Skateboard riders have this thing about air. Listen long enough and you'll hear about frontside airs, backside airs, rocket and judo airs. There's even an air maneuver called Madonna (because it takes your breath away).
But air also means space, and space means freedom. Freedom to soar six, eight, 10 feet into the sky (that's called pulling big air), to fly as free as a bird. But ornithologists take note: In skateboarding's showcase event of vertical riding, there is only one bird worth watching—a high-flying Hawk named Tony.
Since turning pro in 1982, Tony Hawk, an 18-year-old from Carlsbad, Calif. has flown straight to the top. He has won 18 of 29 sanctioned pro events and the only three National Skateboard Association series titles ever contested. And with just one NSA event remaining (Dec. 14 in Anaheim, Calif.), he is virtually assured a fourth. "Tony is the best skater around," says veteran pro Steve Caballero. "He's consistent, never falls, and does moves no one else can do."
Hawk's Big Bird body—a gangly six feet, 140 pounds—runs counter to the compact, powerful physique of his closest half-pipe rivals, Caballero and the captivating Christian Hosoi. That's of no consequence. When Hawk swoops down from the top of a U-shaped bowl and starts digging into his bag of tricks—720s, 360 varial inverts, finger flips—he's a sight to see, an aerialist who is equal parts gymnast, acrobat and ballet dancer. He often concludes his show with an electrifying 720 aerial; Hawk is the only skater in the world who can complete two midair somersaults and somehow still land on a 31-by 10-inch hunk of hardwood. Said one competitor after watching Hawk win a world title in Vancouver last August, "He's the Wayne Gretzky of skateboarding. It will be a long time before anyone like him comes along again."
Stop us if you've heard this one before: Skateboarding is on a roll—for the third time. The first wave hit in 1966. That's when Jan and Dean urged us to "grab a board and go sidewalk surfing with me." That fad faded after three years. Then, in 1976, new technology (polyurethane wheels and fiberglass boards) turned a fad into a frenzy: 30 million skaters, $300 million annual sales and, of course, thousands of broken bones. By 1979 the sport itself was in pieces, damaged by skate park owners charging exorbitant fees and by city ordinances banning riding everywhere but in one's own backyard.
But every 10 years or so the wave seems to return. Today annual skateboard and accessory sales are again approaching $300 million. Models pose in Macy's catalog in skateboarding garb; MGM moguls are talking feature-length movies. But the sport is still struggling, split right down the middle. Anarchists to the left. Little Leaguers to the right.
The Defiant Ones—artistic, almost poetic in many cases—live to skate the streets of San Francisco, Santa Monica or Miami. They're turned on by the breeze blowing in their hair and the nihilistic, satanic songs of hard-core or speed rock groups like Metallica, Megadeth and Slayer. Pictures of skulls, skeletons, bats—what one pro called "the Creep Show thing"—abound; so do the color black, two-tone hair, shaved heads, tattoos and T-shirts that read DEATH ZONE or BRAINWASH VICTIM. Six-year-old San Francisco-based Thrasher magazine (circulation 165,000) is their medium. "Competition to us means better terrain, better ramps," says Thrasher editor Kevin Thatcher. "We don't want to see skateboarding in the Olympics."
Across the fence stands the NSA. Its members are no less artistic or inclined to plaster their boards with skulls or skeletons, but the NSA strives for a more clean-cut, competitive and organized image, an attitude reflected in stylish Trans-world Skateboard magazine (three years old, circulation 165,000). "The parents are the ones who buy the stuff," says its publisher, Larry Balma. "They have to be happy with what we're doing."
Tony Hawk admits he sits "right between" the two magazines in this culture clash. "I like how Thrasher makes certain points, but I like how Transworld is put together," he says.
Hawk certainly seems to be in sync on this late-summer afternoon, alone, roadside, surrounded by the lush hills that frame picturesque Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. Hawk is checking out a slalom competition held in conjunction with Expo '86. The night before, he won Expo's vertical event, edging Hosoi on the final run. Four weeks later he would win the Chicago NSA stop in similar style—finishing a spectacular 50-second session with an unprecedented four straight McTwists (a 540 spin with a twist). "Tony's very creative," says Steve Hawk, 31, who taught his brother his first tricks 10 years ago. "But the thing about Tony is he's always had the presence to hold off his best tricks until the end. He has brought strategy to the sport."
Hawk has also brought style, a punk hunk look that on this summer day consists of a white painter's cap, black and white print shirt, black and red Air Jordans, and two-tone (pink and black) clamdiggers—the pants are a prototype for a new Stubbies clothing line that will bear the Hawk insignia. "Tony is a ladies' man, definitely," says close friend Lester Kasai, a top pro rider. "He's suave, smooth, something of a romantic. He's got a lot of girlfriends."
Blond hair spills like a waterfall over the left side of Hawk's soft-featured face. He comes across as articulate, sensitive, unswayed by others. Although he is gifted (his IQ is 144), he just never fit in at high school. "I never got into it," he says. Instead it was skateboarding or surfing; his land moves were inspired by workings in the water.
Hawk fell in love with the sport in 1979 just as the second wave—the frenzy—was ending. "I skated when there was nothing going on," he says. "Right now, it's at its peak. Not growing. Not dying. It will always go in stages. I'll always stay with it."
Below his knees, bloodied and scarred by cement, is a custom-made $150 board. It's covered with stickers from skateboard manufacturer Powell-Peralta (his major sponsor) and from Thrasher, a skull, and names like The Cult (one of Hawk's favorite music groups) and Team Todd. Team Todd refers to Todd Hastings, "one of the Powell promotional people. He's a cool guy and he never really gets any recognition," says Hawk.
That certainly isn't Tony's problem. Hawk has been featured in TV commercials for Mountain Dew and Swatch watches, and he has had his picture on a Sunset Boulevard billboard promoting a skate movie. Recently he returned from Toronto and the set of Police Academy IV, where he flew off walls and over a fountain—for a fee, of course.
Hawk has no problem putting food on his table, which, by the way, sits in the dining room of a four-bedroom, $124,000 house he bought last June in Carlsbad, the San Diego suburb where his parents also live. Frank Hawk, 63, Tony's father, had suggested he buy a home, figuring Tony needed shelter for a six-figure income. "Tony jumped on it," says Frank. "He was out looking at houses and reading brochures the next day."
Frank Hawk was 45 and his wife, Nancy, 43 when Frank, a small-appliances salesman, felt the numbness and pain. It was a heart attack. Nancy was pregnant with Tony. "I told him don't dare leave me after getting me like this," laughs Nancy.
Frank Hawk's first stop while taking a visitor on a tour of the Hawk family home in Carlsbad is what he lovingly calls the "hero wall." Some 200 photos are set into an eight-foot wall of cutout wood paneling. "Cut all the holes myself," says Frank, an accomplished woodworker. It's a family worth framing: daughters Lenore, now 39, a bilingual elementary teacher and Pat, 37, a singer and artist; Steve, a staff writer for the Orange County Register; Tony; father Frank, an outgoing, highly decorated naval aviator in World War II and the Korean War; and mother Nancy, a vibrant part-time community college business instructor. "I probably spent more time with the kids than I should have," Frank says. "But if they were into something that wasn't harmful, well, then we tried to support it and open doors."
Steve gave Tony, then a timid eight-year-old Little League first baseman, his first skateboard. Tony practiced incessantly—first in the street, then at skate parks. "He could never leave a park until he perfected a trick," says Steve.
In 1980, Frank organized the California Amateur Skateboard League (CASL). "I always said I was doing it for other kids," says Frank, "but subconsciously, yes, I was doing it for Tony."
CASL was the forerunner of the NSA, which—you guessed it—Frank Hawk founded in 1983. All of which made him something like the George Washington of modern skateboarding. Only one problem: The founding father's son became the subject of some serious carping by fellow pros. Says Hosoi, "Frank represented authority to Tony's friends. Skaters had to listen to his dad. You can see what type of position that put Tony in."
An unpleasant one. "At first," says Steve, "Tony was embarrassed about winning contests organized by my father, scored by judges who answered to my father. Every victory was tainted. He was performing on a stage my father had built."
Reflecting on those days, Tony says, "We didn't talk during contests; it's not like he helped me out. But, yes, a lot of people told me things my father had done. But it never reflected on me. All my friends, my friends, know he's a really cool guy."
Frank Hawk, the current president of the NSA, remembers it differently. "It was very touchy," he says. "I used to embarrass him. If I thought he was being defaulted, I'd mouth off. If he got pushed aside on a run, I'd tell the kid, 'Do it again, you'll have to deal with me.'
"It came to a head one day. He was 12 or 13. We were in the car, on our way to a contest. I told him, 'You know if you want me involved I'm going to get involved. Don't fight me. I'm involved with kids other than you.' I think now he would have rather had me out of it."
The North Vancouver Bowl is a long, eight-foot-deep undulating slab of concrete covered with spray-painted graffiti saying things like TEAM BEER and LOOSE NUT. On this particular Sunday some 200 skaters are flowing in and out, conducting a jam session that purists insist speaks to the heart of the sport. No rules. No regulations. No winners. Just air, open space and freedom.
Hawk is feeling very free at the moment, barreling over the bowl, flying off the lip, wheels crashing in a distinctive clack! Right behind him are Hosoi and Caballero. It goes on for an hour. At one point. Hawk goes down, crashing. He throws his board down, cursing a bloodstained knee. The next moment he's up, jetting off the lip, landing 20 feet down a cement path, screaming in glee.
Watching Hawk is a young blonde named Audra, pretty in a tight pink skirt and white top. She says she met Tony three days before at Expo. She should be in the 11th grade. "But I failed," she laughs. Soon Hawk slides in next to Audra. Their private moment lasts less than 30 seconds.
"Can I have your hat?" asks one star-struck local.
"No," says Hawk politely.
"I'll buy it."
"Gee, no, it's my only one."
A stony silence ensues. "You guys want one of these?" says Hawk, reaching into his wallet. He pulls out some prized stickers. After passing them out he limps back to the bowl. No pain, no gain.
Two days later Frank Hawk is driving over to Tony's new digs. Tony is still in Canada. Frank heads to the backyard where a cement slab has just been poured; it'll be perfect for freestyle practice. He points to the spot on the patio where the gazebo and Jacuzzi will sit. Of course, Frank is doing the building. In the next 10 minutes he uses the word "we" no less than 10 times.
For father and son, the "me" became "we" one night in December 1984. They were alone, at the Hawks' home, when Frank felt something. The numbness and pain in his chest were returning.
"Tony called me, scared to death," remembers Steve. "I found out later in the minutes before the ambulance arrived, when he was feeling helpless, he really opened up to my dad. Told him how much he loved him. How he was the greatest father. How he appreciated everything he had done. It was one of those rare moments when you get a chance to tell someone how you really feel."
They don't talk as much now. The kid's life is his own. Tony's always on the go, shooting videos, making movies, surfing, flying through the air at some contest. Still, in this age of alienation—adolescent and otherwise—it's nice to know high-flying Hawks have a place to land.