Gagnon, Rodriguez reach skateboard heights

Times Staff Writer

There was a time not long ago when skateboarders competed merely for fun, on crude ramps and with a few hundred bucks for the winner.

On Sunday afternoon, after a 45-minute jam session on a U-shaped composite ramp the athletes raved about, Pierre-Luc Gagnon earned, for his dazzlingly display, a dizzying sum of $75,000.

"I've never made as much money off of one contest," the Carlsbad skateboarder said, in apparent disbelief, after winning the inaugural Maloof Money Cup pro vert championship. "I'm at a loss for words."

It was the most lucrative individual payday in the history of competitive skateboarding -- until later in the evening, when Paul Rodriguez won the men's pro street championship and $100,000.

While they were peak moments for Gagnon and Rodriguez, it became a special weekend for skateboarding, as it marked a vastly successful entry into the sport by the Maloof brothers, Joe and Gavin, who own the Sacramento Kings of the NBA but are suddenly action sports heroes.

Said Bucky Lasek, who finished third in the vert contest and claimed $20,000: "It just goes to show what you can put together when you have guys like that, and money is no problem."

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Maloofs come through

The inaugural Maloof Money Cup, which helped kick off the Orange County Fair in Costa Mesa, paid $478,000 overall.

The six-figure prize for Rodriguez -- the top payout of the three-day competition -- is double what ESPN's X Games paid street winner Chris Cole last summer.

Joe Maloof, 52, who dreamed up the idea for the Money Cup after noting the booming population of skateboarders, said he's not trying to show up the X Games, which later this month will embark on their 14th summer season in Los Angeles.

"I just think it's time for skateboarding," Maloof said. "I know it's a lifestyle and not considered a sport. But it's time for these guys to make some money. What's wrong with that?"

Nothing, but skateboarders will argue, politely, that skateboarding is a sport.

And chances are, the X Games brass is monitoring the situation.

Gagnon, whose previous high payday was $66,000, after he won the vert and finished second in big-air at the 2005 X Games, recently spoke with X Games officials.

He half-joked, "Are you going to let [the Maloofs] get away with that?"

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Here today, gone tomorrow

The Maloofs contracted California Skateparks to build an amazing street course. It required more than 230 cubic yards of colored concrete and marble, and 400 tons of filler, which were transformed into a realistic street environment including false bank-building front and a plateau of steps, rails, tabletops and benches.

"It's the type of stuff I skate every day," said Rodriguez, who clinched his triumph with an incredible display of balance and grace while performing tricks over or atop the rail on a 16-step feature in the final phase of the 90-minute contest.

It cost the Maloofs $150,000 to build the street course and $70,000 to erect the vert ramp. Both have to be torn down by Tuesday morning according to an agreement with fairground organizers.

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A 900 for Dias

The disadvantage of jam sessions, as opposed to the best-of-three-runs format the X Games uses for vert competitions, is that spectators and athletes do not know who wins till the judges inform them.

The benefit is that it enables athletes, who can make as many runs as they wish before time expires, try more difficult tricks.

Brazil's Sandro Dias, for example, repeatedly tried a 900-degree spin, failing until his last attempt, in the final minute. The fans applauded and Dias, who is the only person to have nailed a 900 in competition, ended up in fifth place.

"It was only one trick. I knew I didn't win," he said.

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These women are gnarly

Female street skaters have got to be some of the toughest athletes in women's sports. They're downright gnarly.

Some wear hairstyles borrowed from the punk era. Many have tattoos, and there are those with studs in their tongues, noses, eyebrows and elsewhere on battered bodies.

All beat the daylights out of themselves while attempting to land the perfect trick. In a jam session during which every good trick was matched with a vicious slam, Lacey Baker of Covina prevailed and afterward said pain is just part of the program.

"There's always some kind of pain involved," she said, moments after landing -- after several failed attempts -- a 360 kickflip over what was called the Carlsbad gap. "It doesn't bother me."

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And finally

Bob Burnquist, who finished seventh in the vert and earned $4,000, had never heard of the Maloof brothers before the announcement of the Money Cup.

"I guess I was aloof about the Maloofs," he said.

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pete.thomas@latimes.com

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