Ronald Roberts Jr. was always going to find his way to the hardwood. He's 6-foot-8, and both his parents played basketball professionally. But if the height and the pedigree didn't make it obvious enough, Roberts' first sports passion unexpectedly revealed to him his biggest basketball asset. "I knew that I could jump, actually, from skateboarding," Roberts says. "Not from playing basketball."
Now an All-Star for the Toronto Raptors' D-League affiliate, Raptors 905, Roberts leans heavily on his vertical and secondary bounce to out-rebound just about everyone. He's also one of the league's most exciting dunkers, living above the rim with a vertical that exceeds 40 inches. As Roberts can attest, that's a height of at least three skateboards.
"I would say the best trick that I pulled off, maybe," Roberts reminisces, "I remember me and my boys used to jump over other skateboards, so we would stack the skateboards up. I jumped over three at one time."
Ollies for height weren't the only moves Roberts learned. He mastered the basics – your kickflips and pop shuvits—and progressed to mixing in the occasional varial kickiflip, wherein the board makes a complete rotation long side over long side and a 180-degree rotation on the horizontal plane. Roberts is quick to point out that these moves haven't escaped him as time has gone by and his focus has turned more towards basketball.
Roberts pushed skateboarding aside some once he reached his sophomore year of high school; he was already 6-foot-6 by then, and staring down the possibility of playing in college and the pros. But as a kid, Roberts was enamored with the sport, something he credits to the 1999 release of the first Tony Hawk's Pro Skater game. It wasn't legendary NBA 2K showdowns with his friends, it was a race to collect tapes or run up the score in Free Skate.
"I fell in love with the game," Roberts says "And me and my friends wanted to try the stuff we were doing in the games. A lot of my boys from my neighborhood, we would skate around town and try different stuff. It all started with the game."
His group took primarily to street skating, looking to replicate some of the moves that Roberts' favorite skaters—Kareem Campbell and Rodney Mullen (who showed up in the game's first sequel)—were doing on their screens. "He created a lot of the tricks that people do now," Roberts says of Mullen. "He was the first one to ever do them. He's more of a street skater, and that's how I started out, riding around the street."
Roberts and his friends had small ramps, would seek out rails to grind on, and were frequent visitors at either of the two skate parks in Bayonne, New Jersey, where Roberts grew up. Bayonne's skate culture was expanding, and the city of nearly 70,000 briefly added a third park. Unfortunately for him, that was right around the time Roberts left to begin his college career at Saint Joseph's.
Giving up skateboarding wasn't easy, but Roberts understood the trade-off. He already thought he'd have to give it up, albeit for more practical reasons—as his feet grew to size 13, he began having trouble finding decks wide enough for him. "At the time, I thought once my feet got a certain length, I couldn't skate anymore," Roberts recalled. "Come to find out, they make skateboards for bigger feet. I just found that out a few years ago."
Roberts still likes to hit the street and ride when time allows. His winter-time gig in Mississauga, Ontario, hasn't provided much opportunity for that, but it's something he does in the offseason to keep occupied. "When I have time off, I ride around and see if I can still do little tricks," he says, his tone growing excited. "I love skateboarding."
And skate culture is still a big part of who Roberts is, and how he presents himself. He rocks Vans instead of Nikes, keeps warm in flannels, and credits skate as a major influence in how he dresses. He can't sport the typical skater low-cut on the court, and Vans and Huf don't have basketball shoes. But maybe that's a market opportunity when he gets his increasingly inevitable shot at a steady gig the NBA. "That would be cool, to be unique," he says of landing the first NBA shoe deal from a skate company. "Both of those things are a part of my life. I would love that."
That, as much as a guaranteed contract, would be the fulfillment of a dream Roberts has had for some time. Before he started thinking about NBA sneaker deals, he was looking to get a different type of endorsement deal. "When I was younger, there was this local skate shop that used to sponsor skaters," Roberts remembers about The Pit, now called Classic Skateshop. "That was always my goal, to try to get sponsored by that local skate shop. It never happened, but that was something I really wanted to do."
Roberts shares his passion for skating with few peers. Carrick Felix and Dennis Schroder are on the short list of other ball-players with a skater past—which makes him perhaps the only person out there who could pull off a certain original offering for the NBA Slam Dunk Contest. He'll need to secure that NBA gig first, but he has the aerial resumé to warrant an invite. "Maybe an Ollie dunk? Nobody's done that, and probably, a lot of guys can't do that." Roberts wonders, taking a moment to think. "That could definitely be something."