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Friday, August 24, 2012
Updated: August 26, 9:57 PM ET
The steep path to victory

By Joel Rice
ESPN.com

Preview Practice Finals Commentary

This Sunday, Street League will conclude its third season at the Prudential Center in downtown Newark, N.J. Among eight finalists, one skater will emerge from the post-industrial port city with a championship title, a giant plastic $200,000 check, and a Nixon-brand, diamond-encrusted watch and matching ceremonial ring set.

Whatever the outcome of the fourth and final SLS contest of 2012, the professional skateboarding series will remain notable for having done more than almost any other media property/contest to establish skateboarding as a more traditionally conceived, intricately scored, mainstream high-stakes sport.

"Skateboarding is growing up," Kaspar van Lierop, the global head of Nike's skateboarding program, succinctly told a reporter in early 2012. In that light, the Street League DC Pro Tour Fueled by Monster Energy could be seen as one of its key rites of passage.

And no one has done more to hasten this maturation process than Rob Dyrdek.

Though the League boasts a roster of some of the most influential contemporary street skaters, perhaps the most exciting figure in the League is still its creator and "commissioner," Rob Dyrdek. Pundits often devote pages of commentary to his hats, parse his idle comments, dissect his press releases and promotional materials, and credit or blame him for skateboarding's current state. Common questions include: Will Street League become skateboarding's dominant contest paradigm? Can Dyrdek sell Street League to both the "core" and "mainstream" audiences? Perhaps these questions are even more interesting than "Who will win?"

Bearing that in mind, let's examine three of the more compelling characters of Street League's 2012 season: Paul Rodriguez, Nyjah Huston, and Bastien Salabanzi.

Paul Rodriguez and Jesus

Let me tell you a brief anecdote about Jesus and Paul Rodriguez: Jesus spoke to me. Jesus told me Rodriguez would win Street League. Jesus, in this case, was Jesus Osana.

I met Osana, a 19-year-old janitor, as he mopped in the nearly empty stands of the Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario, Calif., home to Street League's second stop. It was early in the day of Street League's qualifying event, and I was sitting with a notebook, watching a couple skaters practice on the course.

Dyrdek was himself sitting in the distance, imperially surveying the scene with Street League's general manager, Brian Atlas. Jesus asked me if I also wrote about BMX. When I told him no, Jesus told me that I should think about branching out.

At one point Jesus's manager approached us and said that Jesus was forbidden from speaking to the media. But later in the day -- as I was walking in the arena parking lot, which had been decorated with a giant skateboard and black tents displaying DC shoes, Monster Energy, and other wares -- Jesus passed by in the back of a flatbed truck.

"Who's going to win?" I called out as the truck rumbled back towards the nondescript Citizens Business Bank Arena.

"Paul Rodriguez," Jesus said with a smile.

To be honest, when Jesus told me he thought Rodriguez was going to win, I thought he was dead wrong. In my mind, I had already ceded victory to Huston for the simple fact that Huston more often than not wins the contests he enters. Huston is nearly a decade younger than Rodriguez.

And though physically slight, psychologically Huston seems about as solid and imposing as the concrete Citizens Business Bank Arena itself.

Further, Rodriguez had been in something like a contest "slump."

But that night, Rodriguez gave his most compelling Street League performance to date. Though behind in points, he was able to execute a transcendentally beautiful switchstance backside tailslide on the big ledge. It was the mystical moment that Rodriguez seemed to come out of "it" -- whatever "it" was.

Though Rodriguez did not go on to win the contest the last night in Ontario, it was the beginning of his return to form. Within a few weeks he would go on to win X Games gold and then, of course, float to a graceful first-place finish in Glendale, Ariz., at Street League's third stop of the summer. Rodriguez looked perfectly natural onstage hoisting the silver trophy. He, the Dime Squad, and Dyrdek were all smiles.

Jesus had told me P-Rod would win.

Watching him onscreen in Glendale, it was a lesson I would not fail to heed: Never count out P-Rod.

If Rodriguez wins the championship contest on Sunday, no one will be shocked. Rodriguez has proved that at 27, he still has the proverbial right stuff. The sophisticated Street League judges -- among them Dyrdek's cousin, "Big Cat," and Girl Skateboards veteran Robbie McKinley -- have seen fit to reward Rodriguez for his switchstance abilities, and Rodriguez has shown increasing comfort in the rigorous contest.

Whatever psychological barriers were in the way of Rodriguez, they faded away this summer. He has now moved from a middling Street League contestant to a top contender in Sunday's championship. Clearly the Rodriguez era is far from over. He enters Newark a far more credible candidate for the Championship, a body in far better sync with mind.

And remember, Jesus has his back.

Nyjah Huston and the Habit of Excellence

But as much as much as one may have wanted to savor the purity of Rodriguez's first-place finish in Glendale, the fact remains that another's misfortune had much to do with it. Huston -- Street League's pubescently lean but most imposing player -- had been injured that day in Glendale, incapacitated by a nagging knee injury. There's no way to know if Huston would have won that day had he not been injured. But it's hard to argue that his sprained knee did not make things just a little easier on everyone else, including Rodriguez.

Each skater in Street League's upper echelons has an impressive array of tricks. But few can command them the way Huston can.

"We are what we repeatedly do," said Aristotle. "Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit." By that definition, Huston is certainly an example of excellence.

In practice in Ontario, Huston (as cliché as it sounds) was one of the first to arrive and the last to leave. Towards the middle of the day, he was practicing 270 backside lipslides on the bump to A-frame rail. (And when I say "practicing," what I mean is doing them over and over again perfectly without breaking a sweat.) Then -- in a concert pianist's orderly and controlled fashion -- he began perfecting 270 backside blunts.

In the contest itself, Huston did one run that culminated in the 270 backside lipslide. Even though the arena was now filled with thousands of people, digital advertisements were unfurling like giant flashing ribbon around the stadium, and the music was blaring, Huston's unflappable expression looked exactly the same. For his second run, he ended on the 270 backside noseblunt on the A-frame rail. Just like practice. Just like clockwork.

This is sort of the essence of Huston's competitive edge, the secret to his gift. Whether the arena is empty or full, he skates the same (if not better). He doesn't fall apart. He doesn't give in to pressure.

"I just focus really, really hard," said Huston during an interview in Ontario.

So if Huston has fully convalesced from his sprained knee -- which surely played a role in his fourth-place finish at the X Games, his loss in Glendale and his fourth-place finish in Copenhagen -- the other SLS pros will find their path to victory obstructed at many turns. Though one of the youngest pros in the League, Huston is the most psychologically mature and the most fully formed athlete, the least prone to distraction and adolescent self-doubt. It is his marriage of sheer athletic ability, discipline, and mental sturdiness that makes Street League such a perfect venue for him to display his prodigious talent.

In a contest that can humble even the heaviest hitters, an uninjured Huston is still as close as you can come to a sure thing.

Bastien Salabanzi

"There are no second acts in American lives," F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote. But then, F. Scott Fitzgerald never got to witness Salabanzi's caballerial double flips or his big spin flip frontside boardslides. And perhaps, since Salabanzi is from Bordeaux, France, that Fitzgerald quote doesn't quite apply to him anyway.

Either way, Salabanzi has gotten to have a second act in the mainstream professional skateboarding world thanks in large measure to the Street League tour. His commanding entry into the European iteration of "The Selection" -- the video competition in which pros competed for five open spots in the SLS tour -- secured him a place in the four-stop professional skateboarding series.

In the first contest at Kansas City, he did not disappoint. For those who fret that Street League offers too sterile a version of skateboarding, Salabanzi offers an eloquent rebuttal. In the final minutes of the first Kansas City contest, Salabanzi was within inches of besting Huston.

In addition to skating with genuine abandon, he is a consummate showman. Whether it's his air kisses to the crowd or his ability to stoke spectators into a frenzy, no one could call him boring. Having decamped for Europe a few years ago under a cloud of some skateboard-industry interpersonal animosities and grievances, he seems to now appreciate the warm reception he regularly receives from the SLS audience.

Rumors of a major sponsor shift also now swirl around him. He did a massive backside 180 kickflip in the most recent Transworld Skateboarding magazine. By all appearances, it would seem that Salabanzi's comeback narrative was far from a fluke or a media creation.

Though Kansas City still stands as his best performance -- he was one trick away from beating Huston  he has a competitive streak that is not easily dismissed.

"He's Nyjah Huston's kryptonite," one tween fan told a reporter outside the Business Bank Arena in Ontario.

Perhaps. But that means Huston is still Superman.

Street League's Strong Supporting Cast

As fun and intriguing as conjecture can be, the fact remains that making Street League-related predictions is itself an unpredictable parlor game. All of the eight finalists are plausible contenders for the diamond-encrusted watch and championship ring set. Chaz Ortiz, sometimes unfairly maligned as a contest skater, was one trick away from winning Street League in Ontario. His new-breed consistency is reminiscent of Huston's, and he can often keep pace with his fierce rival.

Chris Cole, 31, who placed second in Glendale, is both a workhorse and a show-horse. Though even he seems to lack the mental brawn of Huston, he could easily clear a path to victory through his immaculate talent, unstinting work ethic, and legendary drive. Though Street League's new formatting changes have been aimed at encouraging greater risk taking, Sean Malto's consistency and casual style have wooed judges in the past and may do so again. Luan Oliveira has shown that he can rise to the occasion as well. Whether it's his frontside 180 flips over the hubba or highly technical ledge combinations, the 21-year-old Brazilian is consistently able to pair all tricks great and small. And of course, Ryan Sheckler, a born competitor and no stranger to the spotlight, could also carry the crown from Newark.

In the end, Street League has done much of what it originally set out to do: amass the world's best street skaters, create a rigorous and exacting scoring system, and leave the rest to fate.

With a cast of characters like this, no one's victory is ensured. Perhaps the only thing certain is that competition will be fierce. No one will go gentle into that good Newark night.