Jay Adams, a member of the renowned Z-Boys team, which transformed skateboarding from a childish pastime into a raw and dangerous activity that is as much a lifestyle as it is a sport, died on Friday in Puerto Escondido, Mexico. He was 53.
Allen Sarlo, a lifelong friend of Adams’s who was with him in Mexico, said Adams spent Thursday surfing and went to bed complaining of chest pain. Adams, who had a history of drug trouble but had recently been sober, had a heart attack that night and died early Friday morning, Sarlo said.
To skateboarders, Adams was an evolutionary figure. He came from a generation of surfers for whom skateboarding was sidewalk surfing. They infused it with aggression and attitude, coining phrases like “get radical” and creating foundational maneuvers that paved the way for stars like Tony Hawk.
“Jay embodied our culture and our lifestyle all in one,” said Christian Hosoi, a professional skater and a friend of Adams’s.
But Adams also embodied darkness and excess: His competitive skate career lasted only a few years before it was derailed by addiction and jail time.
Jay J. Adams (his middle name was simply the letter J) was born in Santa Monica, Calif., on Feb. 3, 1961. He never knew his father. When he was 3, his mother began a 14-year relationship with Kent Sherwood, who worked at a local surf shop and later ran a surfboard rental business in the Venice section of Los Angeles. Sherwood raised Adams as his son.
“I got him in the water when he was 4,” Sherwood said in an interview.
Adams was a fixture at local beaches by the time he was in the first grade. Sometime in the late 1960s, he paddled up to the surfboard designer and builder Jeff Ho and complimented his surfing style.
“It really took me aback because in that time you didn’t see little kids in the water,” Ho said in an interview.
That was the beginning of a lifelong friendship that put Adams on the path to fame — not as a surfer but as a skateboarder.
When Adams was growing up in Southern California, there was not much of a distinction between people who surfed and people who skated. In the 1970s, when Ho opened a shop called Jeff Ho Surfboards and Zephyr Productions, Adams became a member of a surf team that traveled to local competitions and, by extension, a member of the shop’s skate team as well.
At the time, organized skateboarding, such as it was, was a cross between acrobatics and ballet, with tricks like rolling handstands and twirling 360s similar to what figure skaters did in the Olympics.
Ho’s Zephyr team, which became known as the Z-Boys, had an aggressive, surf-influenced style in which the skaters lowered their bodies and, as if riding a wave, did hard turns into embankments and walls.
That style became the standard after a 1975 skateboard contest in Del Mar, Calif., when the arrival of Adams and the Zephyr team more or less ended the era of skateboarding as gymnastics.
“It took off; everybody started skating like that,” said J. Grant Brittain, a photographer who was a spectator at the contest.
A few years later, Adams, along with Tony Alva, Stacy Peralta and others, started to unleash himself on empty swimming pools. Skateboarders had experimented with empty pools as far back as the early ’60s, but with the advent of urethane wheels, which got more traction than the clay wheels they replaced, Adams’s generation was able to go faster and higher and ultimately out of the pool.
Over a two-year period, Adams and the other skaters laid the foundations for vertical skateboarding.
“Every week was a month, and every month was a year; things just really progressed,” Glen E. Friedman, a fellow skater who photographed the era, said in an interview.
Through sponsors and endorsement deals, Adams made some money and achieved some fame. But as skateboarding faded in the early 1980s, he became a heavy drug user and began a long run of legal trouble.
He cleaned up for a time but then became addicted to heroin and landed in jail several times from the late 1990s until the late 2000s.
The 2001 documentary “Dogtown and Z-Boys,” directed by Peralta, revived Adams’s legend and brought him a new generation of fans. He continued to have troubles with drugs and the law but became a Christian in jail and recently became sober.
His survivors include his wife, Tracy Hubbard Adams, as well as a son, Seven, and a daughter, Venice, from previous relationships.
A few months ago, several of the Z-Boys, including Adams, Alva and Peralta, met for a reunion dinner at Hostaria del Piccolo, a restaurant near Venice Beach. Two busboys, realizing they were hosting the Z-Boys, were awed.
“Years ago we would have been kicked out of a restaurant like that,” Peralta said, “and here they are: ‘Thank you for choosing us.’ ”