Sport can awaken hope where there was previously only despair.
-- Nelson Mandela
ABOUT TWO YEARS AGO, Tony Hawk found himself wondering about a ghost from his past.
In August 2009, he had flown to Durban, South Africa, to visit a fledgling skateboard camp in a Zulu tribal region called the Valley of a Thousand Hills. He was there as an ambassador for the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation, which had funded the project. Hawk, the most famous skateboarder in the world, met dozens of Zulu children at the Indigo Skate Camp, many of whom had no idea who he was. One boy, however, made a lasting impression.
After watching the boy skate, Hawk couldn't get over his natural style and the glowing smile that never left his face. "There was just this quality that made you notice him," Hawk recalled. "I could tell that he had something special."
Hawk saw potential in the boy that beckoned far beyond the scorched hillsides, concrete yurts and prickly kasha bushes surrounding the camp. He told the boy he would like to send him free skateboards from his company, Birdhouse -- not as a business partnership but simply to give the boy a better chance.
"What's your address?" Hawk asked.
"I don't have an address," the boy said. "I live on the street."
That was the first time Hawk had heard anyone say that, let alone a kid. A photographer named Dorin Bambus overheard their conversation and offered to serve as a liaison. He had seen the boy skating some local spots in Durban. "I know where to find him," Bambus told Hawk. "You can send the boards to me."
Hawk did that every so often -- mailed equipment to Bambus, who delivered it to the boy via a mutual friend -- before everyone fell out of touch. Now, wondering what ever happened to the cheeky kid he met at Indigo, Hawk typed the boy's name into his Internet search bar. An Instagram account popped up. To Hawk's astonishment, the boy, then 19, had recently moved to Los Angeles, not far from where Hawk lived. Even more surprising, his profile showed him hanging out with three of the best skateboarders in the world -- Guy Mariano, Marc Johnson and Kenny Anderson.
It's not every day a homeless kid from Africa shows up in your backyard, but Hawk had no idea how improbable the story actually was.
THALENTE BIYELA, the subject of Hawk's wonder, never needed a nickname. Why would he? His mother, apparently acting on a hunch, named him "talent" in their native Zulu language, which pronounces it the same as English despite the tribal spelling. Thalente accepted the expectations that came with his name. And he lived up to them.
But on this March morning in L.A., he is nervous and fidgeting in the back seat of an SUV, burdened by a different kind of expectation. He is late to meet and skate with 1980s Bones Brigade legend Lance Mountain, and Thalente's friend and sometimes-filmer, Lawrence McCullum, is nowhere to be found. Every tick of the clock means they will arrive at Mountain's house another tick later than promised.
"I could tell that he had something special."
- Tony Hawk
Natalie Johns, a Zimbabwe-born, Durban-raised filmmaker who serves as Thalente's unofficial guardian in L.A., is behind the wheel of the SUV, scanning the streets for McCullum, who took the train to meet them. Brett Shaw, a heavily tattooed Durban skater who also shoots television programs for National Geographic, is sitting shotgun. Finally, Thalente spots McCullum pushing his skateboard up the sidewalk, coffee in hand. Johns pulls over, obviously aggravated, and he climbs in the back seat. "Lawrence," she fumes, "I can't keep operating on skater time, dude! How many times have we talked about this? It reflects poorly on all of us."
McCullum apologizes, but it's obvious punctuality is not the only thing at stake today. When you are an upstart trying to catch a break, as Thalente is, impressing one of skateboarding's original gangsters can open doors -- and Johns knows he needs every opportunity he can get.
It has been 16 months since Thalente left Durban and flew to New York City with Johns, a white, 35-year-old friend of a friend whom he barely knew. Johns, living in Brooklyn at the time, brought Thalente to America to chronicle his pursuit of a professional skateboarding career (the documentary, "I Am Thalente," is set to premiere in early 2015). A month after they arrived in New York, she moved them 2,800 miles to L.A., the epicenter of professional skateboarding, and took on a role that blended filmmaker with mother and sister. "I have an attachment to him I didn't think I'd have," she says.
Mountain doesn't know much about Thalente's background. He saw him at the Glendale skatepark when Thalente was giving a few kids some tips, thought he carried himself well on a skateboard. Sometime after today's meeting, however, Mountain will learn that Thalente's mere existence is his best trick.
You would never deduce this on your own. He's too smart, too mature, too well-spoken to have been living on the street when he was 8, orphaned at 13, addicted to heroin at 14. To make it out of Durban's red light district, one of the most desperate urban settings in Africa, is a feat in its own right. To do it when you spent much of your childhood starving and sleeping on concrete elevates one to a different survival league entirely.
That Thalente's story took place where and when it did -- South Africa, 20 years after apartheid ended -- is not insignificant. Nor is his long list of saviors, whose involvement often meant risking or sacrificing something substantial in their own lives.
Johns pulls up to Mountain's suburban home about 11 a.m., and the skating begins shortly after the handshakes. For the first 20 minutes, the mood is quiet; Thalente, who grew up skating ramps and bowls in Durban, takes a while to get comfortable with Mountain's deep and fast pool -- what skaters loosely refer to as an "A-game pool." Once he does, he begins flying around in a blur.
He fails to finish a grind, and his momentum chucks him back into the bowl headfirst, skidding across the concrete. Everyone on the deck freezes for a moment.
Five years ago, emaciated by drugs, his sharp shoulders and ribs might have shattered under such an impact. Now, at 5-foot-11 and 160 pounds of chiseled muscle, he gets up with just a pink shoulder "roasty" -- Durban speak for skin raked raw.
"It's almost like you need pads," Shaw suggests, half-joking.
"Nah," Thalente says, climbing out of the pool. "You just need to not eat s---."
Before anyone else can drop in, Thalente sets the tail of his board on the coping of the pool. He tilts his head down. Bare-chested and wearing a backward baseball cap, he peers up like a bull about to charge. Then he fillets the bowl for a solid half-minute, slashing, grinding, airing at will.
Mountain, 50, watching from the edge of the deck, taps his board on the concrete, a show of respect from the skateboarder's skateboarder.
THERE ARE TWO WORLDS along the Durban beachfront. There is the one the tourists see: the promenade, sand and surf, four-star restaurants and high-rise hotels. Then there is the locals' world. It exists two blocks from the beach, in the hotels' shadows, and when Durban residents tell you not to walk there after dark, you listen. Along a three-block stretch that runs parallel to the beach, known to locals as Point Road, cocaine and heroin dealers work the traffic lights, gangsters lurk in the alleys like packs of wolves and homeless children wander the sidewalks, wistfully eyeing fruit for sale.
That tall, crumbling concrete apartment building at the end of the road is where Thalente used to live. The electricity was spotty back then, and tonight, there is not a single light on. The only entry is in a dark alley. A man near the building puts his finger to his nose and sniffs inquisitively at two men in a rental car. "We're good," replies the passenger, Elton-Lee Ireland, a Durban native who lives three blocks away.
Ireland then says matter-of-factly to the driver, "I guarantee if you got out of this car right now you would get mugged."
"It was an escape, from a lot of things."
- Thalente Biyela
Thalente, 21, was born just up the street from Point Road in Addington Hospital, nine months before Nelson Mandela was elected South Africa's first black president. His birth alone was something of a miracle. During what he calls "the gnarly days," his mother got necklaced -- someone put a tire around her neck, filled it with gasoline and set her on fire. Thalente does not know who necklaced her or why, but tribesmen (she was raised in a village, where bush law superseded formal government) often burned each other to settle disputes. For her to have survived was almost unheard of. Badly scarred, she could not grow hair on most of her head.
She had six children with six men. Thalente, who was born with his legs conjoined inside his thighs and has six-inch scars to show for the surgery, never met his father, never saw a photo, doesn't know his name -- "It was just some guy." His mother told him his dad died of an asthma attack, though he suspects something worse happened and she didn't want to tell him.
He grew up with an older brother and a younger sister, as well as a hulking stepfather who, Thalente recalls, beat him savagely beginning when he was 4. (Two other sisters grew up in different homes, and he has never met one of his brothers.) His mother and stepdad sold crack and quaaludes to pay rent. Thalente started running away when he was 8 to avoid his stepfather's beatings. It never worked. When he returned, he was beaten twice as badly. One day his stepfather smashed a glass ashtray over his head, then, as he stood there bleeding, threw money at him and told him to get a haircut. "He was the nicest guy" in public, Thalente says. "But you never know what happens behind closed doors. No one ever got it when I told them, 'That m-----f-----'s crazy.'"
Thalente says he was traumatized by watching his stepdad beat his mother in front of him. Despite her drug dealing, she was the one who loved him, who listened to him. "I could tell her anything," he says, sitting at home in L.A.'s artsy Los Feliz neighborhood. The thought takes him back in time, and he goes silent. He rarely talks about his mom.
By the time Thalente was 13, he had drifted away from his mother and was living on the streets. She was often sick -- he had known she was HIV-positive since he was young -- so when he heard she'd fallen ill again, he assumed she would recover as usual. Thalente was at the skatepark when his older brother came and told him his mother had died. Her death devastated him. Eight years later, he still feels lost without her. "I don't think I showed her enough that I loved her," he says.
HOMELESS KIDS RELY on street sense to survive in Durban. Thalente hated begging and hustling, but when the alternative is not eating, you do what you have to do. Some mornings he stood outside Montezuma, the local convenience store, and asked strangers for money. If that didn't work, he walked down to the beach park and solicited skateboarders he knew. "Yo, dude," he'd say, "the hunger is real. Do you have 5 rand for me so I can get something to eat?" His last resort was to steal. Even then there were no guarantees: He once went two days without eating.
Though less talked-about than drugs and violence, sodomy is a common threat to kids on Durban's streets. One violent street gang was known to sodomize young boys as an initiation ritual, and when Thalente -- who had been recruited by the gang but declined -- mentioned their secret to a friend, a gang member overheard and told Thalente he had two choices: have sex with him to repent, or be killed. Thalente left the city for two weeks and went to stay with a friend. Another time, he curled up under a blanket on the sidewalk. Halfway through the night, he woke up to someone pulling down his pants. He thrashed and yelled to stop the attack.
Despite those dangers, he was most terrified of the police. If they found him sleeping, they woke him up with pepper spray. "Imagine you're sleeping, and suddenly you're choking," he recalls. "And you wake up and your face is on fire, like your skin is going to peel off. Then getting chased. Then they catch you and beat you up, because you just made them chase you."
Before major conferences and public events, Thalente says the police stuffed him and the rest of the homeless into vans, drove them a couple of hours inland and unloaded them like cattle, left to find their way back to the beachfront.
Thalente started skateboarding when he was 10 because he liked the way it looked. "And then it got deeper than that," he says. "It was an escape, from a lot of things." He would skate all day and into the night, often on borrowed boards, then go to sleep on the skate-shop roof or between two concrete ledges in the middle of the park.
The fact that he was always around, combined with his welcoming demeanor and skateboarding talent -- he won his first contest a year after he picked up his first board -- turned him into a quasi-celebrity. Some still call him the park's mayor. Whenever local pros such as Shaw got new gear, they gave their old shoes and boards to Thalente. "He'd pick the stuff he wanted, then he'd feed the rest down," Shaw says. "He was like the dad to all the other kids."
When Thalente and his best friend, Sizwe, were young, someone painted a large mural at the beach park. It portrayed their faces under the words "WE LIVE OUR DREAMS." The mural was torn down when the park got rebuilt, but eight months ago, a BMX rider and graffiti artist named Gifford Duminy painted a new one solely of Thalente. The portrait occupies prime real estate along the promenade, where murals turn over weekly.
"I've never seen anything sprayed on the walls here stay for so long," local skater Claudio Ngcobo, who grew up with Thalente, says. "But it's our gangster. That's why it's still there."
WHAT MAKES ONE person decide to help another? It's a fair question, especially in Durban, where hundreds of kids need money and love, not necessarily in that order. Drive around and you'll find boys and girls begging at every stoplight, some of them deformed from huffing too much rubber cement, their arms skewed and knees buckled, their faces sad.
Thalente almost ended up like that. He huffed glue -- sometimes to trick his body into thinking it was warm, not freezing, when he slept outside in the winter -- and smoked pot when he was young. A year after his mother's death, he got addicted to heroin. "It was fall-asleep-standing-up kind of s---," he says. "Drooling." His friends at the beach park would see him balled up in the corner after smoking, incapacitated.
It was a low point in a bottomless well of despair. Thalente hated himself for using drugs, and even skateboarding was stained because he used his contest winnings to buy heroin. He says he considered killing himself "a bunch of times" but was always too scared to do it.
That might be true, but it might also be that he wasn't ready to let go of what he believed, somewhere deep within, he was capable of.
As dire as Thalente's circumstances were, sports were his refuge. Skateboarding and surfing introduced him to people who saw potential in him and, often drawing off disturbing experiences in their own lives, wanted to help him realize it. The list of those who opened their homes to Thalente, whether for a night or two years, is impossible to trace. It includes superstar surfer and Durban native Jordy Smith; visiting families who met him at the skatepark; friends' parents; total strangers.
Late one night in 2003, Elton-Lee Ireland, a surfboard shaper who lived in a beachfront flat with his wife and infant son, found Thalente curled up at the park, shivering and starving. He bought him French fries and a hot chocolate, took him home and gave him a bath.
Thalente stayed with the Irelands for two years. Elton enrolled him in school, bought him clothes, made sure he had food to eat. "It was the best two years of my life," Thalente says. "They loved me."
But it wasn't that simple. Living on the street institutionalizes someone. Thalente was used to doing what he wanted, when he wanted. He stayed out late skating, which caused Ireland to search for him. As punishment, Ireland unscrewed the wheels from Thalente's skateboard or took it with him to work. "I could never stop him," Ireland recalls.
Eventually Thalente returned to the street, where he lived free from expectations. "It hurt," Ireland says. The episode repeated itself over the years. People tried to help Thalente clean up his life, but after a while, almost without exception, they had a falling-out. He refused to become the kid they were so sure he could be, even if some part of him wanted to be that kid, too.
Other street kids chided him for hanging out with white people. "Cheese boy," they called him. He insisted they were just jealous, but the insults stung. "I was like, 'Man, I didn't ask for this,'" Thalente says. "'It's not my fault all these people want to help me.'"
WHY HIM? Why did everyone want to help him? This is the gift and mystery of Thalente. No one can quite unfold all his layers, the deepest of which serve as both a shield and a prison. In fact, he contends there's only one person who truly knows him: Tammy Smith.
A pretty blond surfer from the barreling beachbreaks of Ballito, 30 minutes up the coast from Durban, Smith, 28, won five national championships and competed on the Association of Surfing Professionals World Qualifying Series, one step below the world tour. She met Thalente when he was 9 and watched over him on and off throughout his youth.
"He's just got this certain something inside him," Smith says. "He's so special and gentle. I wouldn't know how to explain it, but you can see he shines."
Smith's parents owned a surf camp in Ballito; Thalente stayed with them on weekends and holidays and whenever Smith was home from the tour. She showed him what unconditional love felt like. Not romantically -- simply as a human being he could trust, no matter what.
Five years ago, Thalente told Smith he was addicted to heroin and didn't know how to beat it. She made a deal with him: He could live with her in Ballito, but only if he was clean. To enforce this, she bought a box of home drug tests and made him pee on a stick at random times. When he tested positive one day, she drove him back to Durban, dropped him off on the street, then went home and cried herself to sleep. It took months, but eventually her approach worked.
"People didn't understand what I was going through," Thalente says, "because no one was seeking to understand me. They thought I was going to change overnight: 'Just quit drugs, don't worry about it.' I was like, 'No, man, I'm in hell right now. It doesn't work that way.'
"Tammy took the time. She said, 'I'm here for you.' She didn't judge me. She just understood that I was a sensitive dude who'd been through a lot, that I needed guidance and time -- and that I was just a kid." He pauses. "She saved my life."
Once Thalente was clean, Smith started wondering how to help him take the next step in his skateboarding career. She reached out to Natalie Johns, whose younger brothers, Allan and Brad, she knew from surfing. Johns had just finished shooting a Coca-Cola project in Rwanda with Solange Knowles (she has also worked with Bono, Annie Lennox and Amnesty International). She met with Thalente and, after producing a quick video to help him gain exposure, decided to make a feature film about his life -- one that would be shot in L.A., where he could pursue a pro career.
In November 2012, five-year pro-athlete visa in hand, Thalente flew to America with Johns. Determined not to look back, yet distraught to be leaving the only life he knew, he cried for most of the flight.
SKATEBOARDING IS NOT like most sports when it comes to "making it." Authenticity, style and video parts often count more than contest results -- even in the X Games. If you can't pass the eye test, you have no shot at turning pro, which only happens when a company puts your name on a board. Thalente, who has a host of equipment sponsors but none that pays, respects the hierarchy and the value of patience. "I'm too fresh for money," he says.
His story already represents a unique triumph in South Africa, pro or not. The institution of apartheid, which began in 1948 and ended in 1994, was built on the premise that to give black people opportunity as a white person was to put your own future at risk. Whites, the minority, maintained power by stifling blacks' ambition. Thalente never understood all the racial tension he encountered on the streets, and, like the white people who helped him, he doesn't like talking about apartheid. But this much is certain: His escape would not have been possible if he had lived one generation earlier.
Johns, like so many before her, seems to have been drawn in by some supersonic force, the seductive pull of Thalente's positivity and potential. "Someone said to me the other day, 'Why are you doing this?'" Johns related over tea. "And I was like, what do you mean, why? Who wouldn't?"
A lot of people wouldn't. That so many people have is as much a reflection of them as it is of him.
When Johns moved them to L.A., she didn't have enough money to buy two health insurance policies, so she signed up Thalente over herself. She paid a hefty rent to give them a safe home in Los Feliz, and she accepted unappealing assignments to cover their bills -- including a tutor for Thalente, who stopped going to school when he was 11.
To help Thalente find his way in L.A. skateboarding circles, Johns called a sometimes-colleague, Colin Kennedy, who happens to be creative director at The Berrics, a first-of-its-kind private indoor skatepark, event-production house and digital-content creator, founded by revered skateboarders Steve Berra and Eric Koston. Kennedy put her in touch with Kenny Anderson, 38, one of the industry's most respected pros and a father of three. He and Thalente bonded the first time they met, and he quickly became Thalente's mentor.
Anderson, like Hawk, raves about Thalente's gift on a skateboard: "When you have it, you have it." Which makes it that much more confounding that Thalente has choked in all three U.S. contests he has entered. "My legs pretty much shut down, and I forget what I'm supposed to do," he says. Only when he returns to the street -- where expectations always seem to disappear, then as now -- does he harness his full potential.
Late one afternoon in downtown L.A., Thalente and McCullum are nearing the end of a lengthy filming session. They have already shot four dozen lines when Thalente lands a rare switch 360 flip to fakie 5-0 pop-out on a ledge. Frustrated for much of the previous hour, suddenly he has found his smile and is alive again.
Thalente takes off down the sidewalk to catch up with two girls who walked past giggling during his line. He tic-tacs next to them for 30 yards, beaming, flirting, full of confidence. When he skates back to Johns, she needles him: "So? What were their names?"
His grin turns sheepish. "I already forgot."
LEGEND HAS IT that Shaka Zulu, a tribal warrior feared throughout Africa, used to train his men by having them run on "devil thorns." Their feet bled and bled until eventually they became so tough that the men could run barefoot through the bush for days.
The story might as well be a metaphor for Thalente's life. His childhood hardened him -- "I'm not scared of anyone," he says, not brazenly but as a matter of fact -- but he is grateful to have gone through it. Life in L.A. can be tricky to navigate, especially as his profile grows and more remoras appear. People underestimate him here. He likes that.
His departure from Durban left a void at the beach park that lingers two years later, his friends say. Thalente was the one who taught many of them how to skate, holding their hands as they coasted down the ramps. "When he left, people just stopped skating," says Zola Ndlovu, 15. "It was weird."
Some in Durban wonder whether he will fill his own void and return to guide the next Thalente, the way so many people helped him. Indigo Skate Camp founder Dallas Oberholzer, who mentored Thalente when he was young -- not altruistically, Thalente contends, but to bolster his own reputation -- said he feels as though Thalente's door has shut.
"He's almost like a hunter-gatherer, finding nicer pastures, and he's there now," Oberholzer says. "You know, milk and honey, bro, enjoy it. We're all happy for him. We miss him, because he had a cool spirit. But he kind of leaves us feeling in the dust."
"I didn't come all the way here to not make it."
- Thalente Biyela
"Yes, we were doing it for him, but not only for him -- for all the kids behind him," says Dyllan Smith, Tammy's older brother. "We don't want him to just run away to America. We know he's got to get himself out there and take that step, but he must come back."
Thalente respectfully disagrees. He thinks he shouldn't have to live by anyone else's rules, even if he did accept their help. "That was those people's choice," he says. "They decided to help me."
For a moment he sounds entitled, ungrateful even, like a spoiled kid who doesn't get it. And maybe to some that's who he is -- and who he will remain.
But he knows how fortunate he is. He wants to succeed, he says, "not for them, but to show that when they lent a hand -- that one conversation, that shirt they gave me, that 10 rand -- it went a long way. Like, he did it."
Pro or not, Thalente leaves a unique impression on others. Hawk still marvels at how he mentored the younger Zulu kids at Indigo, never letting on that his life was tougher than theirs. This summer, Thalente spent five weeks working as a counselor at the Element YMCA Skate Camp in the Sierra Nevada mountains -- the first real job he ever had. He was basically a big brother to boys between the ages of 13 and 16 -- most of them white, from good homes -- who lived with him in a cabin. He comforted them when they got homesick, taught them table manners. At the end of each week, he convened a group and shared a rough cut of his life story, hoping they might keep it in mind on their own journeys.
"I'm not saying Thalente won't turn pro," says Element Skateboards founder Johnny Schillereff, who sponsors Thalente and whose company runs the YMCA camp, "but what I'm sure he will be is a spokesperson and ambassador for the sport, who comes from an authentic background and absolutely rips. And that's rare."
It's easy to forget that Thalente is still, in his heart, just a kid who misses his mom. He does what he can. He shows up to skateparks around L.A. and watches from the edges until he decides which kid is skating on the worst gear. Then he walks up to the boy and hands him his board. "You need it more than I do," he says.
As of late October, Thalente was trying to get a job coaching at skateparks in L.A. He needs the money -- Johns has asked him to start paying rent -- and he wants to fend for himself. "I'm growing up," he says. "I have to face it."
Lest anyone get the wrong idea, however, his focus -- becoming a professional skateboarder -- hasn't changed. "That's why I came here," he says, his voice suddenly dead serious. "I didn't come all the way here to not make it."
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