GRANTS PASS — Desperate for a better view — or perhaps for better shade — a man scrambled up a tree and dangled like a monkey, his eyes locked onto the scene across the creek.

GRANTS PASS — Desperate for a better view — or perhaps for better shade — a man scrambled up a tree and dangled like a monkey, his eyes locked onto the scene across the creek.

Cameras came out and phones were raised above heads as the swollen crowd at Grants Pass Skate Park let out a roar on Saturday.

Just feet away, a tall man in almost all black — black helmet, black shorts, blacks socks, black knee pads and a gray T-shirt — rolled in on his skateboard underneath a baking sun.

There were other reasons to brace the afternoon heat, but none bigger than to see Tony Hawk.

He and other professional skateboarders were here for the Birdhouse Skateboards Left Coast Tour. Hawk was as active as anyone in the park's bowl, attempting tricks and — at times — showing a subtle exasperation when he didn't execute. Mostly, though, he had a look of focus, stopping occasionally to high-five the crowd before eventually tossing his helmet to the masses, signing some autographs and retreating to a massive touring bus.

The event, which helped to raise youth smoking prevention awareness, also coincides with the release of Pro Skater HD, Hawk's newest video game.

Hawk, 44, is one of the most recognizable athletes in the United States, someone who has been a major player in the development of his sport's popularity and marketability. From pulling off an historic 900 (a 900 degree aerial spin) to creating his own brand, Hawk has been an innovator.

His pioneering thumbprints were everywhere, although the man himself often moved like smoke in the wind. Some fans were lucky enough to meet him, while others just missed.

But who is this legend?

Willy Santos, Tennie Brown, Caleb Carnes and Cameron Withey all have their own answer.

Santos, a professional skater, has known Hawk for decades. They were the original Birdhouse Projects skaters in 1992 and became fixtures on the contest circuit.

Santos said he met Hawk when he was a young teenager. Hawk called Santos and left a message with his father and, soon enough, the two were sharing skate parks.

"He saw me at a local school yard," said Santos, who has owned a skateboard shop around San Diego, Calif., called Willy's Workshop for 12 years.

When they first began, Santos said seven or eight riders would have to "pile into a Motel 6" because of their tight budget.

Suffice it to say, lodging is much more comfortable these days.

"It's been an amazing experience," Santos said. "From Day 1, (Hawk's) been a great guy."

Hawk became a professional at age 14. In 2002, he formed the Boom Boom HuckJam, an extreme sports exhibition and tour.

Hawk's video game debut came in 1999. Earlier this month, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater HD became the 12th game in his series.

Visitors of Grants Pass Skate Park were offered the chance to try out the new video game and participate in other free activities on Saturday. An orange "truth campaign" truck nearby blasted music as a woman on a microphone — Brown — invited young men and women to participate in activities. She and the other touring marketers were there to provide information about smoking and cigarettes. The campaign will visit more than 60 cities across 28 states this summer.

Brown has spoken with Hawk a couple times and called him soft-spoken and generous. She offered this example of his personality: Hawk once made a surprise appearance near the truth truck in Columbia, S.C., and played with a small group of youth.

"He's so cool," said Brown, a 28-year-old from San Diego, Calif.

Carnes and Withey are 11-year-old Medford residents and good friends. Each wore white skateboard helmets with four signatures, but neither featured Hawk's autograph. Withey, who was visibly upset, held a Sharpie and an 8x10 photograph of Hawk as he and Carnes approached an exit at Grants Pass Skate Park. They waited for 45 minutes, one of their mother's said, but missed Hawk as the exhibition ended.

It appeared that there would be no Hawk signing for Carnes and Withey, but then the door on the touring bus opened. Hawk had emerged and the sea of humanity crowed.

"Here's your chance," someone told the boys.

They would have to squeeze to the front, and then maybe they could get a signature ... or at least get a closer look at the man in almost all black.

Reach reporter Dan Jones at 541-776-4499, or email djones@mailtribune.com