From his courtside seat, Tiger Woods' eyes seldom left him. All night in Game 3 of the NBA Finals, you could see them darting everywhere with Kobe Bryant(notes). Woods understood that he was witnessing his kindred spirit, the talent with whom he shared a generational sporting genius. Together, they were groomed for greatness and discussed that over dinner in a suburban Orlando restaurant in June.
With his wife, Elin, beside him at Amway Arena it likely never occurred to Woods that his blessed life could soon derail with a self-destructive bent of his own. He doesn't have the criminal charges and the threat of prison hanging over him like Bryant did with his sexual assault case in 2003, but a family and reputation crashing around him nonetheless. If Bryant has reached out to Woods, he's discovered, like running buddies Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley, the phones are turned off, the party's over.
Kobe Bryant hit a 15-foot jumper at the buzzer to lift the Lakers over the Bucks in overtime on Wednesday.
(Gary Dineen/NBAE/Getty Images)
Whatever Woods wants out of private redemption, the path of public forgiveness won't come with apologies and crocodile tears. All Woods needed was an NBA League Pass package on Wednesday and he could've witnessed the truth for himself. There was Bryant with his arms raised in Milwaukee, a winning shot to end overtime and a 39-point performance. Bryant has a broken finger, but a repaired image and oddly unburdened life six years later.
America won't want contrition, as much as it'll want a Sunday communion with Woods. This is a sporting nation that finds its virtue in victory. Bryant never took a leave of absence the way that Woods says he will now. He bought his wife a big diamond, and dropped 42 on the Spurs in the playoffs after spending an afternoon in a Colorado courtroom.
Six years later, Bryant has done what American sporting culture demands: He came back, better than ever. He won his MVP, a title without Shaq and he's chasing down Jordan's six championships, the way that Tiger is Jack Nicklaus' 18. As comebacks go, Bryant had further to go. Now, just look at him: There isn't a great champion in sports – not Derek Jeter, nor Tom Brady – more assured of chasing MVP awards and titles into the next several seasons.
"He's unburdened," a league source close to Bryant told me recently. "He has no more pressure. With the title without Shaq, he came all the way back from the [sexual assault case] and climbed back on top of the mountain. He is playing with no more worries, and no more weight on his shoulders."
Now, Bryant plays with a broken finger and still averages 40.5 points over two nights in Chicago and Milwaukee. LeBron James(notes) is trying to win his title with a 37-year-old Shaquille O'Neal(notes), and Dwyane Wade(notes) is trying to make the playoffs and bide time until 2010 free agency can secure him better teammates. Across the NBA, the great players are conspiring to find an alignment of talent that can compare with Kobe Bryant's Lakers.
The Boston Celtics are championship contenders with an aging core and a shorter shelf life. Everyone's ultimately chasing Kobe.
Bryant, 31, has it all. Around the league, some wonder how he'll hold up physically without renowned trainer Tim Grover traveling with him this season, but so far, so good. Yes, the Lakers have a supporting cast for Bryant. He doesn't have to do as much, but he rarely fails them when called upon in moments of truth. Eventually, Andrew Bynum's(notes) leg could give out again, and Ron Artest(notes) could go haywire and the Lakers' championship chase could still be all about the greatness of Kobe Bryant.
And in those times – a blustery Milwaukee in December, a sweaty Staples Center in June – the judge and jury of a nation will validate Kobe's journey with the big shot in the big moment. Yes, Woods witnessed Bryant's final public validation courtside this spring and it was so clear to see that he found a sporting soul mate before his eyes, the man in the mirror.
Only, Woods truly had no idea. Not until now, not until these past few weeks. Kobe can't do much for Tiger's private betrayals, but he has hatched his path to professional redemption.
Wherever Woods might have been watching on Wednesday night, the message for his public journey back remained unmistakable and un-obscured: In this sporting America, virtue is still mostly found in victory.