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But even he couldn't read the last word: Dad.
THE THIRD WHY
But now Dad was disappearing, chunks of his chest and neck and lymph nodes soon to roll away on a surgical cart, weight melting off from the throat cancer ravaging his body in 2001. A piece of Kelly was vanishing as well, before he'd ever figured out where the piece fit. All that anger and confusion he'd siphoned off for competitive fuel without even knowing it, now had to be confronted. All the unsaid things among brothers, all the black-and-white interpretations of Mom and Dad, all swirling around his uncertainty about his career and who he'd be without it.
First thing he'd done when surf-gear makers Ocean Pacific and Rip Curl signed him to one-year sponsorship deals before his sophomore year of high school? He'd bought a three-bedroom home for the family and turned his new bank account over to Mom. He wasn't going to be the slacker surfer that Dad had been. He'd be the provider. Damn. Another why that hadn't been inventoried.
A year later, in 1990, after he grew taller and more muscular and went on the Association of Surfing Professionals tour, the bidding began in earnest. Quiksilver rep Danny Kwock took one long look at the 18-year-old: charisma, desire, sincerity, smarts, looks and those piercing jade eyes. A kid who could do the kinds of maneuvers off 16-foot water cliffs that California surfers would doodle on their high school binders but not dare try in front of judges, and milk a mediocre wave for points better than anyone because that's the kind of surf he'd grown up on. A kid who took the best from the surfing culture, making friends and bonfires and guitar music all over the world, but recoiled from the bongs and bar stools that had tripped so many surfers. The only trace of any trouble was the kid's chronic lateness for flights, appointments, even dinners with buddies. But Kwock was so sure he was staring at the next wave, the tsunami of the surf industry, that he risked his job and offered Kelly one third more than the unprecedented sum he'd been authorized to offer, and stole him from Ocean Pacific.
Before Kelly had gone to his senior prom, he was one of the five highest-paid surfers on earth. Before he knew it, he'd been talked by his manager into taking a role on Baywatch playing some screenwriter's lame idea of a Malibu lifeguard, bouncing slo-mo alongside Pamela Anderson and whirling in paradox: Kelly, the nature boy in communion with the ocean, being scorned by surfing purists for dragging the sacred art from the temple into the marketplace.
Before he knew it, he was engaged at 21 to the Wonder Woman he'd met at a trade show—Bree Pontorno, a 17-year-old model in heels and a floss bikini beneath a cascade of curly black hair—and he was broke. His bighearted mother, always quick to rescue people, had gone through his account.
Before he knew it, he was lying in a 15th-floor room at a seaside hotel in Biarritz, France, in 1993—the year after he'd become the youngest surfer, at 20, ever to win the world championship—too weak to get up, flattened by the flu and the five-alarm fire that had broken out 4,000 miles away between his fiancée and his mom. But he could look through his open window and see the contest on the beach below.
The waves were pitiful. The media's and judges' and Quiksilver's tents covered the sand, the fans thronged the booths selling fast food, T-shirts and posters, the two contestants bobbed in the listless sea, the announcer on the public-address system babbled on. Suddenly it seemed as if angels had delivered him to this perch so he could gaze down and see what he'd never seen, couldn't see, down there: It ... was all ... a sham.
Imposing scores on a couple of guys trying to catch a wave, cleaving them into winner and loser? Inviting marketers and autograph seekers onto a beach? A circus, that's what it was, and the show pony—the one the crowd would be gawking at right now if he hadn't been a second-round loser—was Kelly Slater.