Moss ran deep, and Brady hit him for a touchdown. Brady jogged to the defensive backs. The Patriots had an inside joke about celebrating touchdowns in practice in a way that would draw fines during games. Brady raised his arms and pretended to fire bullets.


Then he slashed his neck.


He dropped to his knees and, as his teammates busted up, pretended to lob grenades.


Everyone laughed, but as Brady learned, even perfection fell subject to luck -- no more or less, it turns out, than the Tuck Rule. After the first Super Bowl loss to the Giants, the moment he silently replayed was not David Tyree's catch but rather his first throw of the game -- a screen pass off two fakes. Brady faked a handoff, then a reverse. But as soon as he turned, he had two Giants in his face, and he couldn't see running back Laurence Maroney, wide open with 60 yards in front of him. Brady threw low, incomplete. Maybe, Brady thought, if he had hit that pass, the game wouldn't have come down to a lucky catch. Maybe ...

He didn't sleep that night. Soon after, he was off to see his son.

"HERE'S ME and Mr. Kraft," Brady says, pointing to a picture on a high shelf. The relationship between Brady and the Patriots owner is unique, not only because Brady helped restore Kraft's reputation as much as he did Belichick's. No, what makes their relationship uncommon is how they help each other, like teammates. Kraft does Brady a solid if he needs it, like when he lent Brady his plane in 2007 so Brady could see Jack's birth in LA; Brady restructures his contract to help the team.

Of course, Brady also redid his contract as an exercise in control. He had hoped that Welker would re-sign for 2013, not only because he loves Welker personally -- in his passage, Brady has a picture of the two of them after a workout. Welker "allowed me to do the best I can. If someone's taking away 20 percent of my mental energy each day, I can't be at my best, because I'm worrying about whether they'll show up prepared." But after Welker signed with the Broncos, Brady held one-on-one throwing sessions with his replacement, Danny Amendola, an offseason workout before offseason workouts began, trying to spike variables before an opponent exploits them, one route at a time.

In his apartment, Brady is asked whether he ever experiences doubt. "Not often," he says. "When I came to the Patriots, I hadn't even made the team, and I called my agent and said, 'I'm gonna buy Ty Law's condo.' He's like, 'I think you should make the team first.' I'm like, 'Don't worry about that.'?" Brady has always defined each play in terms of his limits, but he no longer defines himself as a spurned sixth-rounder. He is motivated by the fear of not fulfilling his own expectations. Consider his goals, and not just the overarching one of winning the Super Bowl. Consider the specific goal of limiting his interceptions to fewer than 10, which he has accomplished in three of his past five full seasons. Last year, for the first time in his career, "a skinny, weak kid coming out of college" didn't lose a fumble.

A few months ago, Brady watched Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a documentary about an 85-year-old who loves to cook and wakes up each day trying to improve at doing so. "It smacked me in the face as a reaffirmation," Brady says. "Just be in the moment. What's better than what you're doing? Nothing." He knows, as his dad says, that as soon as Belichick gets "a quarterback who is better for a dollar less, he'll be gone." He won't allow himself to be outworked or overpriced. He won't allow himself to feel doubt. He will always test the limits of what he can control, because it's the only way of controlling what he loves to do.

BRADY GRABS a photo, shot in Brazil, off the shelf. "My wedding," he says. In it, he and his wife are dressed fancy, surrounded by family, and though you expect to see a picture of extravagance, the picture looks real and normal, once you get past the fact that the two happiest faces are on two of the most famous people in America. Brady's marriage did more than give him a partner who is in many ways his reflection: a type A personality at the top of her profession, whose own story -- being spotted at a McDonald's by a talent agent -- is as improbable as his own. No, Brady's marriage launched him into the Jay-Z-Beyonce, Pitt-Jolie "power couple" stratosphere, lopping the uncontrollable specter of celebrity onto the uncontrollable enterprise of fatherhood, ensuring that, as he says, "my parenting will be different than how I was parented."

Brady struggled during the first few years of his career with his overnight fame. Now he can't remember life any other way. He instinctively walks with his head down. Only goes to the movies with his wife on Monday afternoons. Chooses restaurants based on the proximity of their exits. Arrives late to Patriots fan functions because he wants his teammates to be appreciated. He feigns indifference to the soft artillery of camera clicks as he does to a stadium's cheers and boos, the twin soundtracks of his life, but feels claustrophobic in public. "You're your own secret service agent," he says. "So even if no one is paying attention, you're still paying attention to them."

He rebels against that feeling of claustrophobia in small ways. Standing on his roof deck overlooking the Charles River, his favorite space in the apartment, he points to a playground nearby where he takes his kids, paparazzi be damned. "I loved my experience growing up, playing in the street with other kids. But my kids don't have that opportunity because of their mom and dad. I'm going to have to find ways around that."

LET'S FACE IT: Football is pretty random. Parenthood is pretty random. We like to pretend otherwise, but it's true. Brady has never pretended, but damned if he won't strive to conquer them both. Brady's genius lies in his striving -- Lloyd Carr, his coach at Michigan, always said that nobody relished the struggle as much as Brady -- and it allows him to grow not only as a quarterback but also, as his dad says, into "a mature man who can balance all of his responsibilities." He strives even as his responsibilities extend beyond reading the defense, even as he tries to transcend the stereotypes of a celebrity parent and an older quarterback the way he transcended the stereotype of a younger one, no longer playing within his limits but redefining them with each pass and passing year.

But years of coming up just short have worn on Brady, the frustration seeping out like a slow leak. He's more "ornery" than he used to be, more prone to flashing anger on the sideline. He doesn't sleep the night after the season ends. His emails are terse: "Bad day at the office." But when his kids wake up eager to play, regardless of who wins a football game, he forces himself to put on a happy face. "It's impossible," he says, "but I try."

The day after the Patriots lost to the Ravens, Brady received this text from Kurt Warner: Being the best doesn't mean you always win. It just means you win more than anybody else. It touched Brady not because Warner called him the best. No, it meant a lot because in a bottom-line profession someone recognized the virtue in striving, even if it's a consolation prize.

BRADY HAS TO LEAVE. He's headed to Gillette Stadium for the day's workout. He's always on the move, but he tries to bring life with him. Sometimes, Brady will email his parents directions to the hangar of a private plane that will fly them to wherever he is on a given day. As Brady says: "The experiences are different now. It's hard to go back."

One Sunday this winter, Brady's parents were playing golf in San Mateo when they bumped into a friend who was on his weekly game with his son. The ritual was a reminder that the weekly one between Tom Sr. and his son no longer exists. Sadness washed over Tom Sr. Then a different feeling overwhelmed him: pride. His son happened to be in ?Yellowstone, vacationing with his kids. Two weeks later, Brady took his dad golfing in Georgia. They played at all of these exclusive resorts, and Brady loved seeing his old man beam. Then Brady's mind drifted, and he envisioned the joy of playing golf with his kids. He returned to hitting balls, not knowing where they would land.


Illustration by David Despau

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The Secret Life of Tiger Woods

The death of his father set a battle raging inside the world's greatest golfer. How he waged that war -- through an obsession with the Navy SEALs -- is the tale of how Tiger lost his way.

By Wright Thompson

This story was originally published on April 21, 2016.

Ten years ago, Tiger Woods sat in his boyhood home across from his father's body, waiting on the men from the funeral home to arrive and carry Earl away. It was around 3 in the morning. Outside this bedroom in Cypress, California, the mechanism of burial and goodbye sputtered into action, while inside, Tiger and his half sister, Royce, floated in those gauzy first hours after a death, when a loved one isn't there but doesn't quite seem gone either. About an hour earlier, Earl had taken two or three final breaths that sounded different from the ones that came before. Tiger got the call and came straight to Cypress, passing the Navy golf course where he learned to play, turning finally onto Teakwood Street. His dad never sold the house because he liked the easily accessible nostalgia. If Earl wanted, he could go see the Obi-Wan Kenobi poster still hanging on Tiger's closet door, or find an old Nintendo or Lego Star Destroyer. Earl died three steps from his son's old room.

Royce says she sat with her father on the bed, rubbing his back, like she'd done the last few hours as he faded.

"You're waiting for him to wake up?" Tiger asked.

"Yes," Royce said.

"I am too."

Three days later, on May 6, 2006, the family gathered at a private air terminal in Anaheim to take Earl's remains back to Manhattan, Kansas, where he grew up. Tiger's mom, Tida, and his wife, Elin, sat together in the Gulfstream IV, facing each other, according to Royce. Elin did college homework, which she often did during any free moment, in airplanes or even on fishing trips, working toward her degree in psychology. Tiger's half siblings came along; Royce and Earl Jr. sat at a table, and Kevin sat across from them on a couch. There were six passengers total, and Tiger plopped down in his usual seat, in the front left of the plane. He put the urn holding his father's remains directly across from him -- Royce made a joke about "strapping Dad in" -- and when the pilot pushed the throttles forward to lift off, Royce said, Tiger stretched out his legs to hold the urn in place with his feet.

The flight took 2 hours and 20 minutes. His siblings tried to talk about the old days. Kevin retold a favorite about a camping trip with a 10- or 11-year-old Tiger, in a forest of tall trees: While walking to use the bathroom, Tiger had stopped and peered high into the branches.

"What are you looking at?" Kevin had asked him.

"Ewoks," Tiger said.

Sitting in the plane, Tiger didn't say much. He and his siblings landed and drove to the Sunset Cemetery, a mile southwest of K-State's campus, past the zoo and a high school and a cannon dedicated to the memory of dead Union soldiers. Earl, a former Green Beret and Vietnam combat veteran, would have liked that. The graveyard was cool in the shade, the hills rolling from the street toward a gully. Woodpeckers hammered away in the trees. The family gathered around a hole in the ground, between Earl's parents, Miles and Maude Woods. Two cedars and five pines rose into the air. Tiger stayed strong, comforting his mother, and Earl Jr. watched him, impressed. They buried the ashes and left.

After a brief stop at the house where Earl grew up -- strangers owned it, so the Woods family stood in the front yard and told a few stories, and this being rural Kansas, the neighbors didn't interrupt or ask for autographs -- everyone headed back to the airport. Seventy-seven minutes after touching down in Kansas, Tiger took off again for Orange County.

Consider him in that moment, 30 years old, the greatest golfer in the world, winner of 10 major championships and counting, confident that the dreams he and his father conceived on Teakwood Street would eventually all come true. His pilot climbed above the clouds. The return trip took 40 minutes longer, exactly 3 hours, and nobody said much, feeling heavy, processing the idea that they'd left Earl behind in the Kansas dirt. Tiger Woods sat in his usual place, facing forward, the seat across from him empty now.

In the 10 years since his father died, Tiger Woods lost his greatness at golf while becoming obsessed with the military and indulging in a dozen or more affairs -- both reflections of Earl Woods. Photograph by John Huet

ALMOST 10 YEARS later, on the far western end of an island in the Bahamas, Tiger Woods is where he feels most comfortable: hidden behind multiple layers of security and exclusivity, standing with two or three friends in the dark of a marina. It's early December, 28 days before his 40th birthday. His annual tournament begins at a nearby course soon. Both his boats float a few dozen yards away, in two of the first three slips: the 155-foot yacht named Privacy, alongside the smaller, sleeker diving boat he named Solitude. On the main deck of the big boat, there's a basket of sunscreen, a pile of rolled towels and a white orchid. The marina around them couldn't be more private, without a coffee shop or store, not even showing up on the navigational charts in some maritime GPS systems. (Woods' camp declined to comment for this story.)

Docking in a luxury marina is about the only place to catch a random glimpse of Tiger, who moves through the world in a cocoon of his own creation. When he bought his plane, he blocked the tail number from tracking websites: It ends in QS, the standard code for NetJets. Many athletes, by contrast, have some sort of vanity registration, and some even have custom paint jobs; Michael Jordan's plane is detailed in North Carolina blue, and his tail number is N236MJ -- the "6" is for his titles. Jack Nicklaus flies around in N1JN nicknamed Air Bear. Sitting on a tarmac, Tiger's plane looks like it belongs to an anonymous business traveler, nothing giving away its famous owner. He comes and goes quietly.

Tonight the running lights glowing just offshore belong to Steven Spielberg's The Seven Seas. Marina staff members come across a lot of celebrities, and when they gather away from work, they tell stories, about how Johnny Depp is down-to-earth or how Tiger isn't a diva but is just, well, he's just really weird. Once, when his dog left a tennis ball in the harbormaster's office, Tiger called down and asked someone to "secure" the ball until a crew member could retrieve it, and the staff still laugh and roll their eyes about it. They don't know that he often uses military lingo, a small window into how deep he's gotten into that world, words like "secure" and "downrange" and, even in text messages to his friend Michael Jordan, "roger that."

Standing at the southwest corner of the marina, Tiger and his group make plans for later, and then he walks off down the road. There's no entourage or Team Tiger, no agent or handlers or managers, just a middle-aged man alone, coming to terms with himself and his future, which will hold far more quiet marinas in the years ahead than packed fairways. Not long ago, he asked Jordan a simple yet heavy question: How did you know when it was time to walk away?

Tiger hasn't hit a golf ball in about two months. He can't really run; not long ago, he told Time magazine, he fell down in his backyard without a cellphone and had to just lie there until his daughter happened to find him. Tiger sent her to get help. He's had two back operations in the past three months. Yesterday at a news conference, he said for the first time in public that his golf career might be over.

A reporter asked what he did for exercise.

"I walk," he said.


He smiled.

"I walk and I walk some more."

He paused, and asked himself a question. "Where is the light at the end of the tunnel?"

"I don't know. I think pretty much everything beyond this will be gravy."

His friends started hearing these admissions about a month ago. His college roommate Notah Begay texted him around Halloween. Tiger loves Halloween. He's a big kid in many ways. When he lived in Orlando, a former neighbor said, he liked to ride on a skateboard behind a golf cart in the gated country club he called home. He loves the Transformers and comic-book heroes; in the past, he's checked into hotels under the name Logan Howlett, which is Wolverine's human name in X-Men. When he booked his free-diving lessons in Grand Cayman, instructor Kirk Krack recalled, he reserved his spot under the name Eric Cartman. So of course he loves Halloween, and when Notah asked about his costume, Tiger wrote back.

"I'm going as a golfer known as Tiger Woods."

Sitting at a steakhouse in the Bahamas one night, Begay is quiet for a moment. He's here for the Golf Channel, forced years ago by his own bad back to make the same admissions that Tiger is making now: The dreams he dreamed as a boy are ending. They met as children -- Tiger was 9 and Notah was 12 -- playing youth golf in California. They saw each other, perhaps the only nonwhite, nonwealthy people around, and Notah walked up to Tiger and told him, "You'll never be alone again." They've been friends ever since, passing together through each stage of life. A few weeks ago, he and Tiger were hanging out at the house in Jupiter when Woods realized they needed to make a carpool run and get his kids at school. They drove over and parked in line with the other parents, about 30 minutes early, and to kill the time, they laughed and talked about Stanford. "Tiger and I do a lot of looking back," Begay says. "He loves to talk about college."

Tiger told stories about how his daughter likes soccer and is already a prankster, and Begay said how his girl loves gymnastics and drawing, and then they both looked at each other and just started laughing: Can you believe we are sitting in a carpool line? Tiger is facing the reckoning that all young and powerful men face, the end of that youth and power, and a future spent figuring out how those things might be mourned and possibly replaced. This final comeback, if he ever gets healthy, will be his last.

"He knows," Begay says.

THE DECADE SEPARATING the cemetery in Kansas and the marina in the Bahamas has seen Tiger lose many of the things most important to him, and the more time passes, the more it's clear he left some essential part of himself there in the ground between Miles and Maude Woods. How did all he'd built come undone so quickly and so completely? That's the question that will shadow him for the rest of his life. The answer is complicated and layered. He fell victim to many things, some well-known and others deeply private: grief, loneliness, desire, freedom and his fixation with his father's profession, the military. These forces started working in Tiger's life almost as soon as his G-IV landed back in Orange County after he buried his father's ashes. The forces kept working until finally his wife found text messages from Rachel Uchitel on his phone and he ran his Cadillac Escalade into a fire hydrant (that car, incidentally, is owned by a man in rural Arkansas, who bought it used from a local dealer, neither of whom knew its own secret history).

After Thanksgiving in 2009, his life split open in the most public and embarrassing way -- can you imagine having to talk about your sex life in a news conference with your mom in the front row? -- but that car crash wasn't the beginning of his unraveling. In an odd way, it was the end. Everything he's endured these past seven years, including admitting that his golf career might be finished, is a consequence of decisions he made in the three years after he lost Earl. He'd been hurtling toward that fire hydrant for a long time. On some level, he even understood what was happening to him, or at least was invested in understanding. There was a book in his car the night of the wreck, and it ended up on the floorboard, covered in shards of glass. Its title was Get a Grip on Physics.

The topic fascinated Woods. He'd long struggled to sleep, and when he wasn't texting or playing video games, he'd read, often military books about lone men facing impossible odds, such as Roberts Ridge or Lone Survivor, or books about theoretical physics and cosmology. The intro to Get a Grip laid out the basic rules of early science, from Newton and Galileo, focused on the concepts of friction and gravity. These had long interested him. Five-year-old Tiger once made a drawing that showed stickmen swinging different clubs, with the clubface sketched, as well as the flight path of the ball, including distance and apex.

That drawing is a window into something Woods himself perhaps still can't articulate; even at that age, he was curious enough to be thinking about physics. From the beginning, his golf talent has seemed to be an expression of his genius, not the genius itself. He is a remarkable person, and not because he once won 14 important golf tournaments, but because he thinks about how he came to occupy his particular space in the world. "He certainly had his mind open to big questions, such as who he was, or who anyone was," says a close friend who requested anonymity, "and had his mind open to the idea that sometimes the question is the answer." Six pages into Get a Grip, author John Gribbin sums up a truth governing both the world and the relationship between Earl and Tiger Woods: "There was a fundamental law of nature which said that, left to their own devices, things move in circles."

Tiger had always talked a good game about women, long before he married Elin Nordegren in 2004. Eric Gay/AP Images

THERE'S ALWAYS A layer of mystery between fathers and sons, even those as close as Tiger and Earl Woods. They lived such different lives. Earl joined the Green Berets because he saw them as the only place a black man could be treated fairly, and when he retired, he played golf day after day. (Before his son, Earl had the lowest handicap at the Navy golf course near their home, despite not picking up a club until he was 42.) There were things Tiger could never know about combat, just as Earl could never really understand the cost of his son's fame.

"I know exactly how you feel," Earl said once.

"No, Dad, you don't," Tiger replied.

He grew up without siblings or many friends. Tiger and Earl did everything together, hitting balls into a net out in the garage, or spending hours at the golf course, and when they'd finish, Earl would order a rum and Diet Coke, and Tiger would get a Coke with cherries, and they'd sit and nurse their drinks like two old men. The golf pro at the Navy course, Joe Grohman, worried that Tiger didn't have friends his own age until high school. His friends were Earl and Earl's old military buddies. That's who he played golf with, retired old soldiers and sailors and marines, with the occasional active-duty guy stationed near Los Angeles. Fighter jets took off and landed at the airstrip parallel to the 17th and 18th fairways. Tiger heard the stories and saw the deep love even strangers felt for each other. His entire childhood revolved around these men and their code.

Tiger and Earl held strong opinions about how things should work and nursed deep stubborn streaks, so they often butted heads. The most serious rift between them, which festered for years, centered on Earl's love for women. Tiger hated that his dad cheated on his mom and cried to his high school girlfriend about it. His parents never divorced but moved into their own houses, and the only reason they still needed to communicate at all was their son's rising golf career; like many overachieving kids in a broken home, Tiger found early on that his talent could help create the family he wanted. He could mend the broken places inside all of them. It's also clear that Tiger grew up first emulating his dad and then trying to be better than Earl. All sons, whether they love or hate their fathers, or some combination of both, want to cleanse themselves of any inherited weakness, shaking free from the past. This is certainly true for Tiger, whose father seems to evoke conflicting emotions: The best and worst things that have happened in his life happened because of Earl.

As Tiger got famous, Earl traveled the world with him. The definitive book about Tiger and Earl, Tom Callahan's His Father's Son, details the women in Earl's orbit. There was a "cook" at the 2001 Open Championship, and when Callahan said she must be a good cook, Earl grinned and said, "She sure knows how to keep that potato chip bowl filled up." At another event in South Africa, a stream of escorts made their way to Earl's room. Callahan reports that near the end of Earl's life, Tiger and Earl stopped talking for a while. "Tiger's mad at me," he told the author, and implied that he'd gotten into some sort of woman trouble that his son paid to make go away. Ultimately, Callahan wrote, Tida is the one who persuaded Tiger to make peace, telling her son that he'd regret it if Earl died before he made things right.

"He's going to be gone and you're going to be sorry," she told him.

They fixed the rift, perhaps because as Tiger's circle of trust tightened to include virtually no one, he still knew he could talk to his dad about anything, even if he didn't particularly like Earl at the time. Earl never judged. They were father and son, and teacher and student, best friends and running buddies and together, one complete person.

Just after the 2004 Masters, Tiger and his dad took a trip together to Fort Bragg, where Earl had been stationed with the Green Berets. A group of Earl's old military buddies came along, while Tiger got the VIP tour, running with the 82nd Airborne and tandem-jumping with the Golden Knights, the Army's parachute team. The man assigned to take Tiger out of the plane was a soldier named Billy Van Soelen, who explained the difference between broad daylight at Fort Bragg and pitch-black combat situations. "Your dad was doing tactical jumps," he said, nodding around at the controlled environment. "This is Hollywood."

Van Soelen strapped Tiger to himself and then the two flung themselves out into space, smooth with no bobble. Tiger grinned the whole way down.

Earl was waiting in the drop zone, Van Soelen says, and he gave Tiger a big hug.

"Now you understand my world," he told his son.

Earl needed an oxygen tank during that trip. He'd been dying slowly for years and regretted that he wouldn't live to see the end of Tiger's journey. His second heart attack happened in Tulsa, Oklahoma, during Tiger's initial year on tour, and by the winter of 2005, a year and a half after Fort Bragg, it was clear to everyone that Earl didn't have much time. Now consider Tiger Woods again, in this moment the best golfer in the world, taking his first break ever -- 24 days without touching a club, the most since he was a boy -- watching his father die. He spent a lot of that break on Teakwood Street, struggling to sleep, three days passing before he finally drifted off on the floor. On Dec. 25, his dad woke up and threw a shoe at a sleeping Tiger.

When Tiger groggily looked up, Earl said, "Merry Christmas."

That vacation ended -- they both knew Earl was dying and Tiger made his peace with it -- and Woods planned to open his season at the 2006 Buick Invitational near San Diego. But three days before his first competitive round of the year, Tiger arranged for a VIP tour of the Coronado BUD/S compound (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training), where recruits are turned into SEALs. Most classes start with about 200 students, and if 30 graduate, that's a great percentage. It's the most difficult military training in the world.

When he arrived, Tiger spoke to Class 259, there waiting for First Phase to begin, and told them something he'd never said in public: He wanted to be a SEAL when he was young. The class loved Tiger's advice about mental preparation and focus, while the instructors rolled their eyes when Tiger said he would have been one of them were it not for golf. They've seen Olympic medalists and Division I football players quit, unable to stand the pain. A top-ranked triathlete washed out.

The tour visited Special Boat Team-12 and SEAL Team 7. During one stop, a SEAL named Thom Shea helped conduct a weapons demonstration, with seven or eight guns spread out in front of him, from the Sig Sauer pistol through the entire sniper suite of weapons. Three years later, Shea would earn a Silver Star leading a team into battle in Afghanistan. Tiger stood on one side of the table, his arms crossed, a pair of Oakley sunglasses resting on the back of his knit cap. Shea says Tiger remained very quiet, taking in as much as he could, only turning on his famous smile when someone asked for a picture or an autograph. After the table show, Shea walked Tiger to another building for the next part of this tour. The two men talked on the way, and even a decade later, Shea remembers the conversation, because of everything that would happen later. Tiger wanted to know how SEALs kept their home life together despite the strain of constant travel and long separations. Shea told him that balance was the only thing that worked. He says Tiger asked how they kept this up, year after year of stress, the long slog always outlasting the romance of a job title. "It's a life," Shea remembers saying. "You just do it. You keep practicing."

The following Sunday, Tiger Woods won the Buick Invitational in a playoff.

Three months later, Earl died and everything started to fall apart.

Even now, Tiger thinks about how he came to occupy his particular space in the world. John Huet

Act II

TWENTY-FIVE DAYS after he buried his father and 15 before the 2006 U.S. Open, Tiger went back to visit the Navy SEALs, this time to a hidden mountain training facility east of San Diego. The place is known as La Posta, and it's located on a barren stretch of winding road near the Mexican border. Everything is a shade of muted tan and green, like Afghanistan, with boulders the size of cars along the highway.

This time, Tiger came to do more than watch.

He tried the SR-25 sniper rifle and the SEALs' pistol of choice, the Sig Sauer P226. One of the instructors was Petty Officer 1st Class John Brown, whose father also served as a Green Beret in Vietnam. Brown pulled Tiger aside. The sun was shining, a nice day, and the two men talked, standing on the northeast corner of a shooting facility.

"Why are you here?" Brown remembers asking.

"My dad," Tiger said, explaining that Earl had told him he'd either end up being a golfer or a special operations soldier. "My dad told me I had two paths to choose from."

Brown says Tiger seemed to genuinely want to know about their way of life. Tiger asked questions about Brown's family and they figured out that Brown's wife and Tiger shared the same birthday. Tiger told him not to ever try to match Michael Jordan drink for drink. They talked about Earl, and Brown felt like Tiger wanted "safe harbor" from his grief, a way to purge some of it even, to prove something to himself, or maybe prove something to the spirit of Earl, whose special ops career never approached the daring of a SEAL team.

"I definitely think he was searching for something," Brown says. "Most people have to live with their regrets. But he got to experience a taste of what might have been."

The instructors gave Tiger camo pants and a brown T-shirt. He carried an M4 assault rifle and strapped a pistol to his right leg. On a strip of white tape above his right hip pocket, someone wrote "TIGER." SEAL Ben Marshall (his name has been changed for this story because he remains on active duty) took Tiger to the Kill House, the high-stress combat simulator where SEALs practice clearing rooms and rescuing hostages. Marshall is a veteran of many combat deployments and was with Tiger making sure he didn't get too hurt. The instructors ran the golfer through the house over and over, lighting him up with Simunition, high-powered paint rounds that leave big, painful bruises. "It was so much fun to hit him," Marshall says. "He looked like a deer in the headlights. I was spraying him up like it was nothing."

The instructors set up targets, some of terrorists holding weapons and others of innocent civilians. Under fire and stress, Tiger needed to decide who should die and who should live. During one trip through the Kill House, the guys switched out a target of someone with a gun for one of a photographer, and when Tiger came through the door, he killed the person with the camera, according to two witnesses. The SEALs asked why he'd shot a civilian.

First Tiger apologized for his mistake.

Then he made a joke about hating photographers.

Eventually, Woods learned how to clear a room, working corners and figuring out lanes of fire, doing something only a handful of civilians are ever allowed to do: run through mock gun battles with actual Navy SEALs. "He can move through the house," says Ed Hiner, a retired SEAL who helped oversee training during the time and wrote a book called First, Fast, Fearless. "He's not freaking out. You escalate it. You start shooting and then you start blowing s--- up. A lot of people freak out. It's too loud, it's too crazy. He did well."

At one point, Marshall put him through a combat stress shooting course, making him carry a 30-pound ammunition box, do overhead presses with it, do pushups and run up a hill, with shooting mixed in. Tiger struggled with slowing his heart rate down enough to hit the targets, but he attacked the course.

"He went all out," Marshall said. "He just f---ing went all out."

Marshall got his golf clubs at one point and asked Tiger to sign his TaylorMade bag. Tiger refused, sheepishly, saying he couldn't sign a competing brand. So Marshall challenged him to a driving contest for the signature. Both Marshall and Brown confirmed what happened next: Tiger grinned and agreed. Some other guys gathered around a raised area overlooking the shooting range. Marshall went first and hit a solid drive, around 260 or 270 yards. Tiger looked at him and teed up a ball, gripping the TaylorMade driver.

Then he got down on his knees.

He swung the club like a baseball bat and crushed one out past Marshall's drive. Tiger started laughing, and then all the SEALs started laughing, and eventually Marshall was laughing too.

"Well, I can just shoot you now and you can die," Marshall joked, "or you can run and die tired."

THE MILITARY MEN and their bravado sent Tiger back in time to the Navy golf course with Earl and those salty retired soldiers and sailors. He missed his dad, of course, but he also missed the idea of Earl, which was as important as the man himself. Sometimes his dad traveled to tournaments and never visited the course, staying put at a hotel or rented house in case Tiger needed him. They could talk about anything, from the big questions of life, like Tiger's completely earnest belief in ghosts, to simple things a man should know, like how to order spacers of water between beers to keep from getting so drunk. (That last bit came about after a bad night at a Stanford fraternity party.) Without Earl, Tiger felt adrift and lonely. He threw himself back into his circus of a life, moving from place to place. And in the months after the funeral, the extramarital affairs either began or intensified. That summer of 2006, he met at least two of the mistresses who'd eventually hit the tabloids.

To be clear, he'd always talked a good game about women, long before he married Elin Nordegren in 2004. In 1999, in the quiet Oregon woods near the Deschutes River with Mark O'Meara and one of the best steelhead guides in the world, Tiger held court about the perks of being a professional athlete. "I'm walking down the trail with him and he's bragging about his sexual conquests," says guide Amy Hazel. "And this is when everybody thought he was the golden boy."

He told just filthy stories that Hazel wouldn't repeat, but even with the boasts and dirty jokes, she saw him as more of a big kid than a playboy. "Nerdy and socially awkward" are her words, and he seemed happiest standing in the river riffing lines from the Dalai Lama scene in Caddyshack.

The sexual bravado hid his awkwardness around women. One night he went to a club in New York with Derek Jeter and Michael Jordan. Jeter and Jordan circulated, talking with ease to one beautiful woman after another. (Both declined to comment about the episode.) At one point, Tiger walked up to them and asked the question that lives in the heart of every junior high boy and nearly every grown man too.

"What do you do to talk to girls?"

Jeter and Jordan looked at each other, then back at Tiger, sort of stunned.

Go tell 'em you're Tiger Woods, they said.

If Tiger was looking for something, it was seemingly lots of different things, finding pieces in a rotating cast of people. He and Rachel Uchitel bonded over their mutual grief. His fresh wounds from losing Earl helped him understand her scars from her father's cocaine overdose when she was 15, and her fiancé's death in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. The broken parts of themselves fit together, according to her best friend, Tim Bitici. Sometimes Rachel stayed with Tiger for days, Bitici says. Nobody ever seemed to ask Tiger where he was or what he was doing. Bitici went with Rachel down to Orlando to visit Tiger, who put them up in a condo near his house. When he came over, he walked in and closed all the blinds. Then he sat between Tim and Rachel on the couch and they all watched Chelsea Lately.

"This makes me so happy," Tiger said, according to Bitici.

Many of these relationships had that odd domestic quality, which got mostly ignored in favor of the tabloid splash of threesomes. Tiger once met Jaimee Grubbs in a hotel room, she told a magazine, and instead of getting right down to business, they watched a Tom Hanks movie and cuddled. Cori Rist remembered breakfast in bed. "It was very normal and traditional, in a sense," she says. "He was trying to push that whole image and lifestyle away just to have something real. Even if it's just for a night."

Many times, he couldn't sleep.

Insomnia plagued him, and he'd end up awake for days. Bitici says that Tiger asked Rachel to meet him when he'd gone too long without sleep. Only after she arrived could he nod off. Bitici thinks Tiger just wanted a witness to his life. Not the famous life people saw from outside but the real one, where he kept the few things that belonged only to him. This wasn't a series of one-night stands but something more complex and strange. He called women constantly, war-dialing until they picked up, sometimes just to narrate simple everyday activities. When they didn't answer, he called their friends. Sometimes he talked to them about Earl and his childhood.

We never see the past coming up behind because shaping the future takes so much effort. That's one of those lessons everyone must learn for themselves, including Tiger Woods. He juggled a harem of women at once, looking for something he couldn't find, while he made more and more time for his obsession with the military, and he either ignored or did not notice the repeating patterns from Earl's life. "Mirror, mirror on the wall, we grow up like our daddy after all," says Paul Fregia, first director of the Tiger Woods Foundation. "In some respects, he became what he loathed about his father."

Tiger told numerous Navy SEALs -- whose facial features ESPN is protecting because some remain on active duty -- that he wanted to be a SEAL when he was young and follow in his father's special ops lifestyle. Courtesy Wright Thompson
Some SEALs complained that Tiger was only doing the fun stuff, shooting guns and jumping out of airplanes, but never the brutal, awful parts of being a SEAL. U.S. Navy photo by Chief Journalist Deborah Carson

THE MILITARY TRIPS continued through 2006 into 2007, kept almost completely a secret. At home, Tiger read books on SEALs and watched the documentary about BUD/S Class 234 over and over. He played Call of Duty for hours straight, so into the fantasy that his friends joked that after Tiger got shot in the game they might find him dead on the couch. When he could, he spent time with real-life operators. Tiger shot guns, learned combat tactics and did free-fall skydiving with active-duty SEALs. During one trip to La Posta, he remembered things they'd told him about their families, asking about wives, things he didn't do in the golf world; Mark O'Meara said Tiger never asks about his kids.

"If Tiger was around other professional athletes, storytelling would always have a nature of one-upmanship," a friend says. "If Tiger was around some sort of active or retired military personnel, he was all ears. He was genuinely interested in what they had to say. Any time he told a military-related story that he had heard or talked about a tactic he had learned, he had a smile on his face. I can't say that about anything else."

One evening, Brown and two other guys put Tiger in the back seat of a king-cab pickup truck and drove him an hour and a half out into the desert to a training base named Niland, where a SEAL team was doing its final predeployment workup, staging a raid on a mock Afghan village that had been built down in a valley. They stood on a hill looking into the darkness. The SEAL platoon charged toward the position. Flares popped off, trailing into the darkness, and the valley rocked with the deep boom of artillery simulation and the chatter of small-arms fire. In the glow, Tiger looked transfixed. "It was f---ing awesome," Brown says, laughing. "I don't know if we just got a glimpse of him in a different light, but he just seemed incredibly humble, grateful."

His golfing team, particularly swing coach Hank Haney, understood the risk, sending a long email scolding Tiger for putting his career at risk: You need to get that whole SEALs thing out of your system. Haney does a lot of benefit work, including some for the special operations community, so stories would later trickle back to him about injuries suffered during training. Caddie Steve Williams thought the 2006 U.S. Open, where Tiger missed his first major cut as a pro, was the first time he'd ever seen Woods not mentally prepared. Tiger talked openly about the grief and loss he felt when he practiced, since that activity was so closely wound together with his memories of his dad.

The moments with the military added some joy to what he has repeatedly called the worst year of his life, and he chose to spend Dec. 30, 2006 -- his 31st birthday -- in San Diego skydiving with SEALs. This was his second skydiving trip; a month earlier, in the middle of a seven-tournament win streak, he'd gotten his free-fall USPA A-license, now able to jump without a tandem. Across the country, in Florida, his reps put a news release on his website, revealing for the first time that Elin was pregnant. Tiger Woods was going to be a father.

Elin came with him to San Diego on his birthday, and they rode south and east of the city, near a land preserve a few miles from Mexico, halfway between Chula Vista and Tecate. The road curved at banked angles, and up ahead a small airport came into view. Nichol's Field is a collection of maybe two dozen buildings. To the east of the property, a cluster of metal huts sat behind red stop signs: warning, restricted area. This was Tactical Air Operations, one of the places where the SEALs practice jumps. The main building felt like an inner sanctum: a SEAL flag on the wall and parachute riggings hung from the ceiling. They wore blue-and-white jumpsuits, Tiger and the three or four SEALs. He learned advanced air maneuvers. After each jump, the guys would tell Tiger what to do differently and he'd go off by himself for a bit to visualize the next jump and then go back up in the plane and dive into the air, doing everything they'd said. "The dude's amazing," says Billy Helmers, a SEAL who jumped with him that day. "He can literally think himself through the skydives."

The SEALs put a birthday cake on a table in one of the Tac Air buildings. It had a skydiver decorated on it in icing and read "Happy Birthday, Tiger!" The team guys and their families gathered around and sang "Happy Birthday," and then Tiger leaned in and blew out his candles. Everyone took pictures, and in them Tiger is smiling, and it's not the grin that people know from commercials and news conferences. He looks unwatched and calm.

WHILE HE MADE friends with some of the SEALs, many of their fellow operators didn't know why Tiger wanted to play soldier. It rubbed them the wrong way. Guys saw him doing the fun stuff, shooting guns and jumping out of airplanes, but never the brutal, awful parts of being a SEAL, soaking for hours in hypothermic waters, so covered in sand and grit that the skin simply grinds away. One year during hell week, a BUD/S candidate collapsed, his body temperature below 90 degrees; the man, a former wrestler, would rather have frozen to death than quit.

Was Tiger willing to do that?

"Tiger Woods never got wet and sandy," says former SEAL and current Montana congressman Ryan Zinke, who ran the training facility during the years Tiger came around. The BUD/S instructors didn't like the way Tiger talked about how he'd have been a SEAL if he didn't choose golf. "I just reached out to the guys I know who jumped with him and interacted with him," says a retired SEAL. "Not a single one wants to have any involvement, or have their name mentioned in the press anywhere near his. His interactions with the guys were not always the most stellar, and most were very underwhelmed with him as a man."

Then there's the story of the lunch, which spread throughout the Naval Special Warfare community. Guys still tell it, almost a decade later. Tiger and a group of five or six went to a diner in La Posta. The waitress brought the check and the table went silent, according to two people there that day. Nobody said anything and neither did Tiger, and the other guys sort of looked at one another.

Finally one of the SEALs said, "Separate checks, please."

The waitress walked away.

"We are all baffled," says one SEAL, a veteran of numerous combat deployments. "We are sitting there with Tiger f---ing Woods, who probably makes more than all of us combined in a day. He's shooting our ammo, taking our time. He's a weird f---ing guy. That's weird s---. Something's wrong with you."

THEY'RE NOT WRONG, not exactly, but the SEALs are also viewing Tiger through their own pre-existing idea of how a superstar should act, so his behavior processes as arrogant and selfish. That reaction has colored Tiger's relationships his entire life: People who meet him for 30 seconds love him, and people who spend several hours with him think he's aloof and weird, while people who hang around long enough to know him end up both loving him and being oddly protective. His truest self is shy, awkward and basically well-intentioned, as unsuited for life in public as he is suited for hitting a ball.

"Frankly, the real Tiger Woods isn't that marketable," a friend says. "There isn't a lot of money to be made off a guy who just wants to be left alone to read a book. Or left alone to play fetch with his dog. Or left alone to play with his kids. Or left alone to lift weights. Or left alone to play a video game. Do you see a trend? Tiger was a natural introvert, and the financial interest for him to be extroverted really drove a wedge in his personality. Being a celebrity changed him and he struggled with that -- and he struggled with the fact that he struggled with that."

Tiger uses well-rehearsed set pieces as standard icebreakers -- things that get trotted out again and again. Famously, in front of a GQ reporter in 1997, he told a joke that ended on a punch line about a black guy taking off a condom. He told the same joke in 2006 to a SEAL at a Navy shooting range and to a woman at Butter, a New York nightclub. Talk to enough people who've met him and it starts to seem like he's doing an impersonation of what he thinks a superstar athlete is supposed to be. Once he bought a Porsche Carrera GT, similar to the one driven by many celebrities, but one of the first times he got behind the wheel, the powerful car got away from him, spinning off into the grass near his house. He took it back to the dealership.

Tiger has repeatedly called 2006 the worst year of his life. Here, Tiger, Elin and Tida arrive at a reception after a funeral service for Earl in California. Branimir Kvartuc/AP Images

TIGER BOUGHT A pair of combat boots. They were black, made by the tactical outfitter Blackhawk, popular with ex-special ops guys who become contractors and mercenaries. The boots were inevitable, in hindsight. You can't insert something as intense as the SEAL culture into the mind of someone like Tiger Woods and not have him chase it down a deep, dark hole. He started doing the timed 4-mile run in combat boots, required by everyone who wants to graduate from BUD/S. A friend named Corey Carroll, who refused to comment and whose parents lived near Tiger, did the workouts with him. They'd leave from Carroll's parents' home, heading north, out onto the golf course. The rare sighting was almost too strange to process: Tiger Woods in combat boots, wearing Nike workout pants or long combat-style trousers, depending on the weather, pounding out 8 1/2-minute miles, within striking distance of the time needed for BUD/S.

Tiger knew the SEAL physical requirements by heart, easily knocking out the pushups, pullups and situps. When he couldn't sleep, he'd end up at a nearby Gold's Gym at 3 a.m., grinding. One of his favorite workouts was the ladder, or PT pyramid, a popular Navy SEAL exercise: one pullup, two pushups, three situps, then two, four, six, up to 10, 20, 30 and back down again.

Soon, the training at La Posta didn't cut it. He found something more intense with Duane Dieter, a man allowed by the Navy to train SEALs in a specialized form of martial arts that he invented. Dieter is a divisive figure in the special operations world, working out of his own training compound on the Maryland shore. His method is called Close Quarters Defense, or CQD, and some students look at him as an almost spiritual guide, like a modern samurai. Others think he's overrated. For Dieter, few things were more important than ancient warrior principles like light and dark energy.

Tiger got introduced by the Navy and learned CQD in Coronado. Hooked, he wanted to go further and ended up making trips to Dieter's compound in Maryland. He'd fly in and either stay at the facility or at the nearby fancy resort, Inn at Perry Cabin by Belmond, according to a source who saw Tiger with Dieter. He'd park outside a nearby Target, sending someone else inside for cheap throwaway clothes that they could ruin with the Simunition. The practice rounds left huge bruises. He did all sorts of weapons training and fighting there, including this drill invented by Dieter: He would stand in a room, hands by his side, wearing a helmet with a protective face shield. A hood would be lowered over the helmet and loud white noise would play. It sounded like an approaching train, the speakers turning on and off at random intervals, lasting 30 seconds, or maybe just five. Then the hood would fly up and there would be a scenario. Maybe two people were talking. Or maybe one was a hostile and the other a hostage. If the people posed no threat, the correct response was to check corners and not draw your weapon. Then the hood would go back down, and there'd be more music, and when it came up, the scenario had changed. Sometimes a guy threw punches, to the body and head, and Tiger would need to free himself and draw his weapon. At first, the instructors went easy, not hitting him as hard as they'd hit a SEAL. Tiger put a stop to that and soon they jumped him as aggressively as everyone else. When the drill finally ended, the room smelled like gunpowder.

An idea began to take hold, a dream, really, one that could destroy the disconnect Tiger felt in his life, completely killing off the character he played in public. Maybe he could just disappear into the shadow world of special operations. He mentioned his plans to people around him, one by one. He pulled over a car at a tournament once and told Steve Williams he wanted to join the Navy. He told Haney he thought it would be cool to go through training. Once, Carroll had to talk him down via text message, according to someone present for the exchange, because Tiger wanted to quit golf and join the Navy. There's only one reason to run 4 miles in pants and combat boots. This wasn't some proto-training to develop a new gear of mental toughness. "The goal was to make it through BUD/S," says a former friend who knew about the training. "It had nothing to do with golf."

To many people inside Tiger's circle, Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 majors wasn't as important to Tiger as it was to the golfing media and fans. He never mentioned it. Multiple people who've spent significant amounts of time with him say that. When Tiger did talk about it, someone else usually brought it up and he merely responded. The record instead became something to break so he could chase something that truly mattered. He loved the anonymity of wearing a uniform and being part of a team. "It was very, very serious," the friend says. "If he had had a hot two years and broken the record, he would have hung up his clubs and enlisted. No doubt."

Tiger talked about some of these military trips with his friends, including describing skydiving to Michael Jordan, who saw a pattern repeating from his own past. Years before, he'd lost his father, and in his grief, he sought solace doing something his dad loved, quitting the Bulls and riding minor league buses for the Birmingham Barons. "It could be his way of playing baseball," Jordan would say years later. "Soothing his father's interest."

Jordan looked sad as he said this, perhaps feeling the heaviness of it all or even the luck involved. He somehow got through his grief and reclaimed his greatness, while Tiger has tried and failed over and over again.

"Ah, boy," Jordan sighed.

"If he had broken Nicklaus' record, Tiger would have hung up his clubs and enlisted. No doubt." - A friend of Tiger's

THE POINT OF no return came on July 31, 2007, a date that means nothing to the millions of fans who follow Tiger Woods but was the last real shot he had to avoid the coming storm. From the outside, he was closing in, inevitably, on Nicklaus. But inside his world, a year after his dad died, things were falling apart.

On June 18, Tiger became a father. In July, he flew a porn star to Washington, D.C., according to a tabloid, to meet him during his tournament, the AT&T National. He'd already met many of the mistresses who would come forward two years later. According to The Wall Street Journal, the summer of 2007 is when the National Enquirer contacted his camp to say it had caught him in an affair with a Perkins waitress. Negotiations allegedly began that would kill the tabloid story if Tiger agreed to sit for an interview and cover shoot with Men's Fitness, owned by the same parent company as the Enquirer. He did. The magazine hit newsstands on June 29.

On July 22, he finished tied for 12th at the Open Championship, and then came home. In the weeks afterward, he'd announce that he'd ruptured his left ACL while jogging in Isleworth. His news release did not mention whether he'd been running in sneakers or combat boots. At the time, he chose to skip surgery and keep playing. Tiger's account might be true, as might the scenario laid out in Haney's book: that he tore the ACL in the Kill House with SEALs. Most likely, they're both right. The knee suffered repeated stresses and injuries, from military drills and elite-level sports training and high-weight, low-rep lifting. A man who saw him doing CQD training says, "It's kind of funny, when you have an injury it almost seems like a magnet for trauma. He almost never had something hit his right knee. It was always his left knee that got kicked, or hit, or shot, or landed on. Always the left knee."

Whatever happened, he didn't take a break. Two days before the tournament in Akron, he was in Ohio. That night, July 31, his agent, Mark Steinberg, had people over to his home near Cleveland, including Tiger. According to both Haney's and Williams' books, Steinberg said the time had come for an intervention over Tiger's military adventures. While Steinberg has a reputation as a bully in the golf world, he cares a great deal about his client and friend. This all must have seemed insane to someone who just wanted to manage a great athlete: secret trips to military facilities, running around a golf course in combat boots, shooting guns, taking punches.

That night after dinner, Steinberg took Tiger into his downstairs office, a room in his finished basement. What they talked about remains private. But this was the moment when Tiger could have connected the dots and seen how out of control things had become. Everyone felt good about the talk. Afterward, Haney wrote, Tiger was different and the military trips became less of a distraction.

That's what they thought.

Consider Tiger Woods once more, tabloids snapping grainy long-distance photos, his marriage suddenly in danger and with it the normalcy he lacked everywhere else, his body taking a terrible beating from SEAL training and aggressive weightlifting, a year after losing his father, adrift and yet still dominating all the other golfers in the world. They never were his greatest opponent, which was and always will be a combination of himself and all those expectations he never could control. Tiger won Akron, then won his 13th career major the following week at the PGA Championship in Tulsa, and then, 15 hours after getting home from the tournament, he packed up and flew off again to do CQD training with Dieter. Steinberg's warning was just 13 days old.

EVERYTHING ELSE MIGHT as well have been chiseled in stone on the day he was born. The two knee surgeries in Park City, Utah, a year later. The three back surgeries. The Thanksgiving night he took an Ambien and forgot to erase his text messages, and how that enormous storm started small, with Elin calling numbers in his phone, confronting the people on the other end, including Uchitel's friend Tim Bitici, who was in Vermont with his family when his phone rang. The horrors big and small that followed. The butcher paper taped up over the windows to block the paparazzi. The sheet his crew hung over the name of his yacht. The internet comments he read while driving to Augusta National before the 2010 Masters, obsessed over what people thought. The questions from his kids about why Mommy and Daddy don't live together, and the things he won't be able to protect them from when their classmates discover the internet. The tournament where he shot a 42 on the front nine and withdrew, blaming knee and Achilles injuries.

That day, Steve Williams saw a friend in the parking lot.

"What happened?" his friend asked, incredulous.

"I think he's got the yips, mate," Williams replied.

In the 1,303 days between his father's death and the fire hydrant, Tiger set in motion all those things, and when he can finally go back and make a full accounting of his life, he'll realize that winning the 2008 U.S. Open a year before the scandal, with a broken leg and torn ACL, was the closest he ever got to BUD/S. He could barely walk and he still beat everyone in the world. He won and has never been the same. The loneliness and pain tore apart his family, and the injuries destroyed his chance to beat Nicklaus and to leave fame behind and join the Navy. He lost his dad, and then his focus, and then his way, and everything else came falling down too.

But first, he got one final major.

"I'm winning this tournament," he told his team.

"Is it really worth it, Tiger?" Steve Williams asked.

"F-- you," Tiger said.

"It was very normal and traditional, in a sense," says Cori Rist, one of Tiger's mistresses. "He was trying to push that whole image and lifestyle away just to have something real. Even if it's just for a night." John Huet


HE'S BEEN STUCK ever since, in limbo, somewhere between a professional golfer and a retired celebrity. Right now, in early December, he hangs out on the edge of a putting green in the Bahamas, unable to play but still handling his duties as host. That means posing with a motorcycle and the CEO of the company that made it. While the camera crews get ready, Tiger walks onto the green. Zach Johnson and Justin Rose, both friends, knock around some balls and shoot the breeze. The guys talk about putters, about finishes and how that impacts the roll. Tiger knows the questions to ask, having developed a deep reservoir of knowledge that serves no purpose to someone whose body won't cooperate.

As he starts to pose with the motorcycle, Tiger glances back at his friends.

On his wrist, he wears a thin red string, a Buddhist reminder to show compassion and to mind the tongue. Like many things, Tiger keeps his faith to himself -- though he has said he was raised a Buddhist -- so it's hard to know how much he practices or if he ever goes to temple. It's interesting to consider. Buddhists don't believe in heaven or hell, or at least not in the same way as Christians. According to Essential Buddhism, by Diane Morgan, either place can exist on earth, and there are 11 ways for believers to feel pain: lust, hatred, illusion, sickness, decay, death, worry, lamentation, physical and mental anguish, melancholy and grief. Since losing his father, Woods has burned with every single one of these, and in the years since he rammed his car into a fire hydrant, he's suffered nearly all of them all the time. He says he'll be back, and if he is lying to himself, maybe he can be forgiven that delusion, because according to the basic tenets of his religion, he has literally been living through hell.

While the media take photographs of the motorcycle, someone asks him about a golf course in California where Tiger played a tournament many years ago.

"First trophy," Tiger says.

"How old were you?"


HE TALKS A lot about the past now, which is new for someone who moved so fast through his first 40 years that he left people and places behind once they'd served their purpose in his life. Earl often spoke with friends about the strangeness and suddenness of Tiger's exit from their lives, and how when Tiger left Teakwood Street for college, he abandoned his computer and Nintendo, his toys and posters on the wall, and even stray cash. This amazed Earl and made him strangely proud and also melancholy. Tiger had become something like a butterfly; Earl believed that his son had flown away unencumbered. When his tax lawyers advised Tiger to leave California after turning pro and set up his life near Orlando, he just vanished, not even stopping by the old Navy course to say goodbye. "He didn't tell me he was moving to Florida," says the pro, Joe Grohman, "and it broke my heart. I thought I was really close to the family. I didn't get to tell him goodbye. It was just over."

Tiger has cut off coaches and caddies and friends, rarely with a confrontation, just vanishing from their lives. It's not out of spite really; he's focused on where he's supposed to be going. The Western High class of 1994 held its 20-year reunion and made sure Tiger got an invitation in the mail, but he didn't show. Grohman understands. "He's still trying to be Tiger Woods," he says. "There's a time and place for things. There will be a day when he wants to come back to where it all began."

Even 10 years later, the loss of his father still exerts force and pull on his inner life. The anniversary of Earl's death is a time when he can't sleep, staying up all night with his memories. The wounds seem fresh. Tiger spent just 77 minutes on the ground in Kansas saying goodbye to Earl, before hurtling back into a destiny previously in progress. It's nearly certain he hasn't been back since. The sexton who runs the place says he's never seen Woods visit, and staff at the small airport nearby say they haven't seen him either. A book by a People magazine writer said Tiger visited once in 2007, around Mark Steinberg's military intervention, but that report could not be confirmed. Maybe he sneaked in and out, but if not, one day perhaps he'll walk across the field to the place where they left Earl's ashes, between Maude and Miles, in the shade of a bush and near a big red rock. He'll have to find the spot from memory because there is no headstone, even a decade after the funeral. Maybe he wants it private, or is simply unable to take such a final step, but whatever the reason, Tiger Woods never had one placed.

He buried his father in an unmarked grave.

Author John Gribbin sums up a truth governing both the world and the relationship between Earl and Tiger Woods: "There was a fundamental law of nature which said that, left to their own devices, things move in circles." Doug Benc/Getty Images

THE REAL WORK of his life -- how to deal with having been Tiger Woods -- will begin only once he accepts that his golfing career is finished. All driven people experience a reckoning at the end of their life's work, but when that work feels incomplete, or somehow tainted, the regrets can fester with time. This reckoning is coming for Tiger, which worries his friend Michael Jordan, who knows more about the next 10 years of Tiger's life than nearly anyone alive. It's jarring to be dominant and then have it suddenly end. "I don't know if he's happy about that or sad about that," Jordan says. "I think he's tired. I think he really wishes he could retire, but he doesn't know how to do it yet, and I don't think he wants to leave it where it is right now. If he could win a major and walk away, he would, I think."

A few months ago, sitting in his office in Charlotte, Jordan picked up his phone and dialed Tiger's number. It rang a few times and went to voicemail: I'm sorry, but the person you called has a voicemail box that has not been set up yet. He tried twice more, the phone rang five or six times, and then he smiled.

"Playing video games," he said.

They texted in November, the day after a big group went out to dinner at Tiger's restaurant. Tiger got drunk and they all laughed and told stories, and Michael thought Tiger seemed relaxed, which made him hopeful. Tiger talked about his injuries a lot but not much about the future. "The thing is," Jordan says, "I love him so much that I can't tell him, 'You're not gonna be great again.'"

The day after that, Tiger wrote him and both men sounded like the stay-at-home dads they've become.

TW: Thank you and your beautiful wife for coming. Need to do that more often. Thank the good lord for ice packs. I'm in heaven now. Bring babies next time.

MJ: Haha. Any time my brother. Get some rest. We'll bring the kids next time.

TW: I'm in. After school next week one day when the kids don't have soccer practice.

Jordan talks carefully, with no bravado or swagger, trying to say something important and true and empathetic -- maybe hoping his friend will read it? -- without crowding Tiger or saying too much. Jordan struggled and flailed in the years after he quit basketball, feeling like he'd hard-wired himself with all of these urges that now worked against any hope of future happiness. For years, he just tried to pretend like he wasn't lost. Time stretched out in front of him endlessly, and this same emptiness awaits Tiger.

Those who know him best say that Tiger today is happiest during the time he spends with his children. Chris Carlson/AP Images

"What does he do every day?" Jordan asks.

He's quiet and serious.

"I don't know," he says, answering his own question. "I haven't the slightest idea. I do not know."

He worries that Tiger is so haunted by his public shaming that he obsesses over it, perhaps sitting up in the middle of the night reading all the things people write and say about him.

"Rabbit Ears," Michael calls him sometimes.

He hears everything. For Tiger, this dwelling on old mistakes is a path to madness. Nothing can take him back to 2006 and give him a second chance. "That bothers him more than anything," Jordan says. "It looms. It's in his mind. It's a ship he can't right and he's never going to. What can you do? The thing is about T-Dub, he cannot erase. That's what he really wants. He wants to erase the things that happened."

Slowly, year by year, Tiger's name will not be spoken in the same way and with the same frequency. Without a new passion, Tiger just might sit down there in his enormous, empty mansion and slowly go insane. Jordan's post-retirement salvation came because he and his longtime girlfriend, Yvette Prieto, got married. Now they have twins, and he's created a life for himself, something to occupy his time and his thoughts. They are happy together, and more than once Jordan has told Tiger he needs to allow someone new into his circle, to build a new life with a new person and, along the way, find some new perspective about the journey that brought him here.

"He has ..." Jordan says, and he pauses, searching for the right word, "... no companion. He has to find that happiness within his life, that's the thing that worries me. I don't know if he can find that type of happiness. He's gonna have to trust somebody."

TIGER IS NOT totally alone, kept company by memories of the life he once knew and those moments when he is happiest: the time he spends with his daughter, Sam, 8, and his son, Charlie, 7. The best of Earl lives in the actions of his son; in fatherhood, Tiger has equaled and even surpassed his own dad. He is utterly devoted to his children. Every single person interviewed for this story says so. Sam and Charlie never met their grandfather and they don't remember Tiger as a dominant golfer, but they will grow up knowing that their father cares more about them than anything he does on the course.

In the Bahamas, USA Today golf writer Steve DiMeglio saw them riding in a golf cart with Tiger and asked if they'd rather be their dad or soccer star Leo Messi.

"Messi!" Sam said without missing a beat.

"He's playing," Charlie explained.

Tiger laughed and dramatically dropped his head.

Then he joked, "Well, he's right."

He and Elin have a better relationship now, and Tiger wishes he'd have worked to create this bond while they were still together. His friends talk of how much he regrets losing his marriage, especially in those moments when he and Elin are with the kids and he glimpses little flashes of the life he threw away. Now he shares custody, and when the children go back to their mom's place and his big house falls quiet, he's surrounded by people who work for him and trophies he won as a younger, more powerful man.

There's a clear view out the windows past the two swimming pools and hot tub, toward the four greens he had built, a practice facility for a game he's almost finished playing. He's got endless stretches of time now to stare and think. His old house near Orlando, the last place they all lived, stood in a cluster of trees across from the Isleworth driving range. He loved sunsets there, all of them together, his golf having finally created the family he craved as a boy. Elin and Charlie would sit in a cart and watch. Yogi, a labradoodle, would roll in the grass, sniffing around. Sam would hand him golf balls, and he'd hit punch shots for his border collie, Taz, to chase.

The sun would set and they'd all walk together in the shadows toward home.


Illustration by David Despau

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