By David Rosenfeld
The X-Games were just getting started for the last time in downtown Los Angeles when I met Jay Adams at the Venice Skate Park. In many ways it was a fitting time and place for a sport and a life that’s come full circle.
I didn’t know quite what to expect. I knew he’d been in prison; he’d been violent when he was younger and he had tattoos on his neck and face. I also knew that he was a legend of skateboarding and if there was anyone who represents the Westside and the skateboard scene that emerged here in the 1980s, it was Adams.
He came to our interview wearing sandals, board shorts and a Hurley t-shirt, just one of several sponsors he still gets paid to represent. He’s a little antsy because he’s supposed to meet someone about selling his van. He’d given the van to an acquaintance on good faith that he’d pay for it, but when he refused, Adams took him to court. This was the day he would meet the guy to receive the $2,500 the judge ordered instead of the $6,000 Jay was originally owed.
“It’s all good,” he says.
Back in the day it would not have been “all good.”
Adams is best known as a founding member of the Zephyr Team, also known as the Z-Boys, along with Tony Alva and Stacy Paralta, among others. The team revolutionized skateboarding in the 1970s and early 1980s with bowl riding and professional contests. He’s also known as one of the badest bad boys in a sport characterized by rebellion. In 2008, Adams was released from prison after a four-year term for trafficking drugs. In January it will be the first time Adams is not in prison or on parole since 1999. He says he wants to vacation in Bali.
These days he enjoys a simpler life in which he’s gained a new reputation as one of the sweetest, most compassionate people in the skateboarding world. The situation with the van is a perfect example.
“I’m not going to hate the guy even though he swindled me out of a car,” he says. “I’m a very trusting person until someone gives me a reason to distrust them. If you follow through with intimidation it’s just going to get you in a bad place.”
Beginning when he got out of prison most recently, Adams has turned his struggles into something positive by speaking with young kids at local schools and skateboarding events about the poor choices he made as a young man.
“Those were the states of youth,” he says. “The 70s and 80s were a different time. With punk rock there was a lot of violence and being young, drinking alcohol and making bad choices. Now I want to encourage people not to go down the same road I went down.”
He says he owes a great deal to his faith in God and the support community at his local church in San Clemente where he lives with his wife and his small collection of classic cars. The 52-year-old surfs more than he skateboards because of some aching knees.
Adams spent several decades in Hawaii when in the late 1990s, stunned by the loss of his mother, brother, dad and grandmother for various reasons all within a year, Adams descended into heavy drug use that would eventually land him in prison.
Dennis Martinez, a longtime friend who was a rival competitive skateboarder from San Diego, now leads a group of former gang-members and prisoners in which Jay participates in speaking at local schools.
“He’s come such a long way,” Martinez says. “Jay is a character, period. Knowing these guys it was really an image that they built. He’s always been the same. At any given time Jay would do something so off the wall it would blow your mind. When you’re pioneers and put your hard work into something, you can’t take that away from guys like us. The youngsters, they understand that. Skateboarding wouldn’t be where it is today.”
At our interview beside the skate park in Venice, Adams does not go unnoticed by skateboarders like Mario Mata who took a break from riding to say hello. Mata, who’s nearly the same age, says he came to skateboarding as a kid in Texas when he first saw a magazine with Adams’ photo.
“I came into this pharmacy one day and there was this little magazine rack and way in the back there was this skateboarding magazine and there was a picture of Jay in it,” Mata says. “From then on I had their pictures on my wall and I tried to emulate them skateboarding.”
His story and that of the Zephyr team was documented in 2001 by the award-winning documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys followed by the motion picture Lords of Dogtown in 2008, which Adams says took considerable liberties with the truth.
“They took an R-rated life and made it PG-13,” he says.
The part they got right was that Adams and his friends were the first to ride empty swimming pools. At times they would rent an airplane to scout new pools. On weekends they’d enter backyards of homes that were under construction or when they knew the owners weren’t home, empty the pool of its water and skate it. The risk and adventures that came with it are a long way from the pool ride afforded at the Venice Skate Park where we finished our conversation on an overcast weekday afternoon.
“We had a plywood ramp against the wall right here,” he recalls. “I can remember 50 guys riding it and 100 guys watching. We pushed the limits we could on that terrain. I didn’t think it would get to where it is today, but it’s not too unimaginable. I’m just glad I got to be involved during the time period that I did. Things were new and we got to be among the first to do a lot of this stuff.”