Yet inside the skating world, neither the sport's growth nor Hawk's emergence as a mainstream celebrity have been met with universal approval. Many skaters remain tied to the sport's rebel roots and embrace underground rituals. "Underground skating is where it's at, and it's all street, all search and destroy" says Mickey Reyes, team manager for Real Skateboards, which sponsors street-style amateur skaters as young as nine and pros as young as 16. "These kids, their attitude about Tony Hawk is, 'Who gives a f—? I don't care about doing a 900.' "
For skateboarding fans outside Hawk's core audience, the stars are teenage (and younger) street skaters who make their reputations performing dangerous tricks without pads, in forbidden places, captured on film or videotape. They get contracts with skateboard and apparel companies and earn anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000 a month. According to industry insiders, there are 350 to 400 such street pros, but no more man 30 vert pros like Hawk. (Hawk, it should be noted, has done lots of street skating, and at a high level, but it is not his specialty.)
"I think there's a pretty significant portion of people inside the sport who think Tony has sold out," says Guerrero. "I can't say they're wrong. Tony has won more contests man anybody in history, but he's also opened a door for corporate America to see what we're doing, and that changes the whole nature of things. A lot of people didn't want that door opened. For the diehards, it dilutes the whole experience."
Darrell Stanton, 16, a 6-foot, 150-pound high school sophomore from Houston, is a professional street skater who caught the attention of manufacturers by making what his peers call a "sponsor-me tape" of his best tricks. He occasionally spends evenings at skateparks but often just sets out with his friends in search of railings and stairs to attack. Not long ago Stanton landed on the cover of Thrasher for executing a Backside Nose Blunt Slide—skating on the front edge of his board—down a cement ledge along 13 steps. Like most good street tricks, it's dangerous. "I hope the whole skateboarding popularity thing stops before it gets too mainstream," says Stanton. "I'd like for it to stay a raw sport."
Hawk is hardly out of touch with the cutting edge. Birdhouse sponsors a traveling team mat includes nine street skaters. (Hawk joined the team, unannounced, for the May Birdhouse Tour, skating demos in such unglamorous locales as Fargo, N.Dak., Rapid City, S.Dak., and Wichita, Kans.) Nor is he out of touch with mass skating. He donates all his demo fees to the Tony Hawk Foundation, which, among other things, has provided start-up money to build 65 public skateparks around the country.
"I've heard all the criticism," says Hawk. "Kids all think I'm old and I'm a dinosaur and I suck. Street kids don't care what I'm doing on a vert ramp. But there are so many kids who started playing my video game who had never skated in their lives and then they thought it looked cool, so they went out and bought a board and tried it. And they liked it. Look at our skatepark tour. That's not about highlighting what I do, it's about the whole sport. I think street skating is awesome. The whole world is your playground. Vert skating is more of a spectator sport."
Hawk stops pleading his case. "Here's what skateboarding is to me," he says. "It's my form of exercise, my sport, my means of expression since I was nine years old. It's what I love. I never expected it to give me anything more than that."
On the last Saturday in April, the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas quivers with sound. At the center of the arena floor is a huge portable vert ramp, 15 feet high on each side, with an eight-foot opening in the middle. It is surrounded by steeply angled metal ramps. Behind the ramp is a concert stage where a band called the Offspring is ripping through an earsplitting cover of the Ramones' Blitzkrieg Bop while a hall of fame lineup of skateboarders and freestyle BMX riders fills the vert pipe in a choreographed routine, and freestyle motocross riders soar 30 feet into the air on 250-pound dirt bikes. The effect is complete sensual overload, much to the delight of a crowd of more than 7,000 spectators.
This is Tony Hawk's Boom Boom Huckjam, the erstwhile Birdman's grandest experiment of all. It is the X Games version of the Ice Capades, a 90-minute show at which fans can watch performers usually seen only on television (rarely) and as animated figures in video games. Hawk conceived the Huckjam more than a year ago and believed in it so deeply that when he couldn't secure sponsorship, he put up more than $1 million of his own money to build the ramp, buy the lighting and hire the talent. "We're approaching a transitional time for skateboarding," says pro skateboarder Bob Burnquist. "Somebody needed to think of the next feasible step. That's what Tony has done. With his business sense it's no surprise that he was the one."
The Huckjam plan would unfold in two parts: this onetime show in Las Vegas and then a multiple-city tour in the fall. For the Vegas show Hawk invited the most experienced marquee performers in skateboarding (Burnquist, Lasek, Andy Macdonald, Lincoln Ueda and 15-year-old Shaun White, who barely missed making the U.S. Olympic team in snowboarding), freestyle BMX (Hoffman, Dave Mirra, Dennis McCoy, Kevin Robinson and John Parker) and freestyle motocross ( Carey Hart, Mike Cinqmars, Clifford Adopante and Ronnie Faist), along with the Offspring and another band, Social Distortion. (The fall tour will have two rosters which together will include all of these A-list performers.)