By John Branch
John John Florence, maybe the best surfer of his generation, can see the world’s most famous surf break, the Banzai Pipeline on Oahu’s North Shore, from the beachfront deck of his house. He just has to turn his head slightly to the right.
“Oh, look at that wave!” he shouted recently, interrupting something he was saying about the reconstructed right knee that has kept him out of competition since June.
Florence, 27, has stared at and surfed this stretch of Sunset Beach all of his life. The house where he grew up is directly in front of Pipeline. His mother still lives over there, and Kelly Slater, the 47-year-old, 11-time world champion — a mentor, friend and rival to Florence — lives next door to her. Florence can walk there in just a couple of minutes.
Growing up looking at Pipeline, then surfing it, Florence’s favorite pro surfer was Slater, a seven-time champion of the Pipe Masters event. He used to watch Slater surf that break in the winter. He wanted to be Slater. Then Slater moved in. His hero became a neighbor. It took Florence years on tour to get used to competing against him.
Looking at the view that he and Slater share, Florence pondered the unique closeness, the proximity, of their parallel lives. To Florence, Slater is a mentor, friend and rival, yes. But none of those words felt precise enough.
“We had this cat at my mom’s house that kind of lived between the houses,” Florence said, choosing a story from a couple of years ago to illustrate their relationship. “And one day he called me and said — the cat’s name was Kitty — he said: ‘Kitty’s dead. I found Kitty under the house.’ He came over and helped us bury him, and he said a few words for the cat.”
Florence laughed. The waves were picking up.
“He’s kind of like an uncle, almost,” he said.
And so, both men admit, it feels poetically appropriate that, as surfing prepares for its Olympic debut in Tokyo next summer, Florence and Slater will vie for the one remaining spot on the U.S. team — a spot to be decided this month at the Pipe Masters, at Banzai Pipeline, on waves barreling toward their houses.