Skateboarding has been around long enough, and skate parks are numerous enough, that tons of amateurs can rip like only pros once did. It’s a whole other thing to skate with style. For The New York Times Magazine, Willy Staley profiles Tyshawn Jones. The first New Yorker to win Thrasher magazine’s Skater of the Year award, Jones represents a shift away from skateboarding’s West Coast origins, and its contentious merging with the fashion industry, which is where the money is. Besides his absolute devotion and his incredible abilities, what separates him from so many of us skaters is that he grew up in the Bronx and has used flat, crowded Manhattan as his skate park. Instead of doing the same tricks on big ramps designed for those exact tricks, he gives us something new: olleying over store signs and trash cans, sliding across handrails and flower boxes, and even doing a boardslide on the front of an earth mover on Park Avenue. Finding the spots requires talent. Imagining how to skate them, and pulling off the tricks, are whole separate talents.
As Strobeck sees it, that journey from the Bronx to Manhattan is captured symbolically in the trick that put Jones on the cover of Thrasher: an ollie over an entrance to the 6 train at the 33rd Street station. This subway entrance is a mind-boggling thing to leap over: The gap starts in an office building’s elevated plaza, and from there, you have to clear a thigh-high guardrail, then a six-foot-wide staircase plunging down into the street, with a spike-tipped fence on the other end. But the ollie itself was just a fraction of the challenge. Midtown was swarming with people whenever they went to film.
One thing Jones has that a lot of pro skaters don’t is a bunch of hardheaded friends who are willing to bring city life to a halt for him. The day he finally landed it, on his third visit, he went to the spot with 10 of his buddies, most of whom didn’t skate. They positioned themselves all around the subway entrance to help, in Strobeck’s words, ‘‘facilitate’’ — or the exact opposite, depending on your perspective. One stood in the stairwell to keep unwitting straphangers from taking a board to the skull, one stood up top to keep people from going down the stairs, some dealt with people in the plaza above, another worked as a spotter to tell Jones when the coast was clear. Even passers-by stopped to help.
To ollie over something this massive is like doing a parabolic calculus problem with your body while also attempting suicide, but it involves a set of motions Jones knows like second nature: Snap the tail and leap, dragging the board as high as you can with your front foot, tucking your knees into your body — on the Thrasher cover, Jones’s are practically touching his shoulders — then hope for the best. When Jones finally landed it, he did so with his front wheels in the street and his rear wheels up on the sidewalk, one last screw-you from New York, but he rode away. He got a message on Instagram from someone who worked in a building high above the plaza. She told him that people in the office had lined up at the windows to watch. When he landed it, the whole place erupted in cheers.
Jones makes a solid living from his sponsors and the restaurant his skate money bought him, but like most pro skaters, he would make a lot more if he was in a different sport. The skateboard industry is lucrative but has always had limitations, so Jones is wisely targeting clothing and fashion brands instead of just skateboard companies. Besides talking a lot about money, Staley’s piece is also a celebration of a sport whose athletes gets far less respect, and money, than mainstream basketball and baseball players. Hanging out with Jones, Staley makes an observation you don’t see much in skate journalism: the way skaters view other athletes.
It was the week of the N.B.A. Finals, and the two began to discuss the truly galling amount of money basketball players make. ‘‘Throwing a ball in a hoop!’’ Jones said, dismissively. ‘‘Curry got $237 million for five years.’’ It hadn’t occurred to me just how rote the work of an athlete might look to a pro skater, who must do so much more than just perform. He has to find spots, think of tricks, overcome not just his fears but also the police, Good Samaritans, cracks in the pavement, rain. And only once that chaos has been mitigated can he try to perform, to write one little line in the canon of an insular subculture. Henry joked that her son had gotten into the wrong sport entirely.
‘‘Throwing a ball in a hoop,’’ he said again. ‘‘That [expletive] is crazy!’’