New York's latest skatepark—a 16,000-square-foot concrete plaza, built at the cost of $1.5 million and located at Flushing Meadows—has been donated to the city by the entrepreneurs Joe and Gavin Maloof. The Maloof brothers are the scions of a West Coast family who own and operate the Sacramento Kings and the Palms casino in Las Vegas. And since 2008, the brothers have also overseen the Maloof Money Cup, a contest, as its name suggests, with the most lucrative purse in professional skateboarding.
The inaugural 2008 Maloof event, and the 2009 follow-up, were both held at the Orange County Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa, California. But because the O.C. Fairgrounds refuse to house permanent structures of this scale, both courses were promptly destroyed following competition. A third annual contest is scheduled there in August, and the same fate awaits this year's park.
The big money involved in these events has drawn the Maloof brothers the ire of those hardcore skaters who prefer their skateboarding free of the trappings and crass commercialism of major league sports. The Maloofs are aware of their critics, and that's why the Queens plaza will remain intact for public use, as will the street course and vert ramp they plan to construct in 2011 in South Africa.
"It's really a travesty [to tear down parks]," Joe Maloof admitted, when I interviewed him after the opening ceremony. Still, he was proud of the Queens course. Designed with the input of local pro Steve Rodriguez, the park is a simulacrum of NYC street skating, featuring obstacles that pay homage to specific spots across the five boroughs.
Joe was also pleased that his events have attracted a number of purist street skaters, guys who usually eschew contests. "We listen to the skaters," he said. "We didn't come in like we were know-it-alls."
Just as Joe and I finished talking, the former X-Games champion Eric Koston arrived to survey the course. At 35, he may be old for a pro, but he's still one of skating's premiere stylists. I asked Koston what made the Money Cup different from other contests, like the X-Games or the Dew Tour.
"Not a whole hell of a lot, really," Koston said. "There's more dough?"
Local Skaters, Big Bucks: The Maloof Money Cup
The following day, I saw the future of skateboarding, and it was foam fingers.
At 11am, two hours before the start of the competition, the stands were already teeming with excitable pubescent groms, many of whom were brandishing navy blue foam fingers advertising CCS, the Amazon.com of skateboarding.
CCS was one of several Maloof sponsors that had set up a booth adjacent to the skatepark, at the Vendor Village. It was there that one could acquire foam fingers, eat funnel fries and fried Oreos, listen to Blink-182 knockoff bands, and purchase items that in some cases had something to do with skateboarding (Vans sneakers) and in other cases nothing at all (Oakley sunglasses, Skull Candy headphones, MetroPlus health insurance, Vitamin Water "water").
In addition to the Vendor Village, a large white media tent had been put up at the periphery of the skatepark. I found myself returning to it repeatedly, because, in addition to the succor of water and air-conditioning, this tent offered a behind-the-scenes view of the extreme sports industrial complex. There were several flatscreens inside the tent, all of them but one displaying Fuel TV's live coverage of an event that was happening a mere 50 yards away. The other television was connected to an Xbox 360 and was devoted to Electronic Arts' SKATE(tm) 3 game, which now offers a "Maloof Queens" level as a downloadable update.
Twenty-something dudes in cargo shorts predominated in the media tent. Some of them worked for Fuel or Fox (which will broadcast its coverage on June 27) or for Thrasher magazine. But many of them, though they wore media badges just like mine, appeared to be reporting, via Facebook and Twitter, on behalf of Vans and the apparel manufacturer Volcom (both companies have partnered with the Maloofs in the Money Cup endeavor). I overheard one of these guys actually ask a skater, who had come into the tent after finishing his heat, exactly what had been going through his head at the moment he had been grinding some such ledge.
As for the contest itself, there was a discrepancy all afternoon between those skaters who were scoring well and would ultimately advance to the finals on Sunday, and those skaters who actually appeared to be ripping the hardest. Although the emcees had explained the format before the start, the criteria for judging weren't all that easy to follow, even for the knowledgable spectator. In fact, the skaters themselves had trouble understanding the rules. At one point, the legendary Anthony "AVE" Van Engelen was admonished over the PA system for landing a rather sick grind to wallride across a steep pyramid-shaped ledge. Apparently that particular obstacle was out of bounds during that heat. "But you skate it if you want to," Van Engelen was told.
For some, the highpoint of the Maloof Money Cup was Sunday's final. Chris Cole, the technically capable but style-averse winner of last year's competition in California, triumphed again with a series of impressively consistent, robotically precise tricks.
But for me, the drama of Maloof had reached its zenith earlier that afternoon during the amateur trials, when Luis Tolentino, a scrappy Queens native, attempted to land an impossibly huge frontside ollie (a trick in which the skater rotates 180 degrees in midair and lands backwards). Tolentino slammed continually, falling onto a swollen and already taped-up right elbow. And yet the emcees egged him on after each fall, offering him escalating amounts of cash until they reached $1,000—as if any price could be put on his grit or his pain. After at least a dozen failed efforts, Tolentino at last rolled away clean and the crowd, including me, erupted in appreciation. Tolentino earned every cent of those $1,000, but it was hard to shake the feeling that he had been treated like a dancing bear. It was the single most inspiring moment of the Maloof Money Cup, and also the ugliest.
After the contest, as I walked to the 7 train, I passed through the dilapidated infrastructure of the 1964 World's Fair. Engineered by Robert Moses, the fair represented an uneasy confluence of private and public interests not unlike, in its own day, the skatepark now left behind by the Maloofs. A rainstorm had tumbled down just as the contest was ending, and underneath an overhead shelter near the train stop, I came upon a group of happy young skaters. Hyped at seeing their heroes in action, they had come to the only dry spot in Flushing Meadows to play a game of S-K-A-T-E. This I thought, with no small relief, is the real future of skateboarding.