A star skateboarder shares his dizzying descent—and inspiring recovery
Eight scarves, two jackets, three socks, deodorant, a needle and spoon, four cigarette butts, and a restraining order from his mother.
Brandon Novak remembers exactly what he owned when he was 35 and homeless. He doesn’t remember the first time he tried cocaine and heroin, just that when he was 17 his star had fallen as a professional skateboarder, and he went to rehab the first of 13 times.
“After doing a lot of work internally, I can see it clear as day [that addiction] had its grips on me,” he says. “It took me, and I didn’t even know it happened.”
Born and raised in Baltimore, Novak got his first skateboard when he was 7. A natural athlete, he skated on a mini ramp at a local shop, drawing the attention of neighborhood skaters—including rising star Bucky Lasek, who introduced him to the king of skateboarding, Tony Hawk. By his teens, Novak’s career exploded.
When he was 14, he was signed to the Powell Peralta team and was the first skateboarder endorsed by Gatorade. He toured the world with Hawk and even starred in a commercial alongside Michael Jordan. He was on the trajectory to become a superstar, but behind the scenes he was dealing with a growing addiction to drugs.
“I didn’t live the lifestyle where I had to be in when the streetlights went on. I didn’t have a boss that I had to check in with at 9 a.m. and stay at work until 5 p.m.,” Novak says. “The accountability was slim to none.”
Eventually, he was given an ultimatum: Go to rehab or leave the team. Novak chose to leave the team. He was 17 years old.
At the insistence of his mother and girlfriend, he did go to treatment—to prove he didn’t need it. Over the next 20 years, he went to rehab 12 more times, was arrested and overdosed more times than he can count, stole from his friends and family, and prostituted himself to pay for drugs. His mother bought a burial plot for him. (He did have a period of sobriety from 2003 to 2007, when he wrote the book Dreamseller and acted in four movies, including “Jackass.”)
DO DROP IN We photographed Brandon Novak at the Drop In Action Sports Complex in West Boca. It was founded by a single mom who wanted to build a safe place for kids to go after school to practice action sports, like skateboarding and BMX. 11185 W. Palmetto Park Road, Boca Raton; 954/295-9894; dropincomplex.com
It was the 13th treatment center in Philadelphia that he finally entered with an “open mind and an open heart.” Wearing only torn clothes after being robbed, Novak went through boxes of used underwear in the center’s basement hoping to find something that would fit.
After 90 days, he moved into a sober living house and was hired to wash dishes for $6 an hour. He managed his own money to pay rent and was eventually approved for a credit card. He and two friends in recovery moved into an apartment, and after a year he got his own place. Soon, he was asked to do speaking engagements.
When a friend of his relapsed, he was sent to Banyan Treatment Center in Boca Raton. The center invited Novak to take a tour of the facility. He was immediately impressed when the staff was unable to meet with him right away because they were conducting an intervention with someone wanting to leave treatment.
“If someone would have done that to me, that might have changed the course of my actions, and I might have gone somewhere else in life,” he says. “That made me really respect Banyan.”
Today, Novak works as the center’s community outreach coordinator, where he talks about his journey with drugs and recovery. He openly shares his cell phone number, ready to answer calls from people who have reached rock bottom. In May, just days before his fourth year of sobriety, he spoke at the STAR Networking Luncheon in Deerfield Beach.
“I wouldn’t take anything back, except one thing: the sleepless nights and the pain that I caused my loved ones,” he says.