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July 30, 2005

On the edge, but down to earth

At HuckJam, sports are extreme but athletes aren't

[See photos of Jamie and me at HuckJam by clicking here]


LAS VEGAS -- Back in 1992, when 18-year-old Andy Macdonald left Boston to pursue his big dream, everyone -- his parents included -- told him to grow up and give up.

So it's understandably triumphant for him to return to his hometown for the third consecutive summer as a headliner, a main attraction of a two-hour extravaganza called Tony Hawk's Boom Boom HuckJam that showcases death-defying skateboard, BMX, and motocross stunts. ''AndyMac," as the moniker scrawled across his best-selling line of $60 skateboards calls him, has certainly made a go -- and a show -- of his ability to leap great chasms on flimsy pieces of wood.

''Knowing Boston Garden as where I used to see Larry Bird and Bobby Orr and leaving Boston as kind of an outcast only to years later be selling out the [TD Banknorth Garden] is a pretty surreal experience," says Macdonald, 31, a Newton North High School alumnus.

Macdonald's arc over the past dozen years runs parallel to the surge in popularity for ''extreme sports," namely the three disciplines included in the HuckJam. The tour, the brainchild of famed skateboarder Hawk, moves the old circuit of performing tricks from skateparks where crowds were overgrowing the space and into 15,000-seat arenas like the one at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas where the likes of Bette Midler and Don Henley have packed 'em in.

''We were the sideshows for rock concerts or state fairs, but I felt we had enough of a following for our sport to do our own tour," said Hawk, at 37 the sport's elder statesman and most successful entrepreneur. ''I was right."

Put it this way: Macdonald claims more kids skateboard these days than play baseball. While it's unclear whether that's true, these activities have come a long way from the mid-1970s when, as depicted in this summer's film ''Lords of Dogtown," a group of riffraff California kids gained a cult following tooling around in local parks as renegades. In 2005, it's so mainstream that McDonald's and Jeep sponsor the tour.

''We get kids nowadays who are 12 who want to be pros and parents who want their kids to be pros," said Kevin Robinson, 33, who grew up in East Providence and is now a champion BMXer. ''Sometimes I see dads who push their kids too hard. That makes me uncomfortable -- it's supposed to just be fun."

What fans get to see in the 25-city HuckJam tour are the athletes they regularly watch on ESPN and whose faces and names are on some of the most successful video games around. (The chicken-and-egg question of how the current craze got started is wrapped up in ESPN exposure that started in the late 1990s, which seems to have both capitalized on and driven the sports' rise, the athletes say.)

The tour allows these guys -- and they're all guys -- to take time off from competition and indulge in the thrilling show-biz side of their craft on a set that cost $2 million and takes 16 trucks and a crew of 80 to move from city to city. That's a long way from sneaking into posh backyards to board in empty pools during droughts.

The show is part Cirque du Soleil-style slickness, part street antics, a high-energy melange of unscripted freestyle jamming and choreographed stunts. In one of the more astounding feats, a skateboarder and BMXer glide together down a five-story ''drop" ramp and launch into the air to leap across a 45-foot ''half-pipe" -- all the while appearing as though the board or the bike are surgically attached to the riders' bodies.

Despite the emphasis on skateboarding and BMX, which comprise most of the production, it's the motocross that seems to draw the biggest ''oohs" and ''aahs" from the audience. That's probably because it's louder and more visual to see four motorcyclists leap across a chasm and lift their bodies off the seats at the same time amid bursts of fireworks.

Yet it's the overall attitude -- or lack thereof -- of HuckJam that is especially intriguing. Despite the fame and increasing fortunes of the likes of Macdonald, Hawk, and Robinson, the performers present themselves not as gods or showoffs but as down-to-earth fellows as astonished as anyone at the feats they can pull off. The show is punctuated by a series of sketches broadcast on the big screens in which the athletes pose as themselves 50 years from now, self-mockingly recalling their glory in a way that shows they don't take themselves too seriously.

In doing so, they also encourage the audience not to expect perfection. Even the great, aptly named Hawk lands on his knees from time to time with his board flying out from under him. The crowd, largely teen boys and their chaperones, seems to enjoy seeing a good spill now and then as much as the great feats, in part because mistakes keep the athletes accessible and real. After a wipeout, the performer will humbly acknowledge the sympathetic groans and often try again. That's a kind of empathy, patience, and admiration rarely found in sports these days; a ballplayer who strikes out in the clutch is often ridiculed.

Indeed, by allowing for imperfections, Macdonald says the show -- despite its concern for box office sales -- stays true to the individualistic nature of the disciplines.

''There is a whole school of thought that says it started in backyards and as soon as it hits an arena it'll be too big and cease to be edgy," Macdonald says. ''But there are still going to be kids building ramps and making up their own moves. And that's what it's all about, the imagination."


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