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A mellow yet gnarly day in K.C.

5/21/2012
Grant Puckett

Preview
Practice
Qualifying
Finals

Before we begin our coverage let us first address the elephant in the room.

Some members of the skateboarding community are not particularly enthusiastic about Street League. Some people, in fact, harbor a certain dislike for Street League. Actually some people hate Street League. Some people, in fact, really, really hate Street League. More to the point: They hate what they take Street League to be, what they think it represents.

To such observers ("haters" if you will) Street League is synonymous with skateboarding's penultimate assimilation into mass culture, its marriage of convenience to various corporate interests, its recent emphasis on raw, blaring athletic achievement, presumably at the expense of pure, subtle artistry.

These observers detest, in no particular order: the public relations professionals, the "media managers", attorneys, agents, trainers, handlers, the corporate partners and brands that are part and parcel of Street League's very existence.

Others argue that Street League is simply part of skateboarding's natural progression. As skateboarding became more spectacular in its feats, more legible, it was only a matter of time before it reached a wider audience. Street League defenders might also argue that if skateboarding is going to be a fact of mainstream American cultural life, why not productively engage with the wider markets. In all likelihood, there is no way either side will ever prevail in this interminable debate about what skateboarding should be, what it's supposed to look like.

Alas, this report from the frontlines of Street League 2012 will not answer these eternal questions. Certainly neither the views of Street League's defenders nor its critics will receive adequate airing in this short, timely blog post from the last practice day before Street League season officially begins in earnest, tomorrow.

For now, let us all take a deep breath, use our inside voices, put our swords away, let cooler heads prevail and shift discussion, ever so gently, back to something we all love: skateboarding.

Wherever you stand on these pressing issues of the day what is inarguable is this: The skateboarding on display at Street League is of unparalleled excellence, unrivaled quality.

The previous sentence is simply a haughty way of saying that the skaters at Street League are rad at what they do and their skating is super sick.

Case in point: Bastien Salanbanzi.

SALABANZI SHINES IN STREET LEAGUE THURSDAY PRACTICE SESSION
If you think that the Bastien Salabanzi comeback-narrative is merely a media invention, his attendance at Thursday's Street League practice session would swiftly disabuse you of that cynical notion. Simply put: Dude killed it today. What was not left to be killed he murdered. What was not slaughtered was completely slayed. Please do not accuse this reporter of hyperbole. Let me simply lay out the facts.

On the centerpiece bump to bump obstacle Salabanzi executed a caballerial double-kick flip. On one of the rails he pulled a double kickflip backlip. He landed a rather larger 360 flip with such authority and force you felt like it almost shook the roof of the Spring Center.

He was one fire.

Salabanzi exudes a pathological intensity perhaps born of years spent in the wilderness outside of the American skateboarding industry. It wasn't just that these tricks were among the best of the practice session. (Which they were.) It was also the way he did them. Even if you did not know his dramtic narrative you would have sensed a certain drama about him as he skated the new Street League course.

Mr. Salabanzi sat for a brief interview with ESPN.com during today's practice session. Though he has a reputation for being, shall we say, outspoken he could not have been more polite. However, at the very end of the interview this reporter blurted out this rather inane question: Do you want to win?

Mr. Salabanzi, with a twinkle in his eye said, "Would I be here if I didn't?"

KANSAS CITY'S SKATEBOARDING COMMUNITY GREETS STREET LEAGUE WARMLY, WARILY
Though "media day" at Street League sounds rather impressive, in fact, there were few if any representatives of major new organizations in attendance at the "open" practice session. However -- in the section of the stands in which we were sequestered by the third-party PR firm handling Street League ops -- several young non-traditional "new media" types keenly observed the epic skateboard session that was underway in the Sprint Center arena. As Paul Rodriguez did his switch 360 flips with characteristic finesse, and Sean Malto performed "buttery" frontside nose grinds on the bank to hubba with surgical precision these young "content-creators" offered ESPN.com their nuanced on views on what Street League means to them, what impact the contest might have on their skateboarding community.

One and all spoke of the warm and supportive nature of the Kansas City skateboarding scene.

"I feel like the Midwest is the last bastion of pure skateboarding," said JP Redmon, the proprietor of Heeeps.com, a website devoted to curating vintage Kansas City skate video footage.

"Street League is a double-edged sword," he added. "I like all the support and attention we are finally getting. Maybe the Midwest is the last skateboard place to be colonized. I just want skateboarding to be good hands."

"There is a hell of a lot of great skateboarders here today," offered Grant Puckett, a 19-year-old student at the Art Institute International of Kansas City, who had successfully lobbied Street League's publicity machine for a press pass.

"Nyjah [Huston] is amazing," he said. "But I'm rooting for Sean [Malto]."

ROB
No Street League ESPN.com skateboarding blog post would be complete without a quote from the Gatsbyesque figure at the center of Street League's digitized sport, pomp and pageantry: Rob Dyrdek.

In person Mr. Dyrdek still retains the slight build and swagger of a popular adolescent, the cool guy at the prom. Up close his bejeweled watch and diamond-encrusted ring look even more incandescent, ludicrously multihued.

During his course-side discussion with ESPN.com he wanted to clarify one point. He knows that the film "Righteous Kill," starring Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro and Curtis "Fifty Cent" Jackson is really, really, bad. Mr. Dyrdek, who as previously reported appeared in the film as a skateboarding procurer of prostitutes, "Let me say this about 'Righteous Kill,'" Mr. Dyrdek said. "You're offered a role in a movie with 50 Cent, Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino and they're like, 'The only way you can do this is if you play a skateboarding pimp.' And it's like... It's a life experience man. You can't buy that."

He also wanted to let reader know that Street League 2012 is going to be gnarly.

"Pro skateboarders love skateboarding contests. This is amazingly fun for them," Dyrdek said. "It just feels so good. The course is gnarly and flowable. It still feels like a super sick plaza, fully flowable."

"It's part of this weird dance that I do," Dyrdek observed of his career, and the mix of candid commercial appeal and hardcore street skating that Street League embodies. "I am very aware of what I am doing, how I am doing it."

"Welcome man, welcome," Dyrdek said to the competitors as they passed by on foot and on skateboards.

NEW CONTESTANTS IN STREET LEAGUE EXCITED, NERVOUS, RAD
This morning, as I was exiting the elevator at the Westin Kansas City Downtown Plaza hotel I ran into none other than Mystery pro Tom Asta, one of five skaters who earned a spot in the 2012 Street League for the first time. Mr. Asta looked wide-eyed. He clutched a board. He was wearing his signature beanie. "Do you know where room 1245 is?" he asked. I offered that it might be on the 12th floor. With a complete lack of self-consciousness he thanked me warmly and went on his merry way.

Later in the day, around 4:00, I spoke to him on the Street Course, as Rob Dyrdek looked paternally on.
"There were two towers [at the Westin hotel]," Mr. Asta explained. "I wasn't sure which one I was in. I didn't want to go up the wrong one."

If Asta was a bit lost in the Westin's cavernous environs he appeared completely at home on the Street League course. Like most of the skaters he made much use of the much vaunted new addition to the course: a quarterpipe.

The ramp is meant to increase the "flowability" of the course, to facilitate the new "line" section of the contest. (Dyrdek calls "lines" the "soul of skateboarding.")

Matt Miller, whose recent switch stance heelflip up the Berrics staircase has to be seen to be believed and then when it is seen will still not be believed, expressed excitement about his first season with The League.

Though Miller's manner is one of unadulterated affability, he acknowledged that Street League sometimes rewards a certain caginess among its competitors.

"I am not doing my biggest tricks today. You don't want to let the cat out of the bag too soon," he said with a giant smile.