There was a time when Tony Hawk and his friends toured the country's skateboard parks in a clunky old van, with money enough for only one hotel room among them.
"We had two beds and split those beds into a mattress and box spring," Hawk recalls. "You had two people to share a mattress and if you chose a box spring, you got it on your own . . . and that's how it was. You ate at Taco Bell every day."
These days, the man who has been dubbed the Michael Jordan of skateboarding travels in style, aboard a luxury bus with air-conditioning, plush leather seats, TVs and the all-important PlayStation console.
There's room enough not only for all the skateboarders, but for a camera crew, a trainer and even an occasional stowaway.
And so it was, at a recent dawn's early light, that I found myself sneaking aboard for the westbound journey from Tempe to Encinitas, hoping to learn more about a burgeoning sport but mostly to escape the hellish Arizona heat. . . .
. . . It was an assignment anyone would envy--anyone 17 or younger, white, male and with a closet full of loose-fitting clothing.
That's your typical skateboarder. There are nearly 10 million of them rolling around the nation's streets, considered nuisances by some and fun-loving kids by others.
The plan was to fly to Phoenix, take a cab to Tempe, watch a demo, spend the night in a cheap hotel, board the bus to Encinitas, spend another night, catch another demo and find a way back to Los Angeles to file a report on the recently concluded "Tony Hawk's Gigantic Skatepark Tour," with 14 stops in Europe, the U.S. and Canada, starring its namesake legend.
Hawk's life has totally revolved around skateboarding. He was a bright kid, scoring 144 on an IQ test in second grade. But that won him no friends. He was an outcast during his school years in San Diego County, woefully short and paper thin, a fanatical skateboarder among nonskating classmates.
In his autobiography, "Hawk, Occupation: Skateboarder", Hawk remembers being so skinny that "birds could have used me for nesting material. . . . I was 12 years old, barely over 4 feet tall and weighed in at a freakish 80 pounds. I was a walking noodle."
That didn't matter to his friends at the local skate park, which was Hawk's salvation.
"I had entered another dimension and liked it a lot better than the one I was accustomed to," he says. "I skated everything, barely taking a break the whole day. It was a vacuum that sucked all my energy, and for the first time in my life I actually felt . . . content. It was an alien feeling."
Hawk idolized the top skaters of the time and wanted so badly to impress them that he once ate a wad of gum from between the toes of one of them.
His tours in the early days took him and a small group of friends around the country, competing for as little as $100--or less; they were often stiffed by promoters--before mostly sparse crowds.
But Hawk didn't care. "All we wanted to do was skate," he says.
A vert ramp, or halfpipe specialist, he began soaring to incredible heights, winning contests, starring in videos and attracting sponsors. He turned pro at 14 and skateboarding, whose popularity has ebbed and flowed, began one of its boom periods. Hawk was earning $70,000 a year as a senior in high school.
He had become so dominant that some of the other skateboarders considered finishing second a victory. The tricks he performed were amazingly difficult, many involving aerial spins and flipping the board with his hands or feet while spinning.
He invented nearly 100 such moves, all born of a fierce determination that had become his trademark. Most noteworthy was the seemingly impossible "900," a midair, 360-degree rotation done 2 1/2 times. Hawk had seen the trick in his mind for more than 10 years. He finally stuck it during the 1999 ESPN X Games in San Francisco.
The feat was to skateboarding what Nadia Comaneci's historic perfect 10s in uneven bars and balance beam at the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal were to gymnastics.
By nailing the 900--he remains the only person to have done so--before an international audience, he had elevated his status even higher.
Hawk later appeared in a "Got Milk?" commercial. He has been featured in numerous newspaper and magazines articles. He owns a skateboarding business and is co-owner of a production company, 900 Films, that was on board for this year's tour for a series to air on ESPN and ESPN2 beginning Saturday.
Disney animators used him as a jungle-hero prototype for the movie "Tarzan." His "Tony Hawk's Pro Skater" video games have set PlayStation sales records.
Indeed it has been quite a ride.
Today, Hawk is 33, a loving husband and proud father of two sons, with a third child due this month. He's still thin but hardly a noodle, and at 6 feet 2 he looks down on most of his peers, but only literally.