Sean Malto sounds relaxed.
It’s a weekday afternoon in May, and the Street League Skateboarding standout is detailing the particulars of a rare day at home. Earlier that morning, he’d played golf with his brother — shot a 95, despite only recently rediscovering a taste for the sport — and at the moment he’s passing time in his River Market loft, waiting to hear from friends about the evening’s plans.
“We’ll probably all meet up and go skate,” he says.
It seems an appropriately understated day for a 22-year-old who, despite his status as one of the world’s best skateboarders, might be the most anonymous superstar in Kansas City sports.
He has hung with NBA All-Star Kevin Durant, skated with Lil Wayne and worked with director Spike Jonze, but the lack of mainstream attention has left him a relative unknown in his own city. Unlike the town’s more recognizable stars — Chiefs Matt Cassel and Dwayne Bowe and the Royals’ Alex Gordon, for instance — he typically is recognized only about once a week.
The lack of local notoriety certainly isn’t due to any shortage of occupational success. Last year, despite a knee injury that required surgery, he beat out teenage sensation Nyjah Huston to win the Street League DC Pro Tour championship, pro skating’s Super Bowl. He boasts sponsorship deals with Gatorade and Nike, and his recent success has made him a favorite to repeat during the Street League’s 2012 season, a four-stop contest series that kicks off this weekend at the Sprint Center.
“There’s no doubt he’ll be fighting for that top spot again, just like he has every time,” says Rob Dyrdek, a professional skater and founder of Street League Skateboarding. “It’s one of those things where it’s so difficult to win these contests — these guys are so good. You gotta get a little lucky and put it down when it matters, but if he’s ever in a contest, he always has a shot to win it.”
Soft-spoken and polite, Malto began skating at age 10 because his older brothers were doing it and because, unlike basketball with its structured and formulaic practices, he could do it whenever and wherever he pleased. Armed with a skateboard, he set off into the streets of Leavenworth and quickly began to develop a reputation as someone with ample potential.
By age 13, he had earned the notice of companies like Nike, who regularly sent him free gear, and he began to realize that he might have a future in the sport. After two years at Leavenworth High School, he left to start homeschooling to accommodate his hectic travel schedule, which now keeps him on the road for six to nine months of the year.
Even after he had emerged as one of the sport’s brightest young stars, however, his lifestyle remained low-key. As recently as three years ago, he lived at home in Leavenworth, making frequent trips to Kansas City to skate with friends. Eventually he got tired of the back-and-forth, so he began to stay with a friend in Kansas City. They’d wake up, spend all day skating and then head back to the friend’s place at night to crash.
“I slept on the floor,” Malto says.
Finally, realizing he had the means to do so, he popped for a loft a couple of years ago in the River Market. The location suits him. He likes being able to get up in the morning and grab a coffee. And it provides easy access to a number of the city’s quality skating spots, including his private indoor park in the East Bottoms.
Still, much like the famous violinist Joshua Bell — whose 2007 performance in a crowded D.C. subway went largely ignored in a stunt documented by The Washington Post — Malto’s genius can oftentimes be overlooked.
There have been times when he has been skating with friends around the city and law enforcement has shooed him away. But while some may be oblivious to the national skating scene, there are plenty who recognize Malto as an athletic phenom.
When rapper and aspiring skateboarder Lil Wayne was in town last August for a concert, for instance, he accepted an invitation from Malto to get together for a skating session. Because of scheduling limitations, the only time the rapper could meet was after his Monday night concert at the Sprint Center. So after the concert, Malto and a couple of friends headed to the indoor park in the East Bottoms to wait.
Around 2:30 a.m., four full-size tour buses and two Cadillac Escalades pulled up. After introductions, what might be the world’s top rapper joined what might be the world’s top skateboarder for an all-night skate session.
“He skated until 5 in the morning,” Malto says. “(Fellow rapper) Birdman was playing dice on the pool table. It was a private thing, and obviously there’s, like, two huge security guards that make sure no one even comes close to touching him.”
For those close to the sport, skateboarding has long been considered a coastal endeavor. But Malto has had a hand in proving that the Midwest — and, specifically, Kansas City — is capable of churning out top-notch talent. Unlike many of skateboarding’s other stars, Malto hasn’t relocated to California, and his hometown loyalty has worked to his advantage in some instances.
When deciding stops for last year’s tour, Dyrdek settled on Kansas City in part because it was home to one of the circuit’s standouts, and he loved the idea of kicking off this year’s schedule in the literal backyard of the league’s defending champion.
How close to home, for instance, is this weekend’s competition?
Nike reserved Malto a downtown hotel room for the weekend that, the skater says, might actually be farther from the Sprint Center than his loft.
So with his star at an all-time high and a skating world that will have its collective attention focused solely on the city of fountains, Malto admits that, for one weekend at least, he might have a little trouble strolling unnoticed through a downtown area filled with skaters and skate fans.
“This contest is, like, the biggest contest in skating history,” Malto says. “People see something like that happening at the Sprint Center, they kind of trip.”
To reach Ink reporter Dugan Arnett, call 816.234.4039 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @duganarnett.
In addition to overseeing the weekend pro tour at the Sprint Center, Street League Skateboarding founder and reality TV star Rob Dyrdek on Tuesday was scheduled to be at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the expanded Penn Valley Skatepark. Features include new ledges, stairs and banks, plus an additional 7,000 square feet to the 11,000 square feet of existing skate park that was built in 2006 at 29th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue.
The Rob Dyrdek Foundation said it contributed $75,000 in design and construction for the plaza as part of its “Safe Spot Skate Spot” initiative.
By the numbers: Street League Skateboarding
24: Skateboarders competing in this year’s tour
4: Stops on the Street League DC Pro tour. This weekend’s contest at the Sprint Center is the first of the season, followed by stops in Ontario, Calif. (June 15-16), Glendale, Ariz. (July 14-15), and Newark, N.J.(Aug. 26).
$1.6 million: Prize money up for grabs during this year’s tour.
4th: Sean Malto’s rank last year in the Street League competition at the Sprint Center.
1st: Malto’s finish in last year’s tour championship at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.
81.2: Score Malto tallied in last year’s championship. He finished nearly two points ahead of runner-up Nyjah Huston.
$200,000: Prize money Malto received for winning last year’s title.
2: Skaters on the Street League tour who don’t live full time in California, according to league founder Rob Dyrdek. One is Chaz Ortiz of Chicago. The other is Malto.
50,000: Attendance at events on last year’s tour.