Sure, Mac McClung leapt over two people, kissed the ball off the glass and then dropped it down the hoop on his way to winning the NBA’s Slam Dunk contest Saturday night at Vivint Arena. But could he throw down a jam while sliding over a rail on a snowboard?
A few hours earlier Nate Haust could and did during the Grit Rail Jam held just down the street at The Gateway. An NBA All-Star Weekend event meant to bring together two of Utah’s greatest sporting passions — basketball and snow sports — the free pro snowboarding competition drew more than 10,000 fans to the outdoor mall’s Olympic Plaza.
Some knew enough about park snowboarding to be able to provide running commentary on the event. Others wouldn’t even know how to strap in. Then again, the same could be said for the disparity in basketball knowledge among the crowd.
Irvin Butterfass, a new transplant to Utah from Minnesota who could call out each trick, was singled out by his group of about 10 friends watching from the upper level as “the basketball guy.” It was a title he quickly denied.
“I know that you can take two steps,” Butterfass, 18, said, “and that’s about it.”
Wherever fans fell in the snowboarding familiarity spectrum, though, they seemed to appreciate the display of balance, hops and bravado the 20 riders made on the manufactured course. It included a two-story tall hill built on a scaffolding that was covered in trucked-in snow and littered with boxes, stairs and thick railings meant for sliding.
Salt Lake City snowboarder Jill Perkins consulted with event organizer and snowboarding legend Jeremy Jones in the design of the setup. As tends to be the case with courses built on scaffolding, she said it was “a death trap” the way it was originally built. After some safety alterations, Saturday’s final design must have suited her much better, though, because she came away with the women’s title and a $10,000 check. Jaylen Hanson of Minnesota took second and $5,000 and another Salt Lake City rider, Kaleah Opal, placed third after hitting her head midway through the finals and having to sit out the last half.
Haust won the men’s event over Pat Fava of Salt Lake City and Dusty Hendrickson of Big Bear, Calif. He said the roar and energy of the crowd carried him to victory.
“The crowd is wild right now. Everyone’s going crazy,” Haust, 30, said. “And obviously it’s a big weekend and there’s a lot of positive energy and that’s one thing that gets me fired up and helps me ride better, I guess.”
Haust’s backside 450 and backflips and Perkins’ rail slide off with a knock off the Grit backboard sent the onlookers into a frenzy. That roar was only amplified by a surprise appearance by Olympic and X Games medalist Shaun White, as well as Jones and rapper Travis Scott, a snowboarder who helped sponsor the event.
Scott was the main draw for a group of high school friends from West Haven and Farr West who arrived early enough to secure spots against the fence right below the jump. They planned to spend the rest of their evening checking out the various pop-up shops in the area while keeping an eye out for NBA stars.
They said they didn’t find anything odd about the juxtaposition of a snowboarding event with the NBA All-Star Weekend.
“I think it integrates well with Utah,” Hunter Smith, 18, said. “With this being Utah, I think it’s perfect.”
If the main rail jam itself seemed a little out of place among the basketball-centric events, its encore was not. Once the finals ended, riders were invited to participate in a slam dunk contest on snowboards.
Salt Lake’s Egan Wint won the women’s title with pure grit and determination. Haust, meanwhile, made one stylish and impressive slam after another to win the men’s event. This even though he reluctantly admitted he doesn’t play or follow a lick of basketball.
Still, he and possibly organizers are hoping this event might create some mutual admiration and interest.
“I think this is gonna do really good things for the industry,” Haust said. “I would imagine as I don’t pay attention to basketball, I’m sure a lot of these basketball fans don’t know much about snowboarding. So I think this is a great opportunity to get in front of a lot of eyes and hopefully it can get more people on hill.”